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Abortion and Crime

I originally posted this on Wheat and Tares in August 2011, but wanted to add it here since I just talked about a Freakonomics podcast on Baptism for the Dead.

A friend of mine introduced me to the Freakonomics podcast that you can download from iTunes.  Two Steve’s (Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt) put together a book called Freakonomics.  They seek to uncover “the hidden side of everything.”  Netflix has the Freakonomics movie, and you can watch it here (if you have a streaming Netflix account.)  The movie discusses several topic: potty training, cheating teachers, bizarre baby names, self-dealing Realtors, crack-selling mama’s boys, sumo wrestling, and many other topics.

If you watch the movie, at about the 50 minute mark is a segment titled “It’s Not Always a Wonderful Life.”  The crime rate in the late 1980’s was growing.  Crack cocaine was an epidemic, fueling the crime rate; conventional wisdom said that crime would continue to increase.Yet a funny thing happened in the early 1990s: the crime rate dropped.

Many theories came out to explain why the crime rate dropped.  Levitt’s data showed that Community Policing strategies didn’t make any difference.  The following items explained a little more than half of the drop in crime:

  • harsher sentences: 30%
  • decrease in crack cocaine use and associated violence:  15%
  • gun control, better economy, and more police officers: 10%

This still leaves about 45% of the decrease in crime unexplained.  Levitt had an unusual explanation: abortion.

In 1966, Romania outlawed abortion in order to create massive population growth.  The birth rate of the country doubled, as did unwanted children and associated crime.  On the other hand, in 1973 the Supreme Court legalized abortion in the U.S. after the Rowe vs Wade decision.  20 years after Rowe vs. Wade would have been the early 1990’s.  Levitt believes that these unwanted children weren’t born, lowering the crime rate here in the U.S.  He views the U.S. and Romania as a natural experiment to show the effect of abortion on crime rates.

As further evidence in support of his theory, he gives the following pieces of data.

  • 5 states (NY, CA, HI, AK, and WA) legalized abortion 3 years before Rowe vs Wade.  Their crime rates dropped 3 years before the other states.
  • After Rowe vs. Wade, states that made it easier to get abortions had better improvement in crime rates than states with hard to get abortions.

Levitt views this as an “unintended consequence” of abortion, and says his study doesn’t have a position on whether abortion should be legal or not, but he does think this should be part of the discussion.  What do you think of Levitt’s theory?

3 comments on “Abortion and Crime

  1. How do they explain the rising homicide rate in Chicago? And, since most of those homicides involve either gang members or drug dealers, isn’t each homicide likely to reduce the number of likely-criminal-offspring fathered by gang members and drug dealers?

    Maybe that explains why New York City’s homicide rate continues to go down–the drop after the 1991 peak was due to the unborn victims of abortion, and the continuing drop in recent years is due to the killing of men who would have fathered a new generation of criminals.

    Isn’t economics wonderful?

  2. Mark, I’m not familiar with the data set, so I can’t really offer any rebuttals. From the movie I watched, Levitt said that it was hard to find anywhere in the U.S that crime didn’t drop significantly between the 1980s and 1990s. Is that the time period you are referring to with Chicago? With Levitt teaching in Chicago, I’d be surprised if Chicago was an outlier in this study.

    JKS, that was a fascinating article! Thanks for sharing. I do think that Levitt may have overstated his case that almost half of the drop in crime could be due to abortion, but the lead link is interesting. Perhaps we can split the difference and say that abortion was 20% and lead was 20%?

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