The Myth About Abortion and Crime
by John R. Lott, Jr.
by John R. Lott, Jr.
On abortion, a large gap exists between John McCain and Barack Obama. The National Right to Life Committee as well as Pro-choice America agree that Obama has a perfect 100 percent pro-choice voting record. McCain is pro-life, and the two groups respectively claim that he votes that way at least 75 percent of the time. It should make for a lively debate this fall.
But the question of abortion usually centers only on the morality of the act (choice versus life), and McCain and Obama so far look to frame the question no differently. Morality surely is important, but its emphasis misses out on the much wider impact that these laws have.
Liberalizing abortion rules from 1969 to 1973 ignited vast long-term social changes in America. This discussion might finally provide a chance to evaluate how Roe v. Wade has changed the U.S.
One often misunderstood fact: Legal abortions didn't start with Roe or even with the five states that liberalized abortion laws in 1969 and 1970. Prior to Roe, women could have had abortions when their lives or health were endangered.
Doctors in some surprising states, such as Kansas, had very liberal interpretations of what constituted danger to health; nevertheless, Roe did substantially increase abortions, more than doubling the rate per live birth in the five years from 1972 to 1977.
But many other changes occurred at the same time:
- A sharp increase in pre-marital sex.
- A sharp rise in out-of-wedlock births.
- A drop in the number of children placed for adoption.
- A decline in marriages that occur after the woman is pregnant.
Many of these changes might seem contradictory. Why would both the number of abortions and out-of-wedlock births go up? If there were more illegitimate births, why were fewer children available for adoption?
For the first puzzle, part of the answer lies in attitudes toward premarital sex. With abortion seen as a backup, women as well as men became less careful in using contraceptives as well as more likely to have premarital sex.
There were more unplanned pregnancies. But legal abortion did not mean every unplanned pregnancy led to abortion. After all, just because abortion is legal does not mean that the decision is an easy one.
In the United States from the early 1970s, when abortion was liberalized, through the late 1980s, there was a tremendous increase in the rate of out-of-wedlock births, rising from an average of 5 percent of all births from 1965 to 1969 to more than 16 percent two decades later (1985 to 1989).
For blacks, the numbers soared from 35 percent to 62 percent. While not all of this rise can be attributed to liberalized abortion rules, it was a key contributing factor, nevertheless.
With legalization and a woman not forced to go through with an unplanned pregnancy, a man might well expect his partner to have an abortion if a sexual encounter were to result in an unplanned pregnancy.
But what happens if the woman refuses — say, she is morally opposed or, perhaps, she thought she could have an abortion but upon becoming pregnant decides she can't go through with it?
Many men, feeling tricked into unwanted fatherhood, likely will wash their hands of the affair altogether, thinking, "I never wanted a baby. It's her choice, so let her raise the baby herself."
What is expected of men in this position has changed dramatically in the last four decades. Evidence shows that the greater availability of abortion largely ended "shotgun" marriages, where men felt obligated to marrying the women.
What has happened to these babies of reluctant fathers?
The mothers often raise the children on their own. Even as abortion has led to more out-of-wedlock births it has dramatically reduced adoptions of children born in America by two-parent families.
Before Roe, when abortion was much more difficult, women who would have chosen an abortion but were unable to get one turned to adoption as their backup. After Roe, women who turned down an abortion also were the type who wanted to keep the child.
But all these changes — rising out-of-wedlock births, plummeting adoption rates and the end of shotgun marriages — meant one thing: more single-parent families. With work and other demands on their time, single parents, no matter how "wanted" their child may be, tend to devote less attention to their children than do married couples; after all, it's difficult for one person to spend as much time with a child as two people can.
From the beginning of the abortion debate, those favoring abortion have pointed to the social costs of "unwanted" children who simply won't get the attention of "wanted" ones. But there is a trade-off that has long been neglected. Abortion may eliminate "unwanted" children, but it increases out-of-wedlock births and single parenthood. Unfortunately, the social consequences of illegitimacy dominated.
Children born after liberalized abortion rules have suffered a series of problems from difficulties at school to more crime. The saddest fact is that it is the most vulnerable in society, poor blacks, who have suffered the most from these changes.
No matter who wins the election or controls the Supreme Court, abortions are unlikely to be outlawed, just as they were not outlawed before the court decided Roe v. Wade in 1973.
Liberalized abortion undoubtedly has made life easier for many, but like sex itself sometimes, it has had many unintended consequences.
Violent crime in the United States soared after 1960. From 1960 to 1991, reported violent crime increased by an incredible 372 percent. This disturbing trend was seen across the country, with robbery peaking in 1991 and rape and aggravated assault following in 1992. But then something unexpected happened: Between 1991 and 2000, rates of violent crime and property crime fell sharply, dropping by 33 percent and 30 percent, respectively. Murder rates were stable up to 1991, but then plunged by a steep 44 percent.
Many plausible explanations have been advanced for the drop during the 1990s. Some stress law-enforcement measures, such as higher arrest and conviction rates, longer prison sentences, "broken windows" police strategies, and the death penalty. Others emphasize right-to-carry laws for concealed handguns, a strong economy, or the waning of the crack-cocaine epidemic.
Yet, of all the explanations, perhaps the most controversial is the one that attributes lower crime rates in the '90s to Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court's 1973 decision to mandate legalized abortion. According to this argument, the large number of women who began having abortions shortly after Roe were most likely unmarried, in their teens, or poor, and their children would have been "unwanted." Children born in these circumstances would have had a higher-than-average likelihood of becoming criminals, and would have entered their teens — their "criminal prime" — in the early 1990s. But because they were aborted, they were not around to make trouble.
It is an attention-grabbing theory, to be sure, possibly even more noteworthy than recent research indicating that liberalizing abortion increased pre-marital sex, increased out-of-wedlock births, reduced adoptions and ended so-called shotgun marriages.
But a thorough analysis of abortion and crime statistics leads to the opposite conclusion: that abortion increases crime.
The question about abortion and crime was greatly influenced by a Swedish study published in 1966 by Hans Forssman and Inga Thuwe. They followed the children of 188 women who were denied abortions from 1939 to 1941 at the only hospital in Gothenburg, Sweden. Their study compared these "unwanted" children with another group, this one composed of the first child born at the hospital after each of the "unwanted" children. They found that the "unwanted" children were much more likely to grow up in adverse conditions — for example, with divorced parents, or in foster homes. These children were also more likely to become delinquents and have trouble in school. Unfortunately, the authors never investigated whether the children's "unwantedness" caused their problems, or were simply correlated with them.
Forssman and Thuwe's claim, notwithstanding the limits of the data supporting it, became axiomatic among supporters of legalized abortion. During the 1960s and '70s, before Roe, abortion-rights advocates attributed all sorts of social ills, including crime and mental illness, to "unwanted" children. Weeding these poor, crime-prone people out of the population through abortion was presented as a way to make society safer.
Indeed, the 1972 Rockefeller Commission on Population and the American Future, established by Richard Nixon, cited research purporting that the children of women denied an abortion "turned out to have been registered more often with psychiatric services, engaged in more antisocial and criminal behavior, and have been more dependent on public assistance."
Even in the Supreme Court's decision in Roe v. Wade, Justice Harry Blackmun noted the same social problems attributed to "unwanted" children.
Recently, two economists — John Donohue and Steven Levitt — tried resurrecting the debate. They presented evidence that supposedly demonstrated abortion's staggeringly large effect on crime rates, and argued that up to "one-half of the overall crime reduction" between 1991 and 1997, and up to 81 percent of the drop in murder rates during that period, was attributable to the rise in abortions in the early to mid 1970s. If that claim was accurate, they had surely found the Holy Grail of crime reduction.
Most people who challenge the "abortion reduces crime" argument do so on ethical grounds, rather than trying to rebut the empirical evidence. But it is worth looking at the data, too — because they do not prove what they are supposed to.
To understand why abortion might not cut crime, one should first consider how dramatically it changed sexual relationships. Once abortion became widely available, people engaged in much more premarital sex, and also took less care in using contraceptives. Abortion, after all, offered a backup if a woman got pregnant, making premarital sex, and the nonuse of contraception, less risky. In practice, however, many women found that they couldn't go through with an abortion, and out-of-wedlock births soared. Few of these children born out of wedlock were put up for adoption; most women who were unwilling to have abortions were also unwilling to give up their children. Abortion also eliminated the social pressure on men to marry women who got pregnant. All of these outcomes — more out-of-wedlock births, fewer adoptions than expected, and less pressure on men "to do the right thing" — led to a sharp increase in single-parent families.
Multiple studies document this change. From the early 1970s through the late 1980s, as abortion became more and more frequent, there was a tremendous increase in the rate of out-of-wedlock births, from an average of 5 percent (1965—69) to over 16 percent 20 years later (1985—1989). Among blacks, the number jumped from 35 percent to 62 percent. While not all of this rise can be attributed to liberalized abortion laws, they were certainly a key contributor.
What happened to all these children raised by single women? No matter how much they want their children, single parents tend to devote less attention to them than married couples do. Single parents are less likely than married parents to read to their children or take them on excursions, and more likely to feel angry at their children or to feel that they are burdensome. Children raised out of wedlock have more social and developmental problems than children of married couples by almost any measure — from grades to school expulsion to disease. Unsurprisingly, children from unmarried families are also more likely to become criminals.
So the opposing lines of argument in the "abortion reduces crime" debate are clear: One side stresses that abortion eliminates "unwanted" children, the other that it increases out-of-wedlock births. The question is: Which consequence of abortion has the bigger impact on crime?
Unfortunately for those who argue that abortion reduces crime, Donahue and Levitt's research suffered from methodological flaws. As The Economist noted, "Donohue and Levitt did not run the test that they thought they had." Work by two economists at the Boston Federal Reserve, Christopher Foote and Christopher Goetz, found that, when the test was run correctly, it indicated that abortion actually increases violent crime. John Whitley and I had written an earlier study that found a similar connection between abortion and murder — namely, that legalizing abortion raised the murder rate, on average, by about 7 percent.
The "abortion decreases crime" theory runs into even more problems when the population is analyzed by age group. Suppose that liberalizing abortion in the early 1970s can indeed explain up to 80 percent of the drop in murder during the 1990s, as Donohue and Levitt claim. Deregulating abortion would then reduce criminality first among age groups born after the abortion laws changed, when the "unwanted," crime-prone elements began to be weeded out. Yet when we look at the declining murder rate during the 1990s, we find that this is not the case at all. Instead, murder rates began falling first among an older generation — those over 26 — born before Roe. It was only later that criminality among those born after Roe began to decline.
Legalizing abortion increased crime. Those born in the four years after Roe were much more likely to commit murder than those born in the four years prior. This was especially true when they were in their "criminal prime," as shown in the nearby chart.
The "abortion decreases crime" argument gets even weaker when one looks at data from Canada. While crime rates in both the United States and Canada began declining at the same time, Canada liberalized its abortion laws much later than the U.S. did. Although Quebec effectively legalized abortion in late 1976, it wasn't until 1988, in a case originating in Ontario, that the Canadian supreme court struck down limits on abortion nationwide. If the legalization of abortion in the U.S. caused crime to begin dropping 18 years later, why did the crime rate begin falling just three years after the comparable legal change in Canada?
Even if abortion did lower crime by culling out "unwanted" children (a conclusion derived from flawed statistics), this effect would be greatly outweighed by the rise in crime associated with the greater incidence of single-parent families that also follows from abortion liberalization. In short, more abortions have brought more crime.
This article was originally published at Fox News.
July 8, 2008
John Lott [send him mail] is the author of Freedomnomics: Why the Free Market Works and Other Half-Baked Theories Don't and The Bias Against Guns (Regnery 2003).
Copyright © 2008 John Lott