In a world turned upside down, guns now are considered part of the
national health debate and abortion is being credited with reducing
Last week, the results of a bizarre new study were published in the
Chicago Tribune that suggests that the Supreme Court decision, Roe v.
Wade, which led to an explosion in the number of abortions in the
early 1970s, may explain as much as half of the overall crime reduction
that the nation has experienced in the 1990s.
The study by Steven Levitt, a University of Chicago economist, and
John Donohue III, a Stanford University Law School professor, has not
been published in an academic journal. Instead, it was circulated to a
tight circle of presumably receptive reporters, economists and
criminal-law experts. The findings also have been the subject of three
academic workshops: one at each author’s home base, the third at
The authors assert that those who would have been at greatest risk of
criminal activity during the peak crime years of young adulthood — the
unwanted offspring of teenage, poor and minority women — were aborted
at disproportionately higher rates more than two decades ago.
To bolster their argument Levitt and Donohue point out that states
such as New York and Hawaii, that legalized abortion in the three years
before the Supreme Court decision, experienced drops in property crimes,
violent crimes and murder before the other states. There is one problem
with that theory. During that time these states served as abortion
magnets and drew women from all across the United States. The women who
were jetting off to Hawaii and New York for abortions weren’t the poor
and disadvantaged. A disproportionate number of those women were from
middle class or upper class families.
It is impossible to refute something that has not been published and
adequately peer reviewed. Nevertheless, we can, and should, take issue
with the basic premise. There may be a parallel with the increase in the
number of abortions and the decrease in the crime rate, but that doesn’t
mean that there is a causal effect.
Can one prove a causal effect between the increase in illegitimate
births during the 70s with the decrease in crime in the ’90s? Of course
not! All of the available research points to the fact that children
raised in single parent families are more likely to participate in all
types of anti-social behavior. They are more likely to have trouble in
school, take drugs, turn to crime and spend time in jail. Jail, now
there’s a legitimate causal connection.
Moran Reynolds of the National Center for Policy Analysis in Dallas,
who has spent a lot more time than Levitt and Donohue studying crime
statistics, says a major reason for the reduction in crime is that it is
becoming more costly to the perpetrators. In his study, “Crime and
Punishment in America: 1998,” Reynolds gives the following examples:
- The murder rate has dropped 30 percent, as the probability of
going to prison for murder has risen 53 percent.
- Rape decreased 14 percent, as the probability of imprisonment has
increased 12 percent.
- Robbery has decreased 29 percent as the probability of imprisonment
has increased 28 percent.
- Aggravated assault has decreased 14 percent as the probability of
imprisonment increased 27 percent.
- Burglary has decreased 18 percent, as the probability of imprisonment
has increased 14 percent.
Reynolds says the best overall measure of the potential cost to a
criminal is something he calls “expected punishment.” It is not the same
as the length of time prisoners actually stay in prison. Rather,
expected punishment is calculated by multiplying four probabilities:
being arrested for a crime after it is committed, being prosecuted if
arrested, being convicted if prosecuted and going to prison if convicted
— then multiplying the product by the median time served for an
Between 1980 and 1996, expected punishment more than doubled for
murder and nearly tripled for rape. It doubled for burglary and nearly
did so for larceny/theft and auto theft. His evidence shows that
potential criminals respond to incentives. Crime increases when
expected punishment declines, and visa versa.
Despite the drop in crime, expected punishment still is extremely
- For every murder committed, someone spends only 37 months in
- For every rape committed, someone spends only 119 days behind bars.
- For every robbery, someone spends only 52 days locked away from
Levitt and Donohue say their findings do not constitute an
endorsement of abortion. They say their research was motivated by a
desire to discover the forces responsible for reducing crime in order to
avoid needless public spending on ineffectual programs and devices that
may take undeserved credit for reducing crime.
Unlike the study by Levitt and Donohue, Reynolds’ studies are
published for all to see and are available at ncpa.org or by calling
800-859-1154. Until we can examine this latest pig in a poke, the best
available research suggests not an increase in abortions, but an
increase in prisons.