Abortion and Welfare

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October 24, 1996 EvaS: This evening, our guest is LisaSmall, an attorney in Washington, DC. Once again, we're lucky to have her here to share her vast knowledge. This time the topic is welfare and abortion. Welcome, Lisa, and thanks for being here.

LisaSmall: Well! Thanks for the compliments, and here we go...tonight I want to spend more time in the presentation concentrating on the larger politics in the link between abortion and welfare in our current public policy. We've put together a bibliography of web and print resources that will provide people with the statistics behind the discussion, but I won't be spending much time tonight reciting statistics. You can get that from any newspaper. My basic point is this: that abortion policy in the U.S. is completely driven by legislators' perceptions of WHO wants the abortions. After many years of right-wing pressure to restrict abortion access, conservative activism is now making a mid-stream change to bringing strong pressure on poor women to get abortions. And the pro-choice movement resists forced abortion as much as we have resisted forbidden abortions. There have been several initiatives in the recent past to limit the fertility of the poor. These include judicial as well as legislative initiatives. Some judges are demanding that women get sterilized as a condition of receiving probation instead of incarceration for offenses ranging from drug charges to child neglect or child abuse. Child neglect and child abuse are not the same thing; and the poor can find themselves convicted of child neglect and/or losing their parental rights simply due to their poverty. The new welfare legislation is going to make this worse, by requiring and encouraging states to experiment with the so-called "family caps." The family cap idea officially limits the amount of funds a poor woman can receive through welfare in order to support her children -- in that sense, it limits, that is, "caps" the amount of public funds a family receives. However, legislators are very open about their intent to limit the actual size of the family. They believe, erroneously, that welfare payments serve as an inducement to repeated pregnancy, and expect that cutting off the increased AFDC (welfare) payments a family receives for a new child will cut off the production of new children. The pregnant poor woman is backed into a corner: abort, or try to feed three children on what wasn't enough support for two.

CBSEP: What can we, with little or no sphere of influence, do about this?

LisaSmall: We //do// have influence. As individuals, each of us can write letters to the local newspaper outlining our objections to policies that try to compel abortion, and pointing out that this is NOT part of the pro-choice agenda. Such letters serve two purposes, at least: a. they clarify what welfare reform is really about, which is a eugenic attack on the poor, and b. they clarify what pro-choice is all about -- an important mission, since much of the public still "just doesn't get it," after years of seeing pro-choicers depicted as pro-abortion by the mainstream press. So, for 32 cents, you CAN have an impact, even on your own. Also, working with local or state groups to apply pressure to your legislatures makes a huge difference. Emily's List is THE largest PAC in the country. This year's presidential election is being decided by the gender gap. If mainstream feminists make the attack on poor women part of the overall agenda, we CAN change federal policy.

AnthonyPjt: What do you think should be done about women who abuse the welfare system, and do have kids just to increase their checks?

LisaSmall: Oh, please. To the extent that there is bona-fide welfare fraud -- as in people creating false identities to collect duplicate checks, or faking the number of children they have, those are crimes that can be and are prosecuted under existing law, even prior to this new welfare bill. But if you are talking about women who stay home and raise their children while collecting welfare -- that's what the check is for. SOMEONE has got to raise those children, and it is better and cheaper to have their own mothers doing it.

AnthonyPjt: I'm not talking fraud. I'm talking actual births. I know of several women who do it.

LisaSmall: So, you're suggesting that bearing a child can be a criminal act?

[Editorial note: Under current law, it is not considered welfare fraud to bear a child even if you know or suspect that your child will be eligible for welfare. It might have been more responsive to the questioner's initial statements to ask if they were suggesting that bearing a welfare-eligible child is an immoral act that //should be// criminalized, rather than to focus on whether it //is// criminal. -- Lisa Small]

AnthonyPjt: No, I'm just wondering if you actually think the current welfare system works and needs no reform at all.

LisaSmall: But that's not what you asked me. :) I'm sure we'll return to that as tonight's program progresses.

CBSEP: I believe that this whole issue is part of the hetero-patriarchal agenda. Do you agree?

LisaSmall: Thanks for the softball, CB! Yes, I do. I'm going to get back to Anthony's question, but this helps me with my lead-in. Yes, absolutely, our current mess is due in large part to the patriarchal assumptions behind the current welfare system. Originally designed to assist only widows and orphans -- people without a man in the house, and therefore without a standard breadwinner -- the system was expanded to include women who were unmarried mothers, and poor families of all kinds. However, although AFDC is "Aid to Dependent Children" and not a payment //for// the mother at all, just //to// her as a means of supporting her kids, AFDC has always been designed, described, and controlled as a whole-household subsidy for single mothers. The AFDC and other welfare program rules carried heavy financial penalties for women with a man in the house, an attempt both to restrict the woman's sexuality and fertility, and to reinforce the social idea that the mere presence of a man meant that the family was being supported and didn't (or shouldn't) need help. In areas where adult male unemployment might range as high as 30%, this has not been particularly helpful nor wise. Furthermore, the medical assistance given to women in poverty was also designed to be anti-sexual. Abortion and contraception were made difficult or impossible to get, while childbirth continued to be covered. This patriarchal attempt to limit the sexual activity and male associations of women on AFDC produced the highly skewed situation we find ourselves in today.

Xine W: Re: Anthony's comment -- How do we know a woman's motive in having another child? She may have intended to get pregnant because she loves raising children despite lack of money, but more likely, it was an accident due to lack of access to reliable birth control, etc. So, how can we decide who "abused the system" and who didn't? And either way, how can we take action without punishing the kids?

LisaSmall: Exactly, Xine. Is she bearing the child so that she can get some increment in her check that won't come close to covering the cost of raising the new child? Or is she pregnant by accident, because birth control is either out of her reach or didn't work, or contrary to her religious beliefs? The family cap proposal directly punishes the children by reducing the amount of support to which each of them is entitled. We are almost returning to the old British system of primogeniture, in which the first-born male child was entitled to the full inheritance and the later children to only small bequests. Except here, you have the state in the role of saying that the first-born child is worth, for example, $156 per month in support, but the second child is worth only an additional $25 - $100, or nothing at all. Capping family size institutes a preference for the firstborn that makes no sense at all.

[Editorial note: The next question refers to W-2, a Wisconsin welfare reform plan that was designed by that state and submitted to the federal government during the summer of 1996 while the federal welfare reform bill was still in process in the U.S. Congress. The Wisconsin W-2 plan was approved, and federal rules regarding the minimum standards for support of poor children were waived. -- Lisa Small]

LynnCSE: I'm from Wisconsin and it looks like W2 will end up in more demeaning work for women who have already been demeaned by society or some man. And, Xine, have we considered she may have been raped or forced to become pregnant? I think we should all do like the women in that Greek play and refuse to have sex with any man until they clean up this mess and stop making our bodies a political issue. That still leaves some opportunities for sexual partners. I'm not totally out of it!

READ MORE ABOUT IT: Abortion and Welfare and the Political System (rev. 10/21/96 - jlc)

[NOTE: These brief bibliographies are not intended to be an exhaustive treatment of a topic .... instead they are intended to provide a starting place for reading on the topic.]


Abortion Politics in American States. Armonk, NY, M. E. Sharpe, 1995.

Donovan, Patricia A. The Politics of Blame : Family Planning, Abortion and the Poor. New York, Alan Guttmacher Institute, 1995.

Faux, Marian. Roe v. Wade : the Untold Story of the Landmark Supreme Court Decision That Made Abortion Legal. Special ed. New York, Notable Trials Library, 1994, c1988.

Federal Abortion Politics : A Documentary History. New York, Garland, 1995.

Graber, Mark A. Rethinking Abortion : Equal Choice, the Constitution, and Reproductive Politics. Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1996.

Kellough, Gail. Aborting Law : An Exploration of the Politics of Motherhood and Medicine. Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1996.

Law and Body Politics : Regulating the Female Body. Brookfield, Dartmouth, 1995.

O'Connor, Karen. No Neutral Ground? : Abortion Politics in an Age of Absolutes. Boulder, Westview Press, 1996.

Perspectives on the Politics of Abortion. Westport, CT, Praeger, 1995.

The Politics of Abortion and Birth Control in Historical Perspective. University Park, PA, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996, c1995.

Power and Decision : the Social Control of Reproduction. Boston, MA, Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies, Distributed by Harvard University Press, 1994.

Wetstein, Matthew E. Abortion Rates in the United States : the Influence of Opinion and Policy. Albany, State University of New York Press, 1996.


Abramovitz, Mimi. Regulating the Lives of Women : Social Welfare Policy From Colonial Times to the Present. Boston, MA, South End Press, 1988.

Axinn, June. Social Welfare : A History of the American Response to Need. New York, Harper & Row, 1975.

For Crying Out Loud : Women and Poverty in the United States. New York, Pilgrim Press, 1986.

Kingfisher, Catherine P. Women in the American Welfare Trap. Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996.

Lord, Shirley A. Social Welfare and the Feminization of Poverty. New York, Garland, 1993.

Miller, Dorothy C. Women and Social Welfare : a Feminist Analysis. New York, Praeger, 1990.

Rodgers, Harrell R. Poor Women, Poor Children : American Poverty in the 1990s. 3rd ed. Armonk, NY, M.E. Sharpe, 1996.

Seavey, Dorothy K. Back to Basics : Women's Poverty and Welfare Reform. Wellesley, MA, Center for Research on Women, 1996.

Sidel, Ruth. Keeping Women and Children Last : America's War on the Poor. New York, Penguin, 1996.

Women, the State, and Welfare. Madison, WI, University of Wisconsin Press, 1990.


ACLU: The Civil Liberties Issues of Welfare Reform

Welfare and Families, Idea Central's Electronic Magazine

Feminist Majority Newsletter vol 7 num 2
Punitive Welfare Bill Stalled in Senate
Summarizes some provisions of the welfare bill.

The Dying American Dream and the Snake Oil of Scapegoating
Holly Sklar's essay tying welfare reform to the attacks on the poor. "Impoverished women haven't created poverty any more than slaves created slavery." An excellent, though long, essay tying together several backlash movements and explaining the political advantages of scapegoating women for current social conditions.

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