Does abortion really reduce crime?
by Brian Clowes
This theme still resonates strongly with many people today. The best-known study of the abortion-crime connection was performed by John J. Donohue III and Steven D. Levitt in 2001. In Harvard University’s Quarterly Journal of Economics, they concluded that “Legalized abortion contributed significantly to recent crime reductions. … Legalized abortion appears to account for as much as 50 percent of the recent drop in crime.” The authors noted, “Crime began to fall roughly 18 years after abortion legalization,” and that the social benefit of this decrease in crime is about $30 billion annually.2
Donohue and Levitt wrote that, 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. They added that the five states that legalized abortion earlier than 1973 [New York, California, Washington, Hawaii and Alaska] also experienced earlier declines in crime. Finally, they found that states with especially high abortion rates in the 1970s and 1980s had equally dramatic crime reductions in the 1990s.3
Levitt went on to co-author the 2005 bestseller Freakonomics, in which he reiterated his thesis that the legalization of abortion is responsible for half of the recent drop in violent crime.
Prominent pro‑abortion groups and leaders immediately seized on the results of the Donohue‑Levitt study and used them as justification for promoting and funding the practice of abortion. For example, Canadian abortionist Henry Morgentaler, in an op‑ed piece heartlessly entitled “It’s Better for Us that They Died,” declared moral vindication and grumbled that he had been saying for decades that abortion would reduce crime.4
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Donohue and Levitt are certainly correct when they say that violent and property crimes are down by astonishing numbers since 1991. The rate of murder has decreased 49 percent; forcible rapes have plunged 32 percent; robberies by 50 percent; aggravated assault by 39 percent; and property crimes by 41 percent.5 Additionally, states with very high abortion rates in the 1970s and 1980s also had correspondingly dramatic crime reductions in the 1990s.6
While Donohue and Levitt were doing their research, however, other scientists were arriving at opposite results.
Law professors John R. Lott, Jr. of Yale Law School and John E. Whitley of the University of Adelaide found that legalizing abortion increased murder rates by up to seven percent. They concluded that legalizing abortion is a contributing factor to the great increase in out‑of‑wedlock births and single parent families, which in turn contribute to increased crime rates. Since 1970, the percentage of single‑parent households in the United States has nearly tripled, from 11 percent to 32 percent, and the percentage of out‑of‑wedlock births has nearly quadrupled, from 11 percent to 43 percent of all children.7 Children born out-of-wedlock and raised by only one parent have a significantly higher incidence of crime.
There are many other fundamental problems with the conclusion that legalized abortion leads to a decrease in crime.
Statistician David Murray confirmed that young males between the ages of 17 and 25 commit the majority of crimes. However, if abortion had reduced crime, the crime rates in the United States would have dropped first among young people. They did not. Instead, the number of crimes committed by older people dropped first. Nearly 60% of the decline in murder since 1990 involved killers aged 25 and older — who were born before Roe v. Wade.8
Murray also found that other nations with high abortion rates showed a large increase in crime about eighteen years after they legalized abortion. For example, in Great Britain, which legalized abortion in 1968, violent crime has been rising steeply since about 1985 ― exactly when it should have been declining, according to the Donohue‑Levitt thesis. Additionally, Russia, with the highest abortion rate on earth, has experienced a tidal wave of every kind of violent crime following the breakup of the Soviet Union.9
FBI statistics showed that the murder rate in 1993 for 14‑ to 17‑year‑olds in the USA (born in the years 1975‑1979, which had very high abortion rates) was 3.6 times higher than that of kids who were the same age in 1984 (who were born in the pre‑legalization years of 1966‑1970). Additionally, since Black women were having abortions at a much higher rate than White women, we should have expected the murder rate among Black youth to have declined beginning in about 1991. Instead, it increased more than five hundred percent from 1984 to 1993.10
Finally, the huge increase in violent crime that peaked in 1991 and then began to decline is more closely related to the crack epidemic, not abortion. The Donohue‑Levitt study confirms that the crime rate rose and fell exactly where crack cocaine was most easily available ― in the large cities and among young Black males.11 This is also confirmed by the rise in crime during the time period 1984 to 1991, after a decline from 1980 to 1984. If abortion were the primary cause of a decline in violent crime, the crime rate would have been relatively stable during the time period 1980 to 1991.
The central thesis of the Donohue‑Levitt study is a refinement of the pro-abortion slogan “Every child a wanted child.” They said that because a difficult home environment leads to an increased risk of criminal activity, increased abortion unwantedness and therefore lowered criminal activity. However, although criminals may more likely come from a “difficult home environment,” many talented and gifted individuals have as well, including: John Lennon, Charlie Chaplin, Louis Armstrong, playwright Eugene O’Neill, Audrey Hepburn, James Dean, Merle Haggard, comedian Tim Allen and, ironically, the politician who has most fanatically supported abortion in the history of the nation, Barack Obama.12
The point here is this: No matter how terrible a home environment is, no child is certain to become a criminal. Crime is not programmed into our DNA. Any program intended to help exterminate the preborn children of the poor is simply pre-emptive capital punishment ― curiously supported by many of the same people who oppose the death penalty for adult criminals.
Donohue and Levitt also say in their study that legalized abortion has caused a social benefit due to reduced crime rates that amounts to $30 billion annually. This is a narrow and short-sighted view, completely neglecting the benefits each person contributes to society. The direct cost of each abortion to society in terms of lost consumption and taxes paid amounts to, on average, $3,720,000.13 There are about 1,210,000 abortions performed annually in the United States. This means that the total direct cost of abortion in the United States every single year is about four and a half trillion dollars.
So if we use Donohue and Levitt’s benefit numbers, for every dollar of social benefit we accrue from reduced crime rates due to abortion, we lose $150.
Finally, in the last paragraph of their paper, Donohue and Levitt agree that an equivalent reduction in crime would be caused by “providing better environments for those children at greatest risk for future crime.”
So the question for all of us, pro‑lifers and “pro‑choicers” alike, is this: Do we want to attack the symptom or the cause? Do we clumsily and bloodily try to eliminate even more criminals through the mechanisms of eugenics, abortion, sterilization and birth control (programs that have proved themselves unequal to the task), or do we embrace the proven remedies of strengthening family life, enforcing the law and providing education, resources and better living conditions for the poor?
Stephen Levitt believes that working on his controversial research actually moved him further toward a pro‑life position. He agrees that one could conclude from the evidence he and Levitt compiled that the answer isn’t more abortions but better education and living conditions for the poor.14
Margaret Sanger advocated the elimination of “human weeds” many years ago in the United States. Her eugenics programs did not improve the lot of the poor ― all she did was turn large poor families into small poor families.
Current‑day eugenicists are pushing the same failed program.
Dr. Brian Clowes is the director of education and research at Human Life International (HLI), the world’s largest international pro-life and pro-family organization. A version of this article appeared in The Wanderer.
1 Montgomery Mulford. “Birth Control Lessens Crime.” Birth Control Review, Volume XV, Number 10 (October 1931), page 293. For 888 quotes from Margaret Sanger’s Birth Control Review, e-mail Brian Clowes at email@example.com.
2 John J. Donohue III and Stephen D. Levitt. “The Impact of Legalized Abortion on Crime.” Harvard University’s Quarterly Journal of Economics, May 2001.
4 Canadian abortionist Henry Morgentaler. “It’s Better for Us that They Died.” Guest op‑ed piece in the May 18, 2001 Canadian National Post.
5 For calculations and references, e-mail Brian Clowes at firstname.lastname@example.org and ask for Excel spreadsheet F-24-12, “Violent and Property Crime Incidence and Rates in the United States, 1979-2009.”
6 For calculations and references on state crime rates, e-mail Brian Clowes at email@example.com and ask for Excel spreadsheet F-24-13, “Correlation Between Abortion Rates and Violent Crime Rate Decreases in the States, 1980-2009.” Other statistics that seem to support Donohue’s and Levitt’s conclusions include (1) Unmarried women and teenage girls account for 84 percent of all abortions obtained in the United States, and half of all unmarried women’s pregnancies end in abortion, as compared to only eight percent of married women’s pregnancies (see Excel spreadsheet F-24-A.XLS). Children born to such mothers have a higher than normal probability of committing crimes in the peak ages for crime, 18 to 24. Therefore, a higher abortion rate among unmarried women would apparently lead to a decrease in crime; (2) The likelihood of future criminal behavior declines if children are born into better environments. Teenagers and unmarried and poor women are most likely to consider a pregnancy unwanted, and unintended pregnancies are associated with poor prenatal care, greater smoking and drinking during pregnancy, and lower birth weights, all associated with higher crime rates in children.
7 For calculations and references, e-mail Brian Clowes at firstname.lastname@example.org and ask for Excel spreadsheet F-24-14, “The Increase in Single-Parent Households and Out-of-Wedlock Births in the United States, 1960 to 2010.”
8 “Statistician Says Abortion‑Crime Study is Erroneous.” Fox News, May 16, 2001; Steven Ertelt’s Pro‑Life Infonet, May 17, 2001. Also see the National Post online, May 17, 2001.
10 Federal Bureau of Investigation, United States Department of Justice Web site, table entitled “Homicide Offenders by Age, Gender, and Race, 1976‑99.”
12 John W. Whitehead. “Check the Facts.” The Washington Times, June 28, 2001.
13 For calculations and references, e-mail Brian Clowes at email@example.com and ask for Excel spreadsheet F-24-16, “The Economic Impact of Abortion on the United States.”
14 John J. Donohue III and Stephen D. Levitt. “The Impact of Legalized Abortion on Crime.” Harvard University’s Quarterly Journal of Economics, May 2001.