Critics See Welfare Reform Increasing US Abortion Rate

TO call Catholic Charities USA and the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) strange bedfellows would be putting it mildly.

In an unusual show of agreement, these and other groups traditionally split over the issue of abortion are rallying to condemn a provision in President Clinton's welfare reform proposal that would allow states to cap payments made under the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program. The so-called family cap could be used to refuse benefit increases to women who have additional children after becoming eligible for welfare.

These opponents say that withholding the benefits could boost the abortion rate among welfare mothers. At a recent Capitol Hill briefing, a coalition of opponents including Catholic Charities USA, NARAL, and Children's Defense Fund argued that the measure would hurt children and could be an incentive for abortion. ``Child-exclusion policies are in no way pro-choice,'' said NARAL legal director Marcy Wilder, calling the family cap a ``coercive and destructive health [policy].''

It is unclear whether congressional debate will be affected by opposition to the cap on these grounds. Ms. Wilder says the caps already have substantial support on Capitol Hill. One aspect that could spark debate is the impact that the caps could have on children in poverty.

The Congressional Caucus for Women's Issues has not taken a position on any part of the proposed welfare reforms, and other members of Congress have not yet focused attention on welfare reform, according to aides.

The family cap - along with measures that would require minors with children to live with their parents and require states to seek to establish paternity at birth - is designed to encourage parental responsibility and to cut down on illegitimacy.

Under the Clinton plan, states that choose to cap AFDC benefits must also provide access to family-planning services. Additional money would be allocated for enhancing job-training programs and child-care facilities, and subsidizing nonprofit private sector jobs.

Planned Parenthood executive vice president Jane Johnson says the group is opposed to anything that limits women's choices. ``We don't think women ought to be pilloried,'' Ms. Johnson says. In a letter to President Clinton, Planned Parenthood joined diverse groups such as the National Education Association, Catholics for a Free Choice, and NARAL in opposing the caps, primarily because of the harmful effect it could have on children.

The legal arm of the National Organization for Women (NOW) has filed a lawsuit against an AFDC cap already in effect in New Jersey, one of several states granted a waiver from the federal government to put caps in place, says executive vice president Kim Gandy. NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund is suing New Jersey on behalf of a coalition of pro-and anti-abortion groups.

Included in the lawsuit are claims that the caps could be detrimental to children and that ``[Child Exclusion programs] entail an unconstitutional attempt to coerce abortion. Focusing sanctions on custodial parents, almost always women, is a blatant and unconstitutional attempt to coerce abortion by, in effect, sanctioning welfare recipients for choosing childbirth.''

Women are thrown into a ``catch-22'' because they can neither afford an abortion nor the costs of raising a child, Ms. Gandy says.

There is little data to gauge the effect the family cap could have on abortion rates. Since August 1993, when New Jersey put the cap into effect, the birthrate among welfare mothers dropped 10 percent, says Rudolf Myers, New Jersey assistant director of family development.

``We presume that some of the drop in the birthrate [in New Jersey] will turn out to be abortions,'' says Sharon Daly, deputy to the president for social policy at traditionally anti-abortion Catholic Charities USA.

Capping benefits could indeed have an impact on the number of abortions ``in the short term'' says Doug Besharov, a fellow at American Enterprise Institute.

He says, however, that he thinks the policy will have a greater impact on long-term contraceptive policies and case workers' attitudes toward advocating contraception.

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