The controversial “two-child limit” restricting the amount that larger families can receive in social security benefits was a key factor in many women’s decisions to terminate their pregnancy during the pandemic, according to a leading abortion charity.
The British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) said over half of the women it surveyed who had an abortion during the pandemic, and who were aware of the two-child limit and likely to be affected by it, said the policy was “important in their decision-making around whether or not to continue the pregnancy.”
Some women told BPAS that the combination of economic and job insecurity triggered by pandemic and the two-child limit effectively removed their choice over the pregnancy, persuading them to end a pregnancy they would in a less fraught financial situation have wanted to keep.
“The two-child cap forces people into a corner of knowing they can’t provide versus abortion,” one mother said. “Although I understand it is not the government’s responsibility to be financially responsible for parents having children, I also felt that thanks to this rule I was forced to make this decision.”
Another mother told BPAS: “If there was no two-child limit, I would have kept the baby, but I couldn’t afford to feed and clothe it … I’ve really struggled to come to terms with my decision.”
The limit, which was introduced as way of cutting £1bn a year from the welfare bill, bars parents from claiming the child element in tax credits or universal credit for third or subsequent children born after 6 April 2017. The loss of benefits is worth £2,900 per child per year.
BPAS said even prior to the pandemic there was evidence that the two-child policy was affecting pregnancy rates. There had been a disproportionately large increase in abortions by mothers with two or more existing children between 2016 and 2019 – 16.4%, compared with 10.3% and 7% respectively for women with no or one child.
According to official statistics, 243,000 families had been affected by the two-child limit in the three years to April 2020. Some 900 women over the period were allowed official exemption from the cap after being forced to formally disclose that their child was conceived as a result of rape.
BPAS called for the two-child limit to be scrapped. “If the government does not want to see more women feeling forced into a corner between financial hardship or ending an otherwise wanted pregnancy, they must revoke the two-child limit as a matter of urgency,” said Katherine O’Brien, BPAS associate director of campaigns.
“The two-child limit is a cruel and unnecessary policy which expects families to make impossible choices. The limit now affects over 1 million children and is rapidly driving up child poverty. In the midst of a pandemic and jobs crisis, it is particularly callous to continue to pursue this punitive policy,” said Jonathan Reynolds, Labour’s shadow social security secretary.
A DWP spokesperson said: “We know this is an uncertain time for families which is why we have taken unprecedented steps to support incomes and help with living costs. The support available through the welfare safety net reflects the fact that the majority of households in Britain (85%) have two or fewer children.”
BPAS surveyed 240 women with two or more existing children who had ended a pregnancy since March. Of these, 59% said they were aware of the two-child policy prior to termination. Of those in receipt of universal credit or tax credits and likely to be affected, 57% said the policy helped them decide whether to have a baby.
Although the two-child policy was introduced supposedly to force jobless families to make the same financial choices as those in work, government data show that nearly three out of five households affected have at least one adult in work. Studies have found that capped families cut back on food, medication, heating and clothing.