Did Abortion Reduce Crime?

In the mid-1990s, reports began to trickle in that crime rates were finally on the decline — and Henry Morgentaler said he knew why.

“When the crime statistics first came out, I thought, ‘that's because of abortion becoming legal,’” said the medical director of the Morgentaler Clinics and one of the foremost Canadian proponents of abortion.

As Morgentaler saw it, unwanted children are more likely to commit crimes. If there are more abortions, there will be fewer unwanted children. Fewer unwanted children will mean less crime.

In 1999, a scholarly study appeared to confirm Morgentaler's syllogism. The study, by John J. Donohue, a professor at Stanford University Law School, and Steven Levitt, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago and research fellow of the American Bar Foundation, hit the media spotlight amid accusations that the scholars were proposing eugenics to eliminate likely criminals.

Two scholars sharply criticized Donohue and Levitt's methods in separate studies of their own. Their studies have received far less press coverage than Donohue and Levitt's.

Levitt argued that no one should use his study to support legal abortion — in fact, he said, in the course of his research he became “much more sympathetic to the pro-life view of the world.”

Levitt noted: “The scale of abortion in this country is very sobering. The other thing that I think is disturbing is that, with the legalization of abortion, the number of children born falls by only about 6%, and yet 30% of pregnancies are ending in abortion. So that suggests that there's an extra 24% of pregnancies which would-n't have occurred except that abortion was an available option.”

He added that, although he wasn't sure where he stood on abortion now, “The number of abortions performed is a thousand times greater than the implied reduction in homicide we find due to legalized abortion. So if abortion is murder or something like murder, then our study does not make a strong argument in favor of legalized abortion. I don't think people should be using our results to derive public policy on abortion.”

But he continued to defend his study against the two scholars who criticized it, John Lott, senior research scholar at Yale University Law School, and Ted Joyce, professor of economics at Baruch College of the City University of New York.

In the course of his research, Levitt became ‘much more sympathetic to the pro-life view of the world.’

Anecdotal Arguments

Levitt explained his results in an interview with the Register. “If you look at the number of homicides committed by people born right before and after legalized abortion,” he said, “and you look at how many homicides they've committed, you see very clearly that there seems to be a reduction in homicides associated with legal abortion.”

Asked if he had considered other factors that affect crime, like economic downturns and changes in law enforcement, Levitt replied: “As we've added more and more controls, for the economy or for the criminal justice system, the results don't change.”

Levitt and Donohue compared the five states that legalized abortion before Roe v. Wade to the rest of the country, and found that those five states had the first drops in crime.

“You don't see any difference in the crime patterns for 15 years, and then suddenly you see them diverge,” Levitt said. Moreover, “In states that have high abortion rates, the declines are only observed for those who were born in the legalized abortion regime. The people who are older — their crimes are not going down.”

Donohue offered the story of a mentally ill woman in Texas who tried to illegally abort her twins in the late 1960s. One twin survived, but the mother almost died. When she became pregnant again, she did not try to abort. She gave birth to a son, whom she neglected and abused. Her son was executed for the brutal killing of two elderly men. Donohue asked, “Are you now surprised that legalized abortion can reduce crime?”

Lott and Joyce maintain that horrific anecdotes don't give an accurate picture. Ted Joyce picked up on one fact noticed by Levitt, arguing that it undercut an important premise of Donohue's argument: Almost as many children were born after legal abortion as before. And the teen birth rate remained steady as well — so this wasn't a case of teens waiting until they were mature enough to care for a baby.

No Excuses

Another criticism raised by both Joyce and Lott is that the abortion-reduces-crime study assumed that before Roe, the abortion rate in 45 states was zero. “That's not remotely close to being true,” Lott said. “In 1972, there were 23 other states that allowed significant numbers of abortions. Some of those states had significantly higher rates of abortion than the five states [that legalized early, due to] ‘life or health of the mother’ exceptions.”

Lott said, “Abortion doesn't cause a reduction in crime. The evidence seems to indicate that it increases [crime].” Joyce disputed that conclusion, and Lott acknowledged, “The evidence isn't as strong as I've had in other research.”

Lott suggested one way abortion might raise the crime rate: Legal abortion has created an atmosphere in which even women unwilling to abort feel pressured to have premarital sex. They have lost an excuse they could have used to reject sexual advances. This has led to a rise in out-of-wedlock childbearing and, thus, indirectly, to a rise in crime.

Joyce compared groups born only one year apart, where one group had been exposed to legal abortion and the other had not. “When I do that I find nothing” in terms of an abortion effect, he said.

Joyce found that teen crime rates in the early-abortion states tracked young adults' crime rates very closely, even though the teens had been exposed to legal abortion and the young adults had not.

Crime fell first in the five early-abortion states, he said — but it also peaked first there, suggesting that the important factor in states like California and New York was not abortion, but these states' vulnerability to the crack epidemic.

Neither Joyce nor Lott is pro-life. Lott called abortion “one issue that I don't really care strongly about one way or another.”

But their research has challenged those abortion advocates who were using the Donohue and Levitt study to boost their cause.

Eve Tushnet, a former Register staff writer, returned this August to her native Washington, D.C.