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The legalized abortion and crime effect is the theory that legal abortion reduces crime. Proponents of the theory generally argue that "unwanted children" are more likely to become criminals and that an inverse correlation is observed between the availability of abortion and subsequent crime. In particular, it is argued that the legalization of abortion in the United States, largely due to the Supreme Court's decision in Roe v. Wade, has reduced crime in recent years. Opponents generally dispute these statistics, and point to negative effects of abortion on society.

The 1972 Rockefeller Commission on Population and the American Future is one of the better known early versions of this claim, but it was surely not the first.[1] The Commission 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.” A study by Hans Forssman and Inga Thuwe was cited by the Rockefeller Commission and is probably the first serious empirical research on this topic. They studied the children of 188 women who were denied abortions from 1939 to 1941 at the hospital in Gothenburg, Sweden. They compared these “unwanted” children to another group – the next children born after each of the unwanted children at the hospital. The "unwanted" children were more likely to grow up in adverse conditions, such as having divorced parents or being raised in foster homes and were more likely to become delinquents and engaged in crime. [2] Steven Levitt of the University of Chicago and John Donohue of Yale University revived discussion of this claim with their 2001 paper "The Impact of Legalized Abortion on Crime".


Relation to controversy about legal abortion

Support for this theory is logically separate from support for legal abortion. Levitt suggests the following argument: suppose an individual assigns a low value to the life of a fetus, versus that of a newborn infant or adult. However, there are only 15,000 murders in the whole of the United States in any given year. This is the total number of murders in the United States in any given year and is far more than the number of murders eliminated due to abortion. However there were millions of abortions during this same time.[3] Therefore, the "cost" of abortion was not paid in full by the reduction in murder (though one would expect to see a reduction in other crimes as well). Only if the value of the life of a fetus was very near zero in comparison to the value of an adult life would the "cost" of the abortions be paid for by the reduction in murders. Levitt also states that whereas the male contingent of aborted fetuses would have been prone to criminality, the female contingent would have been prone to unwed motherhood although rates of unwed motherhood have increased,[4] since the time of Roe v. Wade, not peaked and then significantly decreased, as is the case for the crime rates.

Since Levitt's empirical work never accounted for the greater number of abortions by African Americans, his evidence doesn't distinguish whether the drop in crime was due to there being a relative drop in the number of African Americans or whether it was due the unwanted children theory advanced by Forssman and Thuwe as well as the Rockefeller Commission. As a result, former Secretary of Education William Bennett made his controversial - and widely denounced - statement that "if you wanted to reduce crime -- if that were your sole purpose, you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down."[5] Levitt denies that his theory has racial implications.

Several commentators and professional economists have challenged Levitt's methodology and conclusions [6][7].

Some abortion opponents have claimed that arguments for abortion based on his theory are consequentialist in nature.

Donohue and Levitt's study

Donohue and Levitt point to the fact that males aged 18 to 24 are most likely to commit crimes. Data indicates that crime in the United States started to decline in 1992. Donohue and Levitt suggest that the absence of unwanted aborted children, following legalization in 1973, led to a reduction in crime 18 years later, starting in 1992 and dropping sharply in 1995. These would have been the peak crime-committing years of the unborn children.

The authors argue that states that had abortion legalized earlier and more widespread should have the earliest reductions in crime. Donohue and Levitt's study indicates that this indeed has happened: Alaska, California, Hawaii, New York, and Washington experienced steeper drops in crime, and had legalized abortion before Roe v. Wade. Further, states with a high abortion rate have experienced a greater reduction in crime, when corrected for factors like average income.[3] Finally, studies in Canada and Australia have purported to established a correlation between legalized abortion and crime reduction.[3]

The study was criticized by various authors, including a 2005 article by Christopher Foote and Christopher Goetz which uncovered an error in one of the tables in the article.

For an extended description of the critics' points and the authors' replies, see The Impact of Legalized Abortion on Crime, Criticism of.

Effects of the Three Strikes Law

Another competing explanation for the rapid decrease in violent crime in the early 1990's is the introduction of the Three Strikes Law in 1993 by state governments which saw felony offenders who committed a third offence receive life imprisonment. The argument is that due to the high recidivism rate of violent offenders these offenders were unable to commit crime due to not being released from jail. 23 states in the United States had adopted this legislation by the end of 1996, while other states had adopted something similar under different names.

See also


  1. ^ Rockefeller Commission on Population and the American Future
  2. ^ Hans Forssman and Inga Thuwe, "One hundred and twenty children born after application for therapeutic abortion refused," Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 1966, 71-78
  3. ^ a b c Freakonomics, Chapter 4, Where Did All the Criminals Go?
  4. ^ Center for Disease Control, Health, United States, 2005, Table 10
  5. ^ Media Matters, September 30, 2005
  6. ^ The Wall Street Journal, November 28, 2005
  7. ^ Freakonomics Fiasco, December 1, 2005

External links

Other research

  • Charles, Kerwin Ko., and Melvin Stephens, Jr. 2002. "Abortion Legalization and Adolescent Substance Abuse." NBER Working paper No. 9193.
  • Leigh, Andrew, and Justin Wolfers, "Abortion and Crime," AQ: Journal of Contemporary Analysis 2000, 72(4), pp. 28-30.
  • Pop-Eleches, Christian. 2003. "The Impact of an Abortion Ban on Socio-Economic Outcomes of Children: Evidence from Romania." Harvard University Department of Economics. Unpublished.
  • Sen, Anindya. 2002. "Does Increased Abortion Lead to Lower Crime? Evaluating the Relationship between Crime, Abortion, and Fertility." University of Waterloo Department of Economics. Unpublished.
  • Sorenson, Susan, Douglas Wiebe, and Richard Berk, "Legalized Abortion and the Homicide of Young Children: An Empirical Investigation," Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy 2002, 2(1), pp. 239-56.

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