One of the most remarkable things that came out of the Irish referendum was the personal testimony of women who had been forced to journey to England for medical care. But some – poor or migrant or disabled women – recounted how even this option wasn’t available to them; unable to travel, they had no choice but to take the gamble of a pill bought from the internet. It’s a striking insight into the black-and-white thinking imposed on pregnancy: women who could not even afford a flight on Ryanair for a safe abortion were somehow expected to be able to afford to feed, house and clothe a child.
Beyond Ireland, this denial of the material reality of raising a child is an ongoing issue – in abortion debates and beyond. Indeed, the same voices so ardently protecting the “unborn child” are often strangely quiet when it comes to support for children once they are outside the womb. This convenient cognitive dissonance has long been a feature of rightwing attitudes: arguing to restrict a woman’s reproductive rights while supporting measures that push children into poverty. (Some British rightwing – often male – journalists couldn’t resist stepping in over the Irish debate too.)
Avoiding this hypocritical “concern for children” does not require a particularly complex position: a civilised society would give women the choice not to continue with a pregnancy and in turn support a child’s wellbeing if they are born. And yet it is a concept with which many still seem to struggle, including our own government. The Conservatives have long positioned themselves as the party of family – from cruel so-called protection of the “traditional family” such as the anti-LGBT Section 28, 30 years old this month, to David Cameron’s pledge to use the family to solve social problems, and 2017’s backbench Manifesto to Strengthen the Family, pitched as Theresa May’s key social narrative.
At the same time, their small-state ideology can make it devastatingly difficult for a low-income parent to look after a child. Look at the controversial “two-child” limit to child tax credits under universal credit (UC). From its inception, it was predicted the policy would lead to hundreds of thousands of additional children living in poverty, but it’s now emerging that some women are even feeling forced to have abortions because they can’t afford to go ahead with the pregnancy. “It wasn’t planned but it was very much wanted. I was crying as they wheeled me in,” one woman told the Mirror this month about her abortion; without the safety net of tax credits, she had no way to afford another baby. Women in Northern Ireland in similar positions have an even more restricted choice: the rape-exemption clause that gives some women on UC a financial reprieve endangers women who haven’t reported their attack to the police (in Northern Ireland, failure to report a crime is an offence) and, as the renewed calls for reproductive rightsin light of the Irish vote has highlighted, Northern Irish women have no legal access to abortion in their own country if they feel they can’t raise a child.
Recent years have in fact seen a determined removal of support from low-income mothers – everything from forcing single parents (90% of whom are women) to look for work once their child turns three or have their benefits sanctioned, to the benefit cap, a policy so regressive it was actually ruled to be unlawful when forced on single parents with toddlers.
Just this week, it came out that a third of low-income families are missing out on state-funded free food vouchers – a scheme designed to help pregnant women and those with young children afford fruit, vegetables and milk.
Much like Sure Start and child tax credits, these vouchers were brought in by a Labour government to reduce inequalities between wealthy and poor children, based on the understanding that if it takes a village to raise a child, it often requires a government to ensure they don’t live in poverty. It’s no coincidence that, as the welfare state has been pulled back, the number of children in poverty is rocketing to record levels.
In the post-crash austerity era, this sense of social solidarity towards children has noticeably lessened. Under each policy to remove state support from parents there’s a lurking narrative that working-class women are “breeding too much” or that low-income children are drains on the “hardworking taxpayer”. (“Why should I pay for someone else to have more kids?” is the rejoinder on most articles advocating child benefits). In the real world, pregnancy is rarely predictable – contraception fails, relationships end, and jobs are lost – and besides, even the most ardent individualist would admit low-income children have done nothing to “deserve” their own poverty.
We are at the point in which it is not rare to hear of infants living in B&Bs, sleeping on cardboard, or even scrambling for food in school bins. If the ongoing debate over abortion rights teaches us anything, it’s that there are no shortage of voices content to defend the “unborn”. It’s a shame few are willing to give the same care to those children who are already here. HEAR HEAR!!!