Experts say the social stigma has faded, more couples are delaying or forgoing marriage and more older, single women are having babies.

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WASHINGTON — The number of babies being born out of wedlock has increased sharply in the United States, driven primarily by significant jumps in women in their 20s and 30s having children without getting married, according to a federal report released Wednesday.

More than 1.7 million babies were born to unmarried women in 2007, a 26 percent rise from 2002 and more than double the number in 1980, according to the report from the National Center for Health Statistics. The increase reflected a 21 percent jump in the rates of unmarried women giving birth, which rose from 43.7 per 1,000 women in 2002 to 52.9 per 1,000 women.

That means that unmarried women accounted for 39.7 percent of all U.S. births in 2007 — nearly four of every 10 newborns — up from 34 percent in 2002 and more than double the percentage in 1980.

“If you see 10 babies in the room, four them were born to women who were not married,” said Stephanie Ventura, who led the analysis of birth-certificate data nationwide. “It’s been a huge increase — a dramatic increase. It’s quite striking.”

Although the report did not examine reasons for the increase, Ventura and other experts said the trend has been driven by a combination of factors, including the lessening of the social stigma associated with unmarried motherhood, an increase in couples delaying or forgoing marriage and growing numbers of financially independent women and older and single women who decide to have children after delaying childbearing.

“Certainly, the social disapproval factor has diminished,” Ventura said.

Some experts said unmarried women are less likely to be shunned if they have children or to be forced to give their children up for adoption.

“Women can have children on their own, and it’s not going to destroy your employment and it’s not going to mean that you’ll be made a pariah by the community,” said Rosanna Hertz, a professor of sociology at Wellesley College.

In Seattle and other cities, there is now less of a stigma to having children outside of marriage, said Ruth C. White, an assistant professor of social work at Seattle University. As women choose to live with their partners instead of marry, it’s understandable more children would be born out of wedlock, she said.

“I just think the importance of marriage is decreasing among straight couples,” White said.

Local statistics

In 2007 in Washington state, nearly a third of all babies born were to unmarried women.

In other states, the percentage of births to unwed mothers ranged from 25 percent in Colorado and Idaho to almost 60 percent in the District of Columbia and nearly 54 percent in Mississippi. Utah was the lowest at just under 20 percent.

“These numbers are confirming, troubling and sad,” said Jeff Kemp, president of Stronger Families in Redmond. He said marriage isn’t viewed anymore as central to rearing children, but that it should be.

Others said studies have shown that children generally fare better when they grow up in stable households with two parents.

“We know that babies and children do best with committed, stable adult parents — preferably married,” said Sarah Brown of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.

The trend has been indicated in past reports, but the new analysis is the first to examine the dramatic social shift in detail, exploring differences in age and ethnicity as well as comparing the U.S. with other countries.

Although experts have been concerned about a recent uptick in births to older teens after years of decline, that is not the driving force in the overall trend, Ventura said.

Instead, much of the increase is due to more births among unmarried women in their 20s and 30s. Between 2002 and 2006, the rate at which unmarried women were having babies increased by 13 percent among women ages 20 to 24, by 21 percent for those ages 25 to 29, by 34 percent for women 30 to 34 and by 29 percent for those 35 to 39, the report found.

Key age group: 20s

Ventura said the increase among women in their 20s was the most important factor because they have the highest birth rate. “It’s really what’s happening for women in their 20s that is the dominant factor.”

Compared with 1980, the rate of births among unmarried women nearly doubled from 41 per 1,000 among women ages 20 to 24, to 80 per 1,000 in 2006, and nearly tripled for women ages 35 to 39 — from 10 per 1,000 in 1980 to 27 per 1,000 in 2006, the report showed.

In 2007, 45 percent of women who gave birth in their 20s were unmarried. Sixty percent of those who had babies between 20 and 24 were single, up from 52 percent in 2002, and nearly one-third of those giving birth at ages 25 to 29 were unmarried, up from one-fourth in 2002. Nearly one in every five women who gave birth in their 30s was unmarried, compared with one in seven in 2002.

The rates increased for all races, but they remained highest and rose fastest for Hispanics and blacks. There were 106 births to every 1,000 unmarried Hispanic women, 72 per 1,000 blacks, 32 per 1,000 whites and 26 per 1,000 Asians, the report showed.

The rate of babies being born to unmarried women in the United States is starting to look more like that of some European countries, the report showed. For example, the percentage of babies born to unmarried women is about 66 percent in Iceland, about 55 percent in Sweden, about 50 percent in France and about 44 percent in the United Kingdom.

Couples in many of those countries are living together instead of marrying, which is also true in the U.S., Ventura noted. Previous research indicates about 40 percent of births to unmarried women occur in households where couples are cohabitating, she said.

“We’re seeing a big drop in emphasis on marriage,” Hertz said. “There are more people living together without being married — look at Brad and Angelina.”

Seattle Times staff writer Michelle Ma contributed to this report.