WASHINGTON (AP) _ Linda Pierce, a nurse in the postpartum unit of Women and Infants Hospital in Providence, R.I., had always wanted children of her own, and says she decided at age 30, ``I couldn't spend my whole life waiting for a man to show up.''

So she went to a doctor and was artificially inseminated by an anonymous donor, arranged through a sperm bank. Last Jan. 19, Lily was born two months early.

The nurse, from Attleboro, Mass., says her pregnancy was ``very planned.'' She is just one of an increasing number of American woman choosing to have children out of wedlock.

The National Center for Health Statistics reported Tuesday that the rate of births to unmarried women rose by 54 percent from 1980 to 1992, and the rate for white women nearly doubled.

Two decades ago, most births to unmarried mothers were to teen-agers.

But 70 percent of the 1.2 million babies born out of wedlock in 1992 were born to women 20 and older, the center said.

Once there was a pronounced stigma in this country to having children outside of marriage. Schools once exiled pregnant teens to homes for unwed mothers. But today schools have day-care programs for students' offspring.

Pierce, now 31 and winding up a maternity leave, said, ``I'm sure there are people out there who definitely believe I did the wrong thing.'' She admits the experience was ``a little bit harder than I expected,'' since she got sick beforehand and Lily wound up spending five weeks in the hospital as a premie.

But Pierce, who comes from a family of 10 children, said, ``I've been surrounded by very supportive friends and family. I make good money. I have the education. I'm able financially to take care of her.''

Three years ago, when Murphy Brown, a TV reporter in a television situation comedy, had a child out of wedlock, then-Vice President Dan Quayle accused the show of glamorizing illegitimacy.

In real life, most unmarried mothers have nowhere near the opportunities of a Murphy Brown or even the earning potential of a registered nurse.

Unwed mothers ``are still overwhelmingly young, poorly educated, low-income and likely to experience (along with their children) the long-range consequences ... of their early childbearing as single parents,'' the government report said.

``Childbearing by these women is not really a Murphy Brown situation,'' said Stephanie Ventura, the demographer who authored the report.

The highest rate of births to unmarried women was among women ages 20-24 (68.5 births per 1,000), followed by women ages 18-19 (67.3) and women 25-29 (56.5). The rate for women ages 30-34 was 37.9; for teen-agers 15-17 it was 30.4.

Overall, the center said, the birth rate for unmarried women rose 54 percent from 1980 to 1992, from 29.4 births per 1,000 unmarried women aged 15-44 in 1980, to 45.2 births per 1,000 in 1991 and 1992.

The out-of-wedlock birth rates for decades have been much higher among black women than white women, and that still holds true. But the gap is closing.

The birth rate for unmarried black women was seven times the white rate in 1970 and four times the white rate in 1980.

But the white out-of-wedlock birth rate has surged 94 percent since 1980 while the black rate has risen just 7 percent. ``By 1992, the rate for black women was 2.5 times the rate for white women,'' the report said.

The highest birth rates were among unmarried Hispanic women (95.3 per 1,000), followed by black women (86.5) and white women (35.2).

Charles F. Westoff, a professor of demography at Princeton University, said the statistics ``reflect the declining significance of marriage as a social obligation or a social necessity for reproduction.''