In these gloomy times, here is an update on two socio-demographic trends that give some cause for some cheer, and which do not receive due attention. These trends, previously described for earlier years in a piece in the Economic and Social Review, persisted during 2007 and 2008. They are [1] evidence that the long rise in the proportion of births occurring outside marriage was leveling off, and [2] signs that the number of Irish pregnancies aborted in England and Wales had peaked.

The leveling off in the proportion of extramarital births, which continued in 2007 and 2008, is described in Figure 1.

]. Probably more significant, though, is the continuing downward trend in teenage births. Teenage births surged from 1.6 per cent of all births in 1960 to 6.3 per cent in 2001, but fell off thereafter to 4 per cent in 2005 and 3.7 per cent in 2006. In 2007 and 2008 the shares were down to 3.5 and 3.2 per cent, respectively.

The share of extramarital births to mothers aged less than 25 years has also continued to fall. Between 1998 and 2006 it plummeted from 58.2 to 40.6 per cent; by 2008 it was down to 37.4 per cent (Figure 2). This is important since, presumably, a higher proportion of the births to older single mothers were planned, and thus less costly for mother, child, and society at large.

Abortion remains a controversial and divisive issue in Ireland. A decade ago, the proportion of all Irish conceptions terminated in England and Wales exceeded one in ten. The proportion peaked in 1999-2000, and has declined slowly since then. In 2007 and 2008 the percentage of all pregnancies terminated in England and Wales continued its unheralded but remarkable decline to 6.2 and 5.7 per cent. Nor does the diversion of terminations to the Netherlands—sometimes mentioned as a factor—account for the decline. The number of women giving Irish addresses at Dutch abortion clinics fell from 451 in 2007 to 330 in 2008.

Another feature noted earlier was the striking reduction in the number of terminations by young women as a proportion of the total (Figure 3). Their share has virtually halved, from 6.3 per cent a decade ago to 3.2 per cent in 2008. The proportion of teen pregnancies ending in terminations remained high, averaging 22.2 per cent between 1997 and 2006. In 2007 and 2008 the percentages fell to 18.1 and 17.4, respectively. For older women the share ending in terminations also fell. These declines may be partly due to compositional shifts, but improved sex education and increasing use of the morning-after pill are probably more important factors.

So far, so good. But will these trends survive the recession?


Are the teen birth figures adjusted for the lower proportion of teenagers in Ireland at present and the increasing national birthrate as a high proportion of our population enter their late 20s/early 30s? If not, this apparent fall-off in teen birthrates might simply be a function of the demographic cycle rather than a societal shift that reduces the percentage of teenagers who become pregnant.

Sorry to be a doom-monger, but I thought it was a salient point

Good point tommy. It would be instructive to have a graph showing the proportion of Irish population that are teenagers for each data point.

Also, I don’t see the first figure as representing anything uncontroversially pleasing. People have differing views on whether births outside marriage are “non-pleasing”.

Definitely not the place to be debating the morality of these issues but I’ll add that whether a smaller proportion of teen pregnencies ending in abortion is a good thing or not depends firstly on whether your pro-choice or pro-life and secondly, if you are pro-choice, on whether the reduction is due to an increase or reduction in the range of choices and opportunities available to pregnant teens. (In this instance I presume it was due to an increase in opportunity and therefore likely to be a good thing from both pro-choice and pro-life viewpoints).

Also worth putting the Irish trends in an international context. Table 5 in Eurostat’s report The EU-27 population continues to grow – Issue number 31/2009 (link below) shows a similar levelling off in a number of countries, including Denmark and Iceland.

What is even more striking is the variance in the incidence of births outside marriage in 2008: from 6.5% of all births in Greece to 64.1% in Iceland (down from a peak of 65.2% in 2000). So is the Irish trend just ‘resting’ on its way to Scandanavian/Nordic levels? Or might we go Greek if a prolonged recession/depression forces a collapse in social welfare payments for lone parents (even if said payments weren’t necessarily a cause of the previous increase in births outside marriage)?


Is there enough information to have an educated guess at whether migration patterns have influenced the data?

Whether one is “pro-life” or “pro-choice” [tendentious terms, if ever] it seems highly likely that abortions reflect unwanted pregnancies and hence the fall is probably a good thing, reflecting a fall in demand [unless the supply curve has shifted somehow].

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