More Abortions, Fewer Crimes? Does Correlation Mean Causation? What about the 27 Million Abortions in 18 Years?

By Will, George F. | Newsweek, April 30, 2001 | Go to article overview

More Abortions, Fewer Crimes? Does Correlation Mean Causation? What about the 27 Million Abortions in 18 Years?


Will, George F., Newsweek


John J. Donohue III and Steven D. Levitt are not in the least like Capt. Gonzalo de Aguilera. Before considering who Donohue and Levitt are, consider who the captain was. He was a polo-playing ex-cavalry officer selected by General Franco as a press liaison during the Spanish Civil War. He said the fundamental cause of the war was "the introduction of modern drainage. Prior to this, the riffraff had been killed by various useful diseases; now they survived and, of course, were above themselves." And: "Had we no sewers in Madrid, Barcelona and Bilbao, all these Red leaders would have died in their infancy instead of exciting the rabble and causing good Spanish blood to flow. When the war is over, we should destroy the sewers."

Donohue and Levitt, law professors at Stanford and the University of Chicago respectively, say: "Legalized abortion contributed significantly to recent crime reductions." In their paper for Harvard's Quarterly Journal of Economics they do not recommend abortion as anti-crime policy. Rather, they explore, as social scientists do, whether causation explains a correlation. This one: "Crime began to fall roughly 18 years after abortion legalization."

Since 1991--18 years after Roe v. Wade legalized abortion--murder rates have fallen faster than at any time since the end of Prohibition in 1933. Homicide rates are down 40 percent, violent crime and property crime are down 30 percent. The five states (New York, California, Washington, Hawaii, Alaska) that legalized abortion earlier experienced earlier declines in crime. And states with especially high abortion rates in the 1970s and 1980s had especially dramatic crime reductions in the 1990s.

Donohue and Levitt consider the many variables besides abortion that could explain declining crime--more incarceration, more and better-used police, reduction of the crack-cocaine trade, more victim protections (security guards and alarms), a strong economy. But many cities that have not improved their police have had reductions in crime. Crime has fallen even where there never was a substantial crack trade. And research has not established a strong link between economic performance and violent crime. After controlling for such factors, Donohue and Levitt conclude: "Legalized abortion appears to account for as much as 50 percent of the recent drop in crime."

And why not? Even if you think, as pro-abortion people do, that killing 27 million unborn babies (or, as some pro-abortion people put it, causing 27 million clumps of "fetal material" to "undergo demise") in 18 years is a morally negligible matter, it is not a minor social development. Abortion obviously has reduced the size of the high-crime cohort--young males. Less obvious, but even more important, there is a "selective-abortion" effect and an "improved-environment" effect. These matter because 6 percent of any birth cohort commits about half of that cohort's crimes.

There is a "selective-abortion" effect when a disproportionate number of women having abortions are particularly likely to give birth to children who would have a higher than usual propensity for criminal behavior. …

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