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Good news for weary marchers

National | Did welfare reform contribute to lower abortion numbers nationwide?

Issue: "End of the innocence," Jan. 30, 1999

While Bill Clinton's impeachment trial dragged on, tens of thousands of people from all across the country descended on Washington Friday to "get on with the nation's business"-in this case, the business of participating in the annual March for Life.

As always, those preparing to march looked like America, with many races, denominations, and political views represented. Feminists for Life and Atheists for Life mixed with the most Roman of Catholics and the most Genevan of Protestants. A concern for the unborn seemed to bring people together in a way that few other causes could.

All mass movements have factions that debate passionately outside the public spotlight. For the pro-life movement, the end to one of those debates may be in sight. Thanks to a study issued late last year, pro-lifers of all stripes may be able to agree that the twin goals of saving babies and reforming welfare can indeed co-exist-and may even complement each other.

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Back in the early- and mid- '90s an unlikely coalition against welfare reform came together. When conservative groups like the Family Research Council and the Heritage Foundation proposed to deny additional cash benefits to unwed mothers who continued to bear children, some pro-lifers were alarmed. On the issue of so-called "family caps," groups such as Catholic Charities and the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) found themselves strange bedfellows with liberal political machines like the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL).

NRLC and NARAL contended that such restrictions would force pregnant welfare recipients to choose between sliding deeper into economic hardship and aborting their new babies. But other pro-lifers insisted family caps would restore to welfare mothers the concept of individual responsibility, and ultimately reduce both illegitimacy and abortion.

New Jersey moved the question from the abstract to the specific when it introduced family caps in August 1993. Now, after more than five years, the debate has at last yielded some data-and the data don't seem to bear out the dire predictions of some. A recent Rutgers University study shows that among New Jersey women receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), the abortion rate increased slightly just after the family cap was implemented. After the initial jump, however, the abortion rate sank back to its original levels, where it has remained ever since.

But as reassuring as that news sounds for pro-life welfare reformers, the national picture may be even more encouraging. At least 21 other states have adopted family cap provisions since New Jersey did, and, according to Heritage Foundation policy analyst Robert Rector, both abortions and out-of-wedlock births have dropped in that time.

"Births out-of-wedlock rose in a straight vertical line from the early 1960s up to 1996 at a steady, uninterrupted rate of one percentage point per year," Mr. Rector said. "But in 1996, the same year welfare reform was enacted nationally, that statistic flat-lined, and remained flat through 1997 and 1998. During the same period, abortion rates fell nationally. Clearly 'something' happened. It would be an amazing coincidence if such a monumental, dramatic change had nothing to do with welfare reform."

However, the abortion rate among mothers on AFDC (now re-named Temporary Aid to Needy Families, or TANF) does not seem to hinge on any particular policy tool-including family caps. Welfare analysts in several states have mapped the falling abortion numbers against variables ranging from illegitimacy rates to welfare program work requirements. They found no consistent relationship between the drop in abortions and any specific aspect of welfare reform.

But Mr. Rector does have a theory: "In the mid-'90s, press coverage of illegitimacy and its consequences increased ten-fold, reaching the street level for perhaps the first time in decades," he says. He suggests that the message of greater self-control and personal responsibility caused many young women to take action to avoid pregnancy.

The nationwide decline in abortion rates may not be specifically linked to family caps, but the thunderous debate over that policy tool has apparently pricked the long-dormant public conscience. To the multitude of pro-lifers who converged on Washington Friday, any sign of a public conscience must come as very good news indeed.

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