Human Rights

Welfare caseworker puts pressure on woman to abort, so do family caps

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David C. Reardon presented the stories of many post-abortive women in his book Aborted Women: Silent No More.  The women who told their stories in Aborted Women: Silent No More came from many different walks of life, but they all had one thing in common – they regretted their abortions deeply and wish they had made a different choice.

Aborted Women: Silent No More was one of the first books to collect testimonies from women after abortion. David Reardon runs the Elliot Institute, which compiles information about post-abortion trauma and the psychological harm abortions do to women, raises awareness of coerced abortions, and publishes The Postabortion Review, which tells the stories of women who regret their abortions. I would like to focus on one woman’s story from Aborted Women.

The story of a coerced abortion

A young woman and her husband were receiving welfare. They had one child, and, shortly after they began receiving payments, she gave birth to a second one.

After having our baby in May, a caseworker at the Department of Social Services made us feel like we’d been irresponsible for having a second child. She lectured Jim [her husband], telling him, “You can’t keep your wife barefoot and pregnant the rest of your life. You’d better do something about it.”

She wanted to stop us having children and insisted on making an appointment for us to go to Planned Parenthood for counseling and birth-control supplies – conveniently located right next door.

The young woman agreed to go on birth control, acquiescing to the social worker’s wishes, but:

At the clinic, I was examined and told that I had a bacterial infection.… They decided that I couldn’t have any kind of birth control, so my husband became the target. The counselor told us that Jim had to have a vasectomy. They really put the pressure on him, making him feel like he was under an obligation to be sterilized. Of course, Medicaid would pay for it. (They were willing to do anything to keep “welfare folk” from reproducing.) We didn’t want to do it, but they told us there was a 50-50 chance the vasectomy could be reversed later when wanted more kids and had more money. Afraid we would have our finances cut off of we had another child, we went along with it…

But as it turned out, the coerced vasectomy did no good. The young woman was already pregnant with her third child when her husband had the operation. The welfare office wasn’t happy. The pressure then truly began:

I was happy immediately. “All right!, I just knew it!”… When our caseworker found out that I was pregnant with our third child, she was just disgusted with us. She couldn’t believe that we had been so “irresponsible.” She urged us to have an abortion, saying, “You just can’t go around having babies the rest of your life.” After making us feel like dirt, she reassured us that Medicaid would pay for the abortion, and that we could always have children later.…

Since they feared the welfare office would cut off the family’s financial aid, which was the only thing keeping them from complete destitution, the woman and her husband felt they had no choice. Both wanted the baby, but she went in for an abortion.

She was in her second trimester, but the doctor at the clinic lied to her about the development of the baby:

The doctor told me he would slowly dilate my cervix with a series of metal rods and suction out the “blob of jelly called fetal tissue.”

The abortion itself was a nightmarish experience:

I wasn’t given anything for pain, the nurse had to hold me down. The nurse kept saying to me “it will be over in a minute, honey… Oh come on now, it doesn’t hurt that bad. Quit being such a baby!”

The caseworker demanded to know when the abortion had been completed. She never asked the couple how they were coping:

Afterwards, our caseworker didn’t ask about the abortion, or how I felt, she just wanted to know that I had it done.

This coerced abortion was the beginning of a long spiral downward into depression for the woman. Devastated and in emotional pain, she turned to drugs to try and escape her guilt and grief. A previously dedicated and conscientious mother, she became abusive to her children, unable to cope. Her once happy marriage began to fray.

Eventually, she joined an organization for women who regretted their abortions and went through counseling that helped her cope with her postabortion syndrome. She found a measure of peace, but still mourns for her lost child.

All the trauma she experienced as a result of the abortion was caused by a heartless social worker in a system that penalizes women when they become pregnant. As pro-lifers we have a responsibility to protect women from coerced abortion, regardless of their situation. No woman should be forced to have an abortion because she is living in poverty or because she needs government assistance. The woman and her husband never intended to stay on welfare for the rest of their lives – they were simply struggling to make ends meet. The myth of women having multiple children for the small increase in welfare payments has persisted over the years, but is truly a myth.

Poor women still face pressure to abort

A recent article in Slate discussed the situation of poor mothers in California, a state where legislators tried to prevent out of wedlock births by instituting “family caps.” In California, a woman who has a child receives no extra money from the welfare office, despite the expense of raising that child. One woman named Melissa Oritz, was quoted in the article:

“When we first had the twins, the only person in my family getting aid was my oldest son,” she said. “We didn’t have money to buy them car seats to get home [from the hospital]. …We didn’t have money to pay for diapers, wipes, shampoos, and toiletries. … I am here to tell you that I am trying my best to be a great mom. I do not need to be punished for deciding to have children.”

The Slate article says:

For women like Ortiz, new children become an immense burden to carry—a threat to their livelihoods which could leave their other children, if they have any, facing near starvation.

When children become a huge financial burden, something that will plunge a struggling family into the deepest poverty, incredible pressure is brought to bear on women to abort their babies.  A 2004 report from National Bureau of Economic Research  found that in states where the family cap rule went into effect, birth rates among poor women fell, but abortion rates rose significantly.

It is also important to take into account the fact that welfare payments, even in states that do not have family caps, are extremely low to begin with. In Maryland, a state with no family caps, benefits for a single mother and three children are $574 a month. This must cover food for three children and a parent, clothes for the children, rent, utilities, and all other expenses. Even relying on charities, poor families have a very hard time living on such low payments. Capping benefits puts even more pressure on these families.

It is not pro-life to put pressure on poor women to abort. If pro-lifers want to prevent abortions, we need to avoid putting women in impossible situations where they cannot cope with a child.

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