Is there a link between legalized abortion and lower crime?

I’ve been reading the book Freakonomics and while I’m not sure that I agree with all of (statistician) Levitt’s conclusions, they are most definitely interesting. One of his most controversial is this (summarizing rather than quoting):

Statisticians and other experts predicted a huge serge in the violent crime rate beginning in the mid 1990s based upon past trends and the population explosion.

Not only did the crime rate not go up significantly, it actually DEcreased significantly (particularly among teens and in some other demographics). Most experts attributed this decline to economic prosperity and slightly higher per-capita educational attainment.

Levitt attributes it to Roe v. Wade in an argument that, simply put, goes like this:

-The women most likely to have abortions are unwed low-income women who, obviously, do not want the child they are carrying

-The children most likely to become criminals are those born to unwed, low-income women who do not want the child in the first place

With the legalization of abortion, therefore, the ranks of the “most likely to become violent criminals” class were decimated, thus inspiring a decrease in crime.

(Before attacking the argument as “reeks of eugenics”, etc., please remember- it’s not my argument.)

Do you believe that this thesis has any validity? Why or why not?

It seems plausible. As a pro-choice guy, I’m strongly tempted to jump on Levitt’s bandwagon. However, it wouldn’t be hard to tie the crime-down trend to other trends in the same time period. The rise in ownership of home computers, for example, coincides. The rise in prison populations happened in the same time period, and some would say keeping criminals in concrete boxes for longer sentences prevents them from committing more crimes.

I’m not really disputing Levitt, but his chain of logic is not ironclad.

It has validity. The first study suggesting this conclusion was released in 2000, if I recall correctly, and caused fierce controversy, but no flaws could be found in the research. However, in considering it we should think less about whether the women most likely to get an abortion are poor and unwed, and more just about the psychology of it.

If aboriton is legal and readily available, then the only people having children are those who want children, and presumably the vast majority of those people are willing and able to provide loving homes and meet basic needs for those children. When abortion rights are denied, then you have a large number of babies born to people who really don’t want to have children. And if the parent or parents don’t want a child they’re obviously less likely to devote the amount of energy and effort towards raising a child that’s necessary. Abuse and neglect will be more common.

Possible, I suppose. Not sure what numbers he has, so can’t really say much more.
Does he have any figures on what the common parental situation of most criminals is? (I.e. 80% of all criminals were born to single mothers or such?)

I do not know, but the studies citing this have received praise from those who review them. It seems likely.

Well, I have read the book, although I don’t have it in front of me.

Basically, the authors stated that the nationwide crime rate began dropping around 1991, which was 18 years after Roe vs Wade. That decision essentially made abortion available to poor women nationwide–the middle and upper classes could more easily procure one, either illegally or by traveling to jurisdictions where it was legal. Those poor women were more likely to be single mothers; poverty and single parents have long been markers for families that spawn potential criminals. The authors hypothesized that since age 18 was around the time where a criminal typically begins to commit major crimes, Roe vs Wade had the unintentioned effect of taking millions of criminals off the street before they were born.

The book did touch on a number of different hypotheses that were created to explain this perplexing drop in the nationwide crime rate. Among those was the rise in the prisoner population because of increased prison terms. Damn if I can remember exactly what it said, I think it was something along the lines that yes, increased sentences did help keep criminals in prison and thus off the street. However, it didn’t view this as the main reason for the drop in crime. It cited the five states where abortion was widely legal for at least 2 years before Roe vs Wade in 1973–those states were California, New York, Washington . . . I think Alaska and Hawaii? Anyway, those states saw their crime rates begin to drop two years before the same phenomenon began to spread nationwide, and in approximately the same proportions. Pretty hair-raising stuff, and pretty convincing.

And while the authors didn’t bring up the home computer thesis, it seems to me that the crime rate began to drop too early for the rise in home computers. Especially when you consider that the kinds of households that were likely to spawn a criminal–single-parent, low-income–are the kinds of households where it was pretty unlikely to find a computer in 1991. (Sage Rat: the book doesn’t use figures or charts, which is probably why it’s on the bestseller list. The book is extensively footnoted, however. And the assumptions it uses regarding typical family situations of the criminal class are commonly accepted and not groundbreaking.)
What I find fascinating is that both anti-abortion and pro-choice advocates are both repelled by this conclusion. The anti-abortion types don’t want to hear of any societal good that comes of abortion, and the pro-choice side wants the issue discussed only in terms of letting the decision whether to have an abortion rest solely with the pregnant woman.

I also don’t have the book in front of me, but there was similar correlation in other countries that legalized abortion.

correlation is not causation, but stack a few on top of each other an the argument gets convincing.

By the way, it isn’t too convincing in Freakonomics - which is a popcorn book.

There’s a few problems with this theory that are highlighted in this article. Allow me to summarize:

Here’s another artiucle pointing out someo flaws in the argument.

The second article really craps all over this theory. In conclusion, the drop in crime was related to drugs (specifically crack). The is little reliable statistical data to suggest that abortion had anything to do with it.

How’s that again? Crack reduced crime? Golly, that’s some leap.

To add to this discussion:

Both of Brickbacon’s articles utilize the work of Steve Sailer.

One of the authors of Freakonomics is Steven D. Levitt. He, along with John Donohue, published the original study in 1999.

Sailer and Levitt have a dialogue on starting right here. I’m reading it now.

Can someone explain this to me, 'cause I don’t get it.

It’s interesting, and one of those theories which feels right and makes sense…of course, it feels right and makes sense that the sun goes around the earth, so there you go.

I’m inherently suspicious of statistics ever since taking an intro course in college. For our final, we had to write a paper where we used stats to “prove” something that was patently ridiculous. I “prooved” that eating rice makes you hit your kids. (Lower socioeconimic class => higher per capita consumption of rice => higher rates of physical child abuse; leave the first part off and you get an A paper.)

Is there a factual cite for this?

I’m not sure- I don’t have the book with me at the moment. I do recall that specifically he was referring to the women most likely to have an abortion after Roe v. Wade, which seems logical, for as stated above (and as dramatized in the movie Vera Drake) well-to-do women have always had an easier time getting abortions. Well-to-do-women also have numerically far fewer abortions to begin with because

1- there simply are a lot less well-to-do-women than there are working class and poverty level
2- they don’t have to worry about the financial aspects of child rearing
3- they are generally more educated and thus more knowledgeable about birth control

So it would stand to reason. (I’ll look for a cite when I have time.)

#1 on that list wouldn’t effect the relative frequency of well off women having abortions, but just the absolute number. And you should add:

#4) Well-to-do-women tend to have a personal doctor that they see regularly. In the US, poor, young women tend not to have access to medical care because it is so expensive. Thus they lack access to birth control pills, IUDs, etc.

I’d imagine truly poor women are a relatively low percentage of women getting abortions.

First of all, there’s the expense. IIRC, an abortion costs between three and five hundred dollars. For some, that kind of cash is very difficult to raise, especially on short notice.

Secondly, there are transportation issues. Poor women often don’t have reliable transportation, and abortion clinics are not found in every town. Where I live, the nearest clinic that provides abortions is over sixty miles away. Many clinics will not provide same-day services-- they have 24 hour waiting periods and the like. So, a poor woman in my town would need to either find a reliable friend willing to drive over 300 miles (the two trips combined), or pay a taxi.

Poor women who are pregnant and want to terminate it tend to scrape up the cash to pay one way or another. And poor women tend to live in urbanized areas where there are abortion clinics. And they probably can find a way to get transportation. The guy who knocked them up would find it a bargain to pay rather than get nailed for child support for the next 18 years.


“Race - 63% of abortion patients are white, however, black women are more than 3 times as likely to have an abortion, and Hispanic women are 2.5 times as likely.”

On average, blacks and Hispanics tend to be poorer than whites. The above stat suggests the poorer people are, the more likely they are to get abortion.

The Hispanics statistic surprises me since most Hispanics are Catholic.

I don’t know why it does. I used to work with a women’s counselling service and quickly learned that abortion totally moves across all social classes and belief systems. (At least two of the women who protested one of the Montgomery clinics showed up at other clinics owned by the same man, one for herself and one for her teenaged daughter, both attributing the pregnancy to “rape by a black man” [the black part evidently making the soul of the child just that much less worthy] and both times were surprised to be outted; both received the procedure on the proviso that they never return as protestors lest “certain confidential medical records accidentally be made public”.)

Pun intended? :wink:

The majority may, but there are vast numbers of poor women in rural areas-- Appalachia, for example.

Perhaps, perhaps not. But I think you would agree that the chances of having transportation are higher for a woman of means, wouldn’t you?

Again, perhaps. But what if the woman doesn’t know for sure who the father is, or the father refuses to believe its his child? You can’t preform a DNA test on a fetus. The woman could make no demands until the child was born, and then she still might not get anything if the father is not employed.

There’s a difference between being below the technical poverty line and being truly impoverished. People on public assistance, for example, may be poor, but they’re not necessarily in desperate want. Those are not the people to which refered in my first post.

Well, during the crack wars of the late 80’s-early 90’s, most of the murder spike was because of young criminals killing each other over drug related matters. Dead people can’t commit crime. Also, this caused a lot more attention to be focused on inner cities - heavier police, and more projects to reduce urban blight after the problem of inner cities became more noticiable.

Also - does anyone see the racism present in Levitt’s theory? It seems to me his theory suggest that by reducing the numbers of African Americans (black women have a considerably higher abortion rate) you can reduce the crime rate. While it is true that African Americans have significantly higher violent crime rates than other groups in America, there has to be a better answer than partial genocide.

Which is one of the reasons for me to strongly suspect these statistics show a corelation between being lower income and having an abortion. Something is making it more likely that Hispanic women are getting abortions. Certainly it isn’t religious beliefs, since as you say Hispanics are more likely than whites to be Catholic.

“According to the new National Study of Youth and Religion, Black youth are far more likely to attend religious services regularly than their White peers. The gap is largest among high school seniors, with Black students nearly 50 percent more likely to go to church at least once a week.”

This would tend to suggest amongst younger people (those who are most likely to get abortions), blacks aren’t more “godless” than whites. So religiousity doesn’t explain why blacks are much more likely to have abortions.