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California's "epidemic" of unwed mothers includes some women who would be startled to find themselves counted - married mothers who elect to keep their maiden names.

As a result, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of babies born to married women are counted in the anonymous tally of births to unwed mothers.California is one of five states in which birth certificates do not include the marital status of parents. So state and federal number counters trying to determine how many California babies are born out of wedlock use what they call an "inferential method."

"If (new mothers) sign the certificates with their maiden name, and the baby has the father's name, they're presumed not married," explained Debbie Rhea, supervisor in the state Office of Vital Records. "There's not a box where we can add that `the names are different but they're married."'

Rhea's office sends photocopied birth certificates to the National Center for Health Statistics, the data-gathering arm of the Health and Human Services Department, which reports demographic trends in all states. The center's analysis suggested that 35 percent of all babies born in California in 1993, the last year with full statistics, had unmarried parents.

"I am an unmarried woman and my child was born out of wedlock? I can't wait to tell my mother-in-law," exclaimed Assemblywoman Martha Escutia, a Democrat from Huntington Park who has been married two years to political consultant Leo Briones and last June gave birth to Andres Briones.

The count of unwed mothers is important in setting spending on social programs such as welfare and health care for children. Many unwed mothers are poor and unable to work without child care; they are less prone to seek prenatal advice; and their infants are frequently born underweight and sickly.

California's figure, interestingly, does not take into account the number of unwed mothers who are financially stable and have adequate means to care for their out-of-wedlock children.

Gov. Pete Wilson, in his January State of the State address, declared that children of unwed mothers are "overwhelmingly more likely to drop out of school, to abuse drugs, to land in jail, to have their own children out of wedlock and to become trapped in welfare dependency."