Unmarried Parents – the Mothers

Even when social scientists refuse to confront the moral questions, they must admit that a woman giving birth outside the bonds of marriage is creating serious problems for herself, the child, and society at large. So what personal and household circumstances foster such births, and what contrasting circumstances prevent them? In a study recently completed at Columbia University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, researchers highlight religious commitments as a potent check on out-of-wedlock childbearing.

The Columbia and Madison researchers begin their inquiry conscious of the many “negative outcomes” linked to out-of-wedlock childbearing, including “health problems, educational problems, and poverty.” In their effort to identify “protective factors” against such childbearing, the researchers examine data collected in two surveys (one in 1995, one in 2008) from a nationally representative study of 7,367 women who were adolescents in 1995.

Again and again, the data identify religion as a force holding down the number of children born out of wedlock. For the Total Population involved in the survey, the data indicate that “religious importance” was “negatively related” to giving birth to a child out of wedlock, such births being significantly less likely among young women identifying religion as an important influence in their lives than among peers discounting the importance of religion (p < 0.05). A parallel analysis establishes that women who “did not have scripture or were not religious” were significantly more likely to bear a child out of wedlock than peers who owned scripture and said they were religious (p < 0.01).

Among whites, the largest ethnic group in the study, the more often women attended religious services, the less likely they were to bear a child out of wedlock (p < 0.05).

Among all ethnic groups, those who prayed were significantly less likely to bear a child out of wedlock than were peers who did not. In their data analysis, the researchers establish the clear statistical significance (p<0.01) of the relationship between prayer and nonmarital childbearing for the Total Population, with results that were “similar for White, Black, and other race respondents.” The researchers indeed regard the statistical relationship between prayer and non-marital childbearing as “an important finding for two reasons. . . . [P]rayer may actually be working to reinforce the protective religious values while functioning as self-directed intervention that improves mental well-being.” (The possibility that women who pray actually receive divine guidance in their lives is apparently not a consideration.)

The researchers conclude by expressing hope that their study will inform new efforts—particularly among blacks—to develop “interventions that utilize community partnerships with religious organizations.” Forming these partnerships will be difficult, the Columbia and Wisconsin scholars fear, however, because of the “obvious barrier” created by “the stigma associated with sex that many religious organizations possess.”

Apparently, religious organizations would be much more effective partners in the effort to reduce out-of-wedlock childbearing if they simply abandoned the Apostle Paul’s teachings against fornication.

(Heidi Ann Lyons and Scott James Smith, “Religiosity and the Transition to Nonmarital Parity,” Sexuality Research and Social Policy 11.2 [2014]: 163-75.)