SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. -- Recent welfare reform legislation and new restrictions on abortion may have worked at cross purposes to boost the number of families headed by single mothers, according to a Penn State study.
"By making unmarried childbearing more 'costly,' welfare reform has fueled the demand for abortion at the same time abortion laws have restricted access," said Dr. Daniel T. Lichter, professor of sociology and director of Penn State's Population Research Institute.
"As a result, an increasing number of unmarried women on welfare have chosen childbearing over abortion, which may affect their overall family well-being," he added.
Lichter and Dr. Diane K. McLaughlin, Penn State assistant professor of rural sociology, presented the paper, "State Abortion Policy, Geographic Access to Abortion Providers, and Changing Family Formation," today (Aug. 25), at the annual American Sociological Association conference. A third co-author is Dr. David C. Ribar, assistant professor of economics at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
Their conclusions are based on county female headship rates from the Summer Tape Files of the 1980 and 1990 U.S. censuses, excluding those of Alaska and Hawaii. Geographic and legal restrictions on abortion access resulted in more female-headed families during this period.
"Our findings suggest that the public policy goal of reducing unmarried childbearing and female-headed families may be partly undermined by the increasing geographic and legal barriers aimed at discouraging abortion," noted McLaughlin, also research associate with the Population Research Institute.
Recent Supreme Court decisions now allow states to require abortion providers to notify parents of abortions done on minors, to impose restrictions on Medicaid funding for abortion and to establish 24-hour waiting periods. These changes have caused some women to opt for childbearing instead of having an abortion.
On the other hand, new time limits on welfare receipts, mandated work requirements and imposition of family caps on benefits (in some states) have failed to increase marriage rates among pregnant unmarried women on welfare.
"Our findings linking declining abortion access to the increased number of single mothers do not, in themselves, constitute sufficient basis for rescinding existing restrictive abortion legislation or initiating efforts to make abortion services more geographically accessible," said Lichter. "Policies aimed at reducing the number of abortions are motivated by many considerations -- moral, legal and social."
"At the same time, this is a interesting lesson on how legislation can have unintended and not entirely desirable consequences for the very people it is supposed to help," McLaughlin added.