By Liz Hay

Elm Staff Writer

A report recently released by the United Nations Population Fund stated that almost half of all births in the United States now occur outside of marriage. In 1970, this was true for just 10 percent of births.

These statistics are a result of a larger trend. The data released by the UN show that the rising rate of births outside marriage can mostly be attributed to unmarried couples rather than single mothers. Many modern couples are simply not getting married. Couples are acting exactly as they would if they were married, but just not acknowledging their union in the traditional manner.

This data will likely be quite controversial, as some will see it as a sign of moral degradation in the U.S. However, that viewpoint focuses too much on labels and not enough on the substance of the issue. In the ways that matter, the rise in unmarried couples and births outside marriage does not represent any meaningful change in relationships or the environment that children are raised in.

Marriage is a catch-all term for the conditions generally necessary to properly raise a child: stability, support, love, etc. However, the assumption that these things are exclusively provided by a married, traditional couple is antiquated in the face of shifting cultures and priorities. A marriage license is pretty much just a piece of paper; not having that piece of paper does not devalue a relationship in any way.

In any way except legally, that is. Married couples are afforded many legal rights that unmarried, permanent couples are not. The rise in unmarried couples with children must be answered by a shift in government policy.

It is not the role of government in this case to be prescriptive, but instead to respond to the emerging realities. If there are more unmarried couples, the government needs to adjust to make sure they are afforded the same rights and protections as traditionally married couples.

A solution to this would be the expansion of common-law marriage rights. A common-law marriage does not have a universal definition, but generally the participants must live together, mutually consent, and consider themselves married. Currently, only a handful of states recognize common-law marriages, but it is essential that the legality of common-law marriages be expanded in response to the changing cultural landscape.

According to the website of family law attorney Aaron Larson, the legal rights of common-law marriage include the ability to claim inheritance rights upon the death of a spouse and be recognized by medical care providers as a spouse. This second point is particularly important to understand. If someone in an unmarried couple was hospitalized and unable to make their own medical decisions, their partner would not necessarily be able to act as a regular spouse and make those decisions.

If a couple wants the legal benefits of marriage, why not just get married? This is reasonable to ask, but the assumptions of the question are based on nothing but tradition. The only reason a couple would choose to be married by a religious or civil authority is because we, as a society, tacitly go along with the tradition of submitting personal life to external review. The only merit of traditional marriage is that it fulfills historical norms that we rarely think to question. If the government were to punish a value shift away from tradition, it would be overstepping its authority to prescribe social norms.

As couples increasingly choose not to subject the validity of their relationship to traditional sources of authority, statistics like those reflected in the UN report are only going to increase.

Unmarried couples lead to children outside of marriage, but this is simply a shift in appearances rather than substance. People are living as if they are married, but the current legal framework puts too much stock in labels and prevents unmarried couples from receiving full legal rights. It is imperative that the data released by the UN is seen as impetus to bring the law up to speed with modern culture.

The Elm

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