ANNAPOLIS – As the welfare debate heats up the Maryland Statehouse, opposing camps on the abortion issue are uniting against the family cap, a measure designed to discourage mothers on public assistance from having more babies.
“It must be pretty extraordinary when I can follow a right- to-life advocate and fight the same issue,” Sharon Rogers of Planned Parenthood told a lawmaker while testifying at a bill hearing this week.
“We’re against family caps for many of the same reasons,” Rogers says. “A family cap says we don’t value a mother’s life or her child’s life.”
The family cap, part of an intricate welfare reform bill sponsored by Del. Howard P. Rawlings, D-Baltimore, would deny additional cash benefits to a mother who conceived and bore a child while on welfare.
While the child would be eligible for food stamps and medical assistance, the mother would lose the extra $74 a month that would come with that child.
“We want welfare recipients to be responsible for the consequences of their behavior,” says Rawlings, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. Taxpayers, he argues, want policies that “reduce welfare dependency and promote self- sufficiency.”
Some lawmakers agree that the cap is a way to promote responsible family planning. Others, however, will support it only if poor mothers are guaranteed the option of abortion.
Last year, legislators explicitly linked the two. The result was a charged debate over abortion that doomed welfare reform.
In the closing moments of the 1994 session, both family cap and abortion funding were pulled from the welfare bill, causing then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer to veto what he saw as weak legislation.
This year, lobbyists and lawmakers – even those who think the two issues are philosophically tied – want to make sure they are debated separately.
Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, D-Baltimore, explains, “If all legal means of family planning are made reasonably available, and that includes lifting Medicaid restrictions, in that circumstance, I support the family cap.”
But, he notes, “This year the chronology will be different. The Medicaid issue will be taken up as a budget issue before the welfare bill is even reported to the floor.”
Among the watching lobbyists is Carey Lynn Garst of Maryland Right to Life, who says her organization has one message: “Get abortion out of welfare reform,” even if that means joining forces with those who are usually the enemy.
“We’re all opposed to the family cap,” Garst said. “It would unfairly discriminate against poor women…it would coerce them to abort their unborn babies.”
Abortion-rights groups oppose the family cap because they don’t believe government should interfere with reproductive rights, period.
“We feel the child exclusion is fundamentally anti-choice,” Planned Parenthood’s Rogers says. “Just as we support a woman’s choice to have or not to have an abortion, we support a woman’s choice to have a child.”
For that reason, Rogers and others want to keep the debates distinct.
“We will continue to lobby against the family cap no matter what the outcome of the Medicaid funding,” says Gloria Totten of Marylanders for the Right to Choose.
“We have done everything this year to avoid the linkage of the two issues.”
For the record, Gov. Parris N. Glendening opposes the family cap. But he wants to remove the Medicaid restrictions for abortion from the state budget.
The family cap – if not Medicaid-funded abortion – is certain to come up Monday at a Welfare Reform Summit, set for legislators and the public from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Loew’s Annapolis Hotel.
Among those scheduled to speak is New Jersey state Sen. Wayne R. Bryant, a Democrat who three years ago fathered a welfare reform package with a family cap. The programs spawned by Bryant’s reforms are being watched nationwide. -30-