In the reporting about this story, I have been interested that two story lines have emerged. One says “more unwanted kids get born,” while the other says “more unwanted kids get born.” The first thinks this report is bad news; the latter, including me, thinks this is good news.
A larger point struck me, too – that is, what exactly does “unwanted” mean? Here is the way the CDC report from which these figures come listed the frequency of births from different kinds of pregnancy:
Overall, about 65 percent of recent births were intended at time of conception, 14 percent were unwanted, and 21 percent were mistimed. The 14 percent of recent births that were unwanted represents an increase from the 9 percent seen for recent births in the [early 1990s]
So, of all the kids who got born in America in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, 2/3rds were planned at the time of conception. That seems to me to be a pretty good number. Another 1/5th were mistimed, meaning that the mother planned to have kids sometime, just not that time. This leaves the 1/7th who were unwanted at the time of conception.
Katherine Edin and Maria Kefalas, in their study of poor single mothers, Promises I Can Keep, found that about half of the first children these teen moms bore were the result of pregnancies which were not exactly planned or unplanned. Most of the women they talked to were poor teenagers when they had their first child. They knew they wanted to stay with their boyfriends, and probably wanted to marry them, or someone else, someday. Even more strongly, they knew they wanted to have children. So, despite the fact that having a child in the middle of high school was a very bad idea and not what they planned, they didn’t plan against it, either. That pregnancy was both unwanted, and wanted. And, without exception in Edin and Kefalas’ study, the children born of those unwanted pregnancies were wanted children.
This number comes from a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, reporting on the latest wave of an excellent longitudinal study, the National Survey of Family Growth. A longitudinal study follows the same people over time, unlike a normal, one-shot survey. Practically speaking, only the government has the resources and stick-to-itiveness to keep up with a nationally representative longitudinal study. It does take even them a few years to get the data analyzed and reported out, as with these data from 2002, but I honor and appreciate the work they do. When it comes to long-term data collection, you can’t beat big government.