Women Who Give Birth "Secretly" in France (2007-2009)

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France is the only Western country, apart from Luxembourg, Italy and the Czech Republic, where the law allows women to request that their identity be kept secret and withheld from their child’s birth certificate. They are never required to give their name; hence the expression "sous X" (under the name of X) which appeared at a time when an "X" replaced the mother’s name in the child’s file.

Since 2005, the number of secret births has been increasing, rising from 588 in that year to around 700 in 2010.

The sociodemographic characteristics of the mothers

A study performed in 83 departments between July 2007 and June 2009 yielded information on the sociodemographic characteristics of 739 women who had requested to give birth secretly.
They differ from the whole population of women who gave birth in 2008 in the following ways:

  • Age: They were younger than other mothers by an average of four years (26 years versus 30 years). 11% were minors, versus 0.5% in the general population, and 18% were between 18 and 20 years old, versus 3% in the general population. Because of their youth, they were slightly more frequently first-time mothers (49% versus 42%), lived more often with their parents (31%) and were more likely to be students (27%).
  • Their family situation: Eight out of ten did not live with a partner and a significant number were single mothers (28%).
  • Lack of financial autonomy: Three out of four were not economically independent. They were enrolled in school or post-secondary education (27%), inactive (15%), unemployed (10%) or held insecure or part-time jobs (9%).

However, women who gave birth anonymously also included older women: 16% were at least 35 years old (versus 18%); women with partners: 15% lived with the child’s biological father and 6% with another man; and women with relatively stable employment: 24%. Furthermore, and contrary to a common belief, they were not more likely to be foreigners (9%) or French women of foreign origin (15%) than other women. The youngest, however, were more often of North African origin: 14% vs. 10% between the ages of 18 and 25.

The reasons

In the file prepared for the child to consult later, birth mothers can give the reasons that motivated their decision. The absence of the biological father, or his behaviour, were the most frequently cited (43%), followed, in descending order of frequency, by financial difficulties, being too young, fear of family rejection, and recent or older traumas. Another difficulty in addition to all of these is the women’s late discovery of their pregnancy: more than eight out of ten only became aware of their state after the end of the legal time limit for abortion in France.

The recognition

The law allows the birth parents to change their mind up to a two-month time limit. Before the end of this period, 14% of these mothers retrieved the child (in one out of four cases, along with the father). Among those who did not retrieve their child, 23% chose to make their identity directly accessible in case the child wishes to find it out later; 31% left a sealed envelope containing, in principle, information on their identity; and 46% left nothing with which they could be identified.

Source: Catherine Villeneuve-Gokalp, 2011, Women who Give Birth “Secretly” in France, 2007-2009, Ined, Population, Vol. 66/1, 131-168 [Publication]
Contact: Catherine Vilneuve-Gocalp
Online: January 2012