Monday, June 6, 2011

Does legalized abortion reduce crime?

One theory made popular by the book Freakonomics is that legalized abortion reduces crime because it leads to the killing by abortion of those unborn human beings who are most likely to have otherwise (being "unwanted," and given their circumstances) grown up to be criminals.

I have been asked my response to this claim. First, most importantly, it is irrelevant to the question of whether abortion is morally permissible and/or should be permitted by law. For if the unborn are valuable, rights-bearing human beings -- if abortion is wrongful homicide -- then a possible reduction in crime no more justifies abortion than it would justify the killing of any other segment of the human population that might be statistically more likely than others to engage in criminal activity. Homeless people are probably more likely (statistically speaking) to commit crimes than non-homeless people, but clearly we may not legalize the murder of the homeless on those grounds. It seems particularly disturbing to imagine authorizing the killing of our young, innocent offspring, not for anything they have done, but as a result of speculation about their future actions.

So, the claim that abortion reduces crime may be interesting and worth pursuing as a theory, but it obviously does not justify abortion. A defender of abortion must offer other reasons if he wishes to argue that abortion is okay and/or should be legal.

Second, people still want to know: Is the abortion-reduces-crime theory actually true, as the Freakonomics authors claim? I don't think so -- in fact, there seems to be more evidence for the opposite conclusion, that legalized abortion worsens crime (see links below). Here is criminology professor James Alan Fox, writing last week for the Boston Globe:
First articulated a decade ago, economists John Donohue and Steven Levitt argued that following the 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade, thousands of unwanted fetuses were aborted instead of being born into less-than-ideal environments, thereby producing two decades later a reduction in the pool of at-risk, violence-prone individuals. ...

Despite persuasive logic regarding a reduction in the number of children born to circumstances that would place them at-risk for growing into criminality, the significance of this effect appears to have been grossly overstated. For example, nearly 60% of the decline in murder since 1990 involved perpetrators ages 25 and older—individuals who would have been born prior to the landmark abortion decision. As shown in the figure below, there were substantial reductions during the 1990s in homicides committed by older age groups, especially those in the 25-34 year-old age range.

The abortion-crime link also cannot account for the transient surge in youth homicide during the late 1980s, if not for which the 1990s would not have witnessed such a sizable decline. The rise and then fall in youth homicide before and then after 1990 has much more to do with fast changing patterns of drug trade, gang activity and illegal gun supply than a sudden shift in abortion policy.

Finally, the abortion-crime hypothesis cannot explain the large drop in murder and other violent crime from the first six months of 2009 to the corresponding months of 2010. In fact, nothing really can.
More refuting evidence from National Right to Life here and here, and from here and here. There is also a persuasive refutation in Chapter 6 of Ramesh Ponnuru's 2006 book The Party of Death.