In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Birth and Death Registration

  • Introduction
  • Historical Context
  • Measures of Health Status
  • Estimating Incidence Where There is No Vital Registration
  • Fetal Death (Stillbirth) Registration
  • Completeness, Coverage, and Data Quality of Birth Registration
  • Vital Registration, Ethics, and the Law of Adoption and Surrogacy
  • Prevalence, Registration, and Coverage Rates of Stillbirths
  • Completeness, Coverage, and Data Quality of Death Registration
  • Death Certification, Data Coding, and Misclassification
  • Global Sources of Vital Data

Public Health Birth and Death Registration
Affette Michelle McCaw-Binns, Jasneth Asher Mullings
  • LAST REVIEWED: 14 October 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 March 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756797-0095


The United Nations defines civil registration “as the continuous, permanent, compulsory and universal recording of the occurrence and characteristics of vital events pertaining to the population . . . in accordance with the legal requirements of a country.” Civil registration is aimed at establishing the legal documents provided by the law, which are a main source of vital statistics. A vital event is a change in an individual’s social status across one’s life course. These include live birth or fetal death, adoption, marriage, divorce (or other changes in civil status, e.g., annulment, separation), and death. Birth and death registration data are used to monitor population movements (complemented by migration data [immigration and emigration]) between decennial censuses. Globally, one-third of the world’s annual births and two-thirds of annual deaths are not legally recorded. Three of every four uncounted persons reside in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. Birth registration is increasingly viewed as a right, and establishes a legal record of a birth, and documents the identity of one’s parents and place of origin. In March 2012, the UN Human Rights Council filed the resolution “Birth Registration and the Right of Everyone to Recognition Everywhere as a Person before the Law” (Resolution A/HRC/22/L.14/Rev.1), seeking action for the universal registration of all individuals at birth. Records of births and deaths provide a valuable source of demographic, epidemiological, social, and health information useful for planning programs such as education, labor, and health. The effectiveness of a civil registration and vital statistics system will depend on the community’s recognition of the value of the generated data. Barriers to birth and death registration include poverty, social exclusion, remote geographical location, disability, discrimination and vulnerability, and the legal and administrative system for recording these events. Administrative challenges include relatively complicated processes for deaths that require a coroner’s investigation. This sometimes delays the registration of a death if the law requires that a coroner review the case before registration. Coroners cases usually include sudden deaths, either from natural causes, accidents, or violence. These cases require postmortem examination to determine the cause of death. Where there are significant delays in registering these deaths, the vital database is biased due to selective underreporting of deaths, especially among young males who are at a higher risk of death from accidents and violence. This article presents concepts, definitions, and issues common or unique to birth and death registration, as well as global sources of vital data.

Historical Context

This section summarizes the social, historical, and legal context of vital registration. Davis 2009 focuses on Scotland’s experience with the registration of the stillborn child, while Jewkes and Wood 1998 explored low registration in South Africa and the underlying qualitative reasons. The legal framework for birth registration and its implications are documented in Li, et al. 2010.

  • Davis, G. 2009. Stillbirth registration and perceptions of infant death, 1900–60: The Scottish case in national context. Economic History Review 62.3: 629–654.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-0289.2009.00478.x

    Paper that explores the history of vital registration from the viewpoint of social historians and historical demographers. It outlines the problems associated with the lack of stillbirth registration, the processes that eventually led to the registration of the stillborn child, and the wider significance of that registration.

  • Jewkes, R., and K. Wood. 1998. Competing discourses of vital registration and personhood: Perspectives from rural South Africa. Social Science & Medicine 46.8: 1043–1056.

    DOI: 10.1016/S0277-9536(97)10036-3

    This paper discusses findings from a qualitative study on reasons for low rates of vital registration in South Africa in 1994. The study showed that local folk were largely unaware of death registration. The authors suggest that passive registration in health care settings would better enable greater levels of completeness.

  • Li, S., Y. Zhang, and M. W. Feldman. 2010. Birth registration in China: Practices, problems and policies. Population Research and Policy Review 29.3: 297–317.

    DOI: 10.1007/s11113-009-9141-x

    This paper examines laws, regulations, rules, policies, and operational procedures regarding birth registration in China, the current status of and existing problems with birth registration, and how delayed birth registration affects children’s rights and welfare. It proposes strategies to improve the birth registration process.

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