The UK’s two-child benefits cap is unbearably, unworkably cruel

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The government is letting mothers down – with poverty-stricken women facing unwanted abortion. It should be a national scandal, says Frances Ryan

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By Frances Ryan on

The “rape clause” of the new universal-credit system has been rightly criticised, but further disturbing revelations about the wider policy are emerging. This week, The Mirror reported that women in Britain are being “forced to terminate wanted pregnancies thanks to Tory benefit rules”.    

Sally [not her real name] told the paper of her experience. Sally is already a mum of two boys below the age of five and, at four months pregnant, learnt that because her newborn would be her third child, she’d no longer be eligible for extra financial help.

The controversial two-child policy, introduced a year ago, allows families to claim child tax credits or universal credits only for their first two children, unless there are special circumstances, such as rape or multiple births. It takes no account of financial conditions such as illness or job loss. Sally has been on sickness benefits for 12 years due to PTSD and her partner isn’t currently earning a wage as he studies to become a personal trainer. Even before she became pregnant, the couple were already struggling to provide for their existing two children. “We’re barely surviving now,” she says – to the extent they can’t afford to live together.

In some ways, this is not new – for many women, whether or not their family can afford it has always been a major factor in a decision to have a child or to continue with a pregnancy. But the welfare state – from child benefit to child tax credits – in Britain has traditionally cushioned the blow for low-income families, thereby making it easier for women who experience an unplanned pregnancy to be able to afford to have the child if they choose. By limiting Universal Credit to only two children, women like Sally who were previously given some protection from the state if they became pregnant are now finding themselves alone.

In March 2017, before the policy rolled out, I warned on The Pool that the policy could lead to women in poverty having to choose between feeding their existing children and going ahead with a pregnancy. We now know these fears are coming true.

Rather than helping them, government policy is forcing women to make impossible decisions over limiting their family's size

“It wasn’t planned, but it was very much wanted,” Sally said of the pregnancy. She’d already begun to buy bits for the baby and booked in for a scan when she realised that, without the safety net of social security, she’d have no way to provide for another child. “I was crying when wheeled me in [for the abortion]. They kept asking ‘are you sure you want to do this?’ and I couldn’t even answer, I just had to nod my head.”  

It feels incredibly difficult to read those words. A central tenant for reproductive choice has always been that any decision a woman makes is a genuine free choice. But listen to Sally and you get an aching feeling – this wasn’t a choice she wanted to make. Financial decisions around whether or not to go ahead with a pregnancy are often complex, but her account shows how government policies can chip away at this choice. It feels like a sort of economic coercion, altering a woman’s family plans simply by pulling the money she needs to feed her children. The question for a woman in these circumstances is not only "Do I want this pregnancy?" but "Can I afford it, without my benefits?"  

Because the two-child limit policy is relatively new, it’s important to note we don’t yet have data to accurately show how many women this is currently impacting. But initial reports suggest Sally is far from alone. The charity Turn2Us, which helps people calculate the social security they’re entitled to, told me as far back as last year that pregnant women were contacting them with benefit questions and saying they may have to terminate their pregnancies as a result. Last month, Christian, Muslim and Jewish leaders joined forces to call for the policy to be scrapped after 60 Church of England bishops, the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Muslim Council of Britain warned “there are likely to be mothers who will face an invidious choice between poverty and terminating an unplanned pregnancy”.

There’s a key difference between religious objection to abortion generally and a concern women aren’t able to make an informed choice about having one, but it’s testament to the potential consequences of the policy that this is being so openly discussed. It’s worth noting that women in Northern Ireland are in a particularly cruel Catch-22: the rape-exemption clause discriminates against women who have not reported their attack to the police (in Northern Ireland, failure to report a crime is an offence) and they have no legal access to abortion other than in the most exceptional of circumstances.

From its introduction, it was estimated that this policy would tip an estimated extra 200,000 children into poverty. In light of new figures this week, which show one million more UK children are in poverty since 2010, the reality is that women often can’t afford to feed and clothe the children they already have. And yet, rather than helping them, government policy is forcing women to make impossible decisions over limiting their family's size. In modern Britain, poverty-stricken pregnant women are facing unwanted abortions. This should be a national scandal.


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