Did legalizing abortion in the early ’70s reduce crime in the late ’90s by allowing “pre-emptive capital punishment” of potential troublemakers? Or did the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, by outmoding shotgun weddings, adoption, and respect for life, instead make more murderous the early ’90s crack wars fought by the first generation of youths to survive legalized abortion?
Since 1999, the University of Chicago economist Steven D. Levitt has been pushing his theory that legal abortion is responsible for half of the recent fall in crime. This assertion is the most prominent element in Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, the entertaining new book Levitt co-wrote with journalist Stephen J. Dubner.
Despite his claim to be a “rogue economist” (and his excruciating taste in book titles), Levitt is much admired within his profession. In 2003, the American Economics Association awarded him, at the unusually early age of 35, its biennial John Bates Clark medal as the outstanding economist under 40.
The theory that legalizing abortion cuts crime is hardly original to Levitt, but it has long been more whispered than printed. Levitt’s hypothesis embarrasses pro-choicers, who don’t want public discussion of how quite a few people, from crusading eugenicist and Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger onward, have backed fertility control as a way to limit “undesirables.” Since blacks undergo about three times as many abortions as whites per capita, white liberals realize that endorsing Levitt’s reasoning could be politically disastrous.
Levitt’s idea also outrages pro-lifers, who note that King Herod used similar logic in ordering the slaughter of thousands of babies to try to eliminate the threat posed by the infant Jesus.
That doesn’t mean the argument is false. As a social scientist, Levitt has an obligation to follow the data wherever they may lead him. But that doesn’t mean it’s true, either.
Levitt’s theory rests on two plausible-sounding statements. First, he claims that abortion lowers the number of “unwanted” babies, who would be more likely to commit crimes someday. Second, crime did fall. Levitt writes, “In the early 1990s, just as the first cohort of children born after Roe v. Wade was hitting its late teen years—the years during which young men enter their criminal prime—the rate of crime began to fall. What this cohort was missing, of course, were the children who stood the greatest chance of becoming criminals.”
Although Levitt’s research has been praised by normally hardheaded gentlemen such as George Will and Robert Samuelson, few have probed its statistical complexities. Overall crime-trend data are frequently questionable. For example, the city of Atlanta long understated crime to attract the 1996 Olympics. The FBI’s homicide statistics, however, are more trustworthy because, as Arthur Miller might have said, attention must be paid to a dead body with a hole in it.
According to Levitt’s logic, murder should have declined first among the youngest and last among the oldest. Did it? Unfortunately for Levitt, the opposite is true. The murder rate for Americans age 25 and over started falling way back in 1981 (when the youngest person in this cohort was born in 1956) and fell fairly steadily for two decades. Indeed, in contrast to his theory about post-Roe individuals being especially law-abiding, the adult murder rate has only begun to creep back up now that people born after Roe have begun to make up a noticeable fraction of those 25 and up. From 1999 through 2002 (the latest year available, when a 25-year-old would have been born four years after Roe), the murder rate among 25- to 34-year-olds has risen 17 percent, while continuing to drop among the under-25s.
But the acid test of Levitt’s theory is this: did the first New, Improved Generation culled by legalized abortion actually grow up to be more lawful teenagers than the last generation born before legalization? Hardly. Instead, the first cohort to survive legalized abortion went on the worst youth murder spree in American history.
Abortion became legal in 1970 in California, New York, and three smaller states. Let’s compare the murder rate of 14- to 17-year-olds in 1983 (who were born in the last pre-legalization years of 1965-1969) with that of 14- to 17-year-olds a decade later in 1993 (who were born in the high-abortion years of 1975-1979). Was this post-Roe cohort better behaved than their pre-legalization elders? Not exactly. Their murder rate was 3.1 times worse.
In contrast, 18- to 24-year-olds in 1993—some born before legalization, some after—committed 86 percent more murders than a decade earlier, while people 25 and up—all born before legalization—were 18 percent less lethal. Back in 1983, 14- to 17-year-olds were barely more than half as likely as 25- to 34-year-olds to kill. In 1993 and 1994, however, this purportedly better-bred generation of juveniles was more than twice as deadly as 25- to 34-year-olds.
Although Levitt desperately wants to avoid talking about race in relation to abortion and crime, blacks make an ideal test case for his theory because, as Levitt himself has noted, black women have about triple the number of abortions per capita as white women. So Levitt’s theory suggests that black teens should have “benefited” more than whites from abortion. Instead, black 14- to 17-year-olds were an apocalyptic 4.4 times more murderous in 1993 than a decade earlier. The black-white teen murder ratio grew from five times worse in 1983 to 11 times worse in 1993, according to the FBI.
The embarrassing truth, as Levitt admitted to me when I debated him on Slate.com in 1999, is that when he dreamed up his theory with John J. Donohue, he looked at crime rates in 1985 and 1997 and paid little attention to the vast crack epidemic that laid waste to urban America in between.
It makes no sense to credit abortion for any subsequent improvement in the behavior of the first post-Roe generation, when abortion so dismally failed to keep them on the straight and narrow when they were juveniles. Instead, the most obvious explanation for the ups and downs of the murder rate is the ups and downs of the crack business.
This generation born right after legalization is better behaved today in part because so many of its bad apples are now confined to prisons, wheelchairs, and coffins. About two million people are now in jail, four times more than in 1972. (Levitt attributes roughly one-third of the recent fall in crime to increased incarceration.)
The leaders in the decline in murder in the later 1990s were black male 14- to 17-year-olds, who by 1998 were killing at less than one-third the rate of their older brothers just five years earlier. These African-American kids born in the early ’80s survived abortion levels similar to those faced by the crime-ridden 1975-79 generation, but seeing their big brothers gunned down in drive-by shootings may have scared them straight.
I believe Levitt when he says he has no political axe to grind about abortion—but he does have a bit of an ego about his ideas. To find a justification for his naïve initial hypothesis, he has been stubbornly straining his formidable cleverness. (Although in Freakonomics he employed the simplest way to deal with these objections: he ignored them completely.)
For example, he argues that crime fell first in the five states that legalized abortion back in 1970. Okay, but isn’t it at least as interesting that crime had previously gone up first in those early legalizing states? And hardly surprising it then burned out there first?
Indeed, there is at least as much evidence that legalizing abortion increased homicide. As Levitt acknowledged to me in 1999, “[T]he high abortion places like New York and California tended to have a bigger crack problem, and tended to have crack arrive earlier.” In other words, the two big urban areas that were the first to enjoy the purported crime-fighting benefits of legalized abortion in 1970, New York City and Los Angeles, were also the ground zeroes of the teen murder rampage that began, perhaps not coincidentally, about 16 years later. From NYC and LA, gangsta rap (such as NWA’s landmark 1988 album “Straight Outta Compton,” featuring “F*** Tha Police”) glamorously spread the crack-dealer’s credo to the hinterlands.
The liberal politics and permissive social attitudes that made legal abortion popular in New York, California, and Washington, D.C. (where it was de facto legal before Roe) likely also contributed to the crack epidemic. D.C., for example, enjoyed both the highest abortion rate in the U.S. and, in later years, a popular mayor, Marion Barry, who was himself a crackhead.
Still, the social effects of abortion demand closer study. Although Levitt claims that legalized abortion should have improved the conditions under which children were raised, it made adoption rare. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported, “Before 1973 about one in five premarital births to white women were relinquished for adoption. By the mid-1980’s (1982–88), this proportion fell to 1 in 30.”
Even worse, the national illegitimacy rate soared, from 12 percent in 1972 to 34 percent in 2002. The growth didn’t begin to slow until the mid-1990s, when the abortion rate declined. Increased illegitimacy is socially devastating, not just because of the long-run harm to the child of being raised without a father but because of the immediate effect of freeing young men from the civilizing clutches of marriage.
Why did the abortion rate and the illegitimacy rate both skyrocket during the ‘70s? Isn’t abortion supposed to cut illegitimacy? Roe largely finished off the traditional shotgun wedding by persuading the impregnating boyfriend that he had no moral duty to make an honest woman of his girlfriend since she could get an abortion. The CDC noted, “Among women aged 15–29 years conceiving a first birth before marriage during 1970–74, nearly half (49 percent) married before the child was born. By 1975–79 the proportion marrying before the birth of the child fell to 32 percent, and it has declined to 23 percent in 1990–94.”
The most striking fact about legalized abortion, but also the least discussed, is its pointlessness. Levitt himself notes that following Roe, “Conceptions rose by nearly 30 percent, but births actually fell by 6 percent …” So for every six fetuses aborted in the 1970s, five would never have been conceived except for Roe! This ratio makes a sick joke out of Levitt’s assumption that legalization made a significant difference in how “wanted” children were. Indeed, perhaps the increase in the number of women who got pregnant figuring they would get an abortion but then were too drunk or drugged or distracted to get to the clinic has meant that the “wantedness” of surviving babies has declined.
The sheer waste of it all is staggering. And the impact on the overall morality of our society of this Supreme Court-condoned carelessness over life is incalculable.
Sailer is TAC’s film critic and VDARE.com’s Monday morning columnist. Graphs illustrating this article are posted at www.isteve.com/abortion.htm.