The Impact of Family Caps on Abortion

Posted on December 7, 2021 By

Author Sarah Terzo

by Sarah Terzo


Women sometimes choose abortion due to poverty. Therefore, the existence of social programs to help the poor have an impact on the abortion rate, according to numerous studies.

Researcher Laura Hussey asked the following question to women who had abortions:

Other countries provide a lot of assistance to women and their families that the government, employers, and schools in the US do not provide. These countries give women things like free childcare, free healthcare, money they can use to pay their family’s expenses, and the chance to take months or even years off of work with pay after giving birth.

Would you have made a different decision about your pregnancy if you could get that kind of help?1

Only 49% said they were sure they would still have had their abortions if such help had been available. Twenty-two percent said they would’ve had their babies, and 34% were unsure. The study shows that social programs to help the poor (or lack of them) have an impact on the abortion rate. But there is more evidence.

The Child Tax Credit and Abortion in England and Wales

The number of abortions in England and Wales rose 4% between 2017 and 2018.  According to the abortion clinic chain British Pregnancy Advisory Service, part of the increase was caused by a new cap on child tax credits. It limited the child tax credit to two children.

Director Clare Murphy said that:

[C]ouples are making different decisions about the number of children they can afford and feel able to properly care for.

The two-child benefit cap was designed to influence reproductive decision-making and we are certainly aware of cases where that has been a factor in a woman’s decision to end a third, unplanned pregnancy.

One woman having an abortion at BPAS said, “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.”

Another said:

The two-child cap forces people into a corner of knowing they can’t provide versus abortion. 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.

BPAS’s survey found that of women having abortions with two or more children, 57% said the tax credit policy influenced their decision.

Impact of Welfare Family Caps in America

In America, 22 states have instituted welfare family caps. In states without these caps, a woman on welfare who has a child receives more money. In states with them, this assistance is eliminated, usually after a certain number of children are born.

One poor mother said:

When we first had the twins, the only person in my family getting aid was my oldest son. 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 had to go to charities, wait in line, and hope that the charities had diapers that day. I am constantly trying to pay just enough to not have [the utilities] shut off.

It’s easy to see how some women abort to try to avoid this type of poverty.

Family caps in New Jersey

New Jersey instituted a family cap in 1990. They were the first state to do so. Abortions had been declining nationally since 1985   but after the family cap, this trend “reversed dramatically” in New Jersey according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute. Between 1992 and 1993 abortions among those affected by the family cap rose 10% and from that point began, “a steady trajectory upward… Reasonable individuals could posit a relationship between the implementation of a Family Cap and the rise in abortion.”2

One study found that “the Family Cap was indeed responsible for a decline in the birth rate among New Jersey’s welfare population and that this decline was facilitated by increased family planning and more abortions.”3

The study attributed 240 abortions a year, or 1100 total, to the family cap. Another study found that the abortion rate among those affected by the family cap was 14% higher than those unaffected.4

The burden of the cap fell primarily on Black women. The Boston Globe analyzed a study from Rutgers University that found:

Black women have been more affected by the law than other racial groups. Abortions among black women on welfare exceeded births from March 1993 … while the abortion rate for white and Hispanic women increased only slightly.5

In fact, later research found that for black women, there was a 21% decline in births and a 32% increase in abortions in the years after the family caps went into effect.6

According to researcher Michael J Camasso, “the experimental evidence indicates that the New Jersey Family Cap effect on both birth and abortion decisions is conditioned by a woman’s racial/ethnic status.”7 Drawing on studies, Camasso documented that the increase in abortions among Black women was directly related to the family caps.



Family Cap Supporters Admit They Increase Abortion

The people who instituted the family cap in New Jersey knew it would increase abortions. According to Wayne Bryant, sponsor of family cap legislation, “[Abortion] is a tough decision…but it’s a responsible decision for a family that believes it’s in their best interest.”8

In the Wall Street Journal, Charles Murray, who supports family caps, wrote:

It will lead many young women who shouldn’t be mothers to place their babies for adoption. This is good. It will lead others, watching what happens to their sisters, to take steps not to get pregnant. This is also good. Many others will get abortions. Whether this is good depends on what one thinks of abortion.9

William Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard, wrote, “We can’t not reform welfare because it might lead to a few more abortions.”10Supporters of family cap laws, then, freely acknowledge that these laws increase abortions. They don’t dispute this fact.

Opposition to Family Caps

No family should have to choose between abortion and abject poverty. As pro-life champion Representative Chris Smith says:

If you take away funding from the poorest of our children and pay for abortions on demand through Medicaid, like New Jersey and New York and many other states do, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to conclude that you’re either going to have poorer children or dead children.11

Some conservatives, despite their purported pro-life stand, have supported family caps, even knowing they increase abortions. The Heritage Foundation, which is ostensibly pro-life, has gone on record supporting them. To these groups, saving money (and possibly policing welfare mothers they consider irresponsible) is more important than preserving lives and preventing abortions.

But many pro-lifers, like Chris Smith, have opposed caps. There was a movement against the caps in New Jersey, and many pro-life individuals and organizations were part of it. It was originally a bipartisan effort, led by Assemblywomen Charlotte Vandervalk, a Republican, and Joan Quigley, a Democrat. The campaign made strange bedfellows. In addition to pro-lifers, rescinding family caps was supported by NOW, the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, Legal Services of New Jersey, and the American Civil Liberties Union.

A 2007 book documented these efforts.11 But the welfare child cap in New Jersey wasn’t repealed until September 30, 2020.

There are still welfare family caps in other states, and the pro-life movement isn’t as active in the fight against them as it should be. Although more recent research shows that the birth rate among those on welfare in states with family caps isn’t much higher than the birth rate of non-welfare mothers in these states, it’s likely these caps are still pressuring some women into abortions.

In one survey of women having abortions, 73% gave financial problems as a reason for the abortion. For over 20%, it was the primary reason. Poverty is a driver for abortion.


  1. Laura Selena Hussey The Pro-Life Pregnancy Help Movement: Serving Women or Saving Babies?(Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2020) 207-208
  2. Michael J Camasso Family Caps, Abortion and Women of Color: Research Connection and Political Rejection (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007) 28
  3. , 96
  4. , 105
  5. “Study Finds New Welfare Policy Boosted NJ’s Abortion Rate” Boston Globe June 18, 1998, p. 18
  6. Michael J Camasso Family Caps, 155
  7. Michelle Ruess “Abortions Rise as NJ Limits Welfare Payments” The Bergen Record May 17, 1995
  8. Charles Murray “The Coming White Underclass” The Wall Street Journal October 29, 1993, p. A14
  9. Tamar Lewin “Abortion Foes Worry about Welfare Cutoffs” New York Times March 19, 1995, p. 22
  10. Iver Peterson “Abortions up Slightly for Welfare Mothers” New York Times May 17, 1995
  11. Michael J Camasso Family Caps



For more of Sarah Terzo’s posts on similar topics, see:

Social Programs to Help the Poor are Pro-life

How Euthanasia and Poverty Threaten the Disabled

How Ableism Led (and Leads) to Abortion



  1. Ms. Boomer-ang says:

    1. Without legal abortion, there would be much fewer family caps. Policy makers see abortion as the preferred solution for someone to whom the family cap would cause trouble. This is an instance of a culturally/ethically “liberal” law leading to fiscally “conservative” laws, which lead to culturally/ethically “liberal” practices.

    2. The two children family cap comes out of the ZPG demand to pressure/force people to have no more than two children. They say more children harm the environment and climate. Actually, as Europe and some Asian countries have drastically reduced their birth rates, pollution and other environmental degradation has increased, due to each indivudual consuming much much more resources and leaving much much more waste.

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