The two-child limit is a hammer blow to families suffering due to the pandemic. It must be suspended
Women should not have to choose between financial hardship or ending an otherwise wanted pregnancy. The two-child limit must be suspended as a matter of urgency.
The two-child limit severely restricts the amount of financial support for low-income families with three or more children by removing welfare support for third or subsequent born children. This additional support is worth nearly £2,900 per child, per year.
When it was introduced in 2017, anti-poverty campaigners and religious leaders warned that the policy failed to protect families against the impact of unexpected life events. It is hard to imagine a more unexpected life event for our society than the current pandemic.
At the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, BPAS, we provide support to over 100,000 women experiencing an unplanned pregnancy or a pregnancy they feel unable to continue, the majority of whom are already mothers. After the introduction of the two-child limit, we noticed a concerning trend – annual data released by the Department of Health began to show a disproportionate increase in the numbers of abortions performed to women with two or more children.
The two-child limit assumes that women can prevent unplanned pregnancy through the use of contraception, and that parents can plan their financial circumstances for the first 18 years of a child’s life. Even prior to the pandemic, this was far from the case, but the current crisis has significantly widened the gap between the beliefs that underpin the policy and the lived experiences of families.
Among those women who were aware of and likely to be affected by the two-child limit, more than half said it was a factor in their decision to have an abortion
Reductions in take-home pay and increases in unemployment have dealt unforeseeable and devastating blows. At the same time, women have reported difficulties accessing contraception, leading to more unplanned, but not necessarily unwanted, pregnancies. The Church of England has estimated that an additional 60,000 families have been affected by the policy as a result of the pandemic.
In autumn 2020, we undertook research with 240 women who had ended a pregnancy during the pandemic and who already had two or more children. The results were heart-breaking.
Among those women who were aware of and likely to be affected by the two-child child limit, more than half (57 per cent) said it was a factor in their decision to have an abortion. Women told us their family finances had been adversely affected by the consequences of the pandemic, and for others they felt their current employment was no guarantee of future financial stability.
Some of the women we heard from said they felt the combination of the pandemic and the two-child limit in effect removed their ability to continue their pregnancy, and described feeling “forced” by their financial circumstances into ending a pregnancy that, had their situation been different, they would have wanted.
This was a source of real sadness. One 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].”
The pandemic has created a unique set of circumstances in which previous justifications for the two-child limit cannot be said to still stand – and the public agree. New polling conducted by BPAS shows that, when made aware of our research, 69 per cent of adults think the government should scrap the two-child limit during the coronavirus crisis – including a majority of Conservative voters.
Even the most carefully planned families can find themselves plunged into financial difficulties due to sudden unemployment, and women can struggle to protect themselves against unplanned pregnancy. This has never been more true than during the pandemic.
If the government does not want to see more women, as one survey respondent described, feeling “forced into a corner” between financial hardship or ending an otherwise wanted pregnancy, the two-child limit must be suspended as a matter of urgency.
Clare Murphy is the chief executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS).