There are many reasons for the nations of the world to keep an accurate count of their citizens, and for individuals to have a formal record of their own existence. Birth certificates serve the needs of both nations and individuals. The United States, like many nations, uses birth certification as the basic ingredient in national vital statistics. Linked to census data and death certification, birth certification is the foundation for fundamental indicators of the nation's health, including life tables and life expectancy. Individuals need a birth certificate for purposes such as obtaining official documents like a passport; applying for a Social Security number; and for many other official, statutory, and private reasons ranging from education to life insurance. Parents also need a record of the birth of their children in order to obtain child benefits, tax credits, and numerous other purposes.
Birth certification evolved out of older systems of recording vital statistics in parish registers, which maintained records of baptisms and burials beginning in the Middle Ages in England and most European nations. The first formal statutory certification of births in the English-speaking world began in Britain with the passage of the Registration of Births and Deaths Act in 1836. (William Farr, the first compiler of abstracts in the Office of the Registrar General, demonstrated how valuable these birth certificates could be in assessing the nation's health by using them to construct life tables.)
Modern birth certificates contain much valuable information, including personal identifying data; data about the mother and, if possible, the father; the date, place, and manner of birth; and the birthweight. If the infant is not named at the time of birth, this information can be added later. The infant's position in birth order among his or her siblings, and information about other biological facts, such as race or ethnicity, is recorded in some jurisdictions. Births are registered locally, and birth certificates are usually issued locally as well. The information is transmitted to a regional center and then to a national center where the statistics are compiled—and where individuals can obtain a copy of their birth certificate when they need it later in life for various statutory purposes.
Live births are of greatest interest, but stillbirth is also certified and recorded. Perinatal mortality rates, a very useful measure of maternal and infant health, are calculated by adding numbers of stillbirths to the numbers of infants who die before their twenty-eighth day of life, and dividing this total by the number of live births in a year.
The facts in birth certificates are the basis for a national identification system in some countries. The sequence of digits derived from birth date, sex (1 for a male, 2 for a female), and a code for birthplace is the basis for an unique numbering system that is used in the Nordic nations (Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Estonia, and Latvia) to identify each individual. This national identifying number is used in all official medical, educational, and legal records, thus providing a valuable national dossier available to every person, as well as to social and medical scientists who seek to obtain longitudinal data for research purposes. Other nations that link medical and social records also often use birth certificate data as a basis, though they usually rely on other kinds of information to complete the alpha-numeric sequence.
JOHN M. LAST