Abortion Raises Crime Rates, Economist Says

Fred Lucas | July 7, 2008 | 8:06pm EDT
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(1st Add: Includes additional comments from John Lott.)

(CNSNews.com) - Legalized abortion has led to increased crime, according to a recently published study of people born before and after the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.

The study seems to completely contradict the findings published in the New York Times bestseller, "Freakonomics," and has sparked a heated debate among academics, news reporters and commentators.

"Freakonomics," by economist Steven Levitt and journalist Stephen Dubner, claimed that legalized abortion reduced crime.

The new study concluded that legalized abortion increased murder rates about 7 percent.

These findings were published in April 2007 in the academic journal Economic Inquiry and were included in the new book, "Freedomnomics," by John R. Lott, published in June. Lott's book is, in many ways, a conservative response to the liberal claims in Levitt's book.

Lott's study argues that after the high court ruled that states must allow abortion, more permissive sexual behavior and less contraception produced three things: an increase in out-of-wedlock births, a reduction in the number of children placed for adoptions, and fewer married parents.

"Those are contradictory directions," Lott, an economist and senior research scientist at the University of Maryland, told Cybercast News Service. "What ties them together is liberalized abortion rules. It affected decisions on premarital sex and careful contraception. It's a matter of economics. When something seems less costly, there's more of it."

Lott noted there are many good single mothers doing an excellent job rearing their children. But those children almost never get as much attention as children in a two-parent family, he said. Further, children in single-parent families statistically have more social development problems and thus statistically are more likely to be criminals.

Levitt and Dubner, conversely, concluded that "liberalized abortion led to less unwantedness, and unwantedness leads to high crime; legalized abortion, therefore, led to less crime."

Outside of the Lott and Levitt debate, there are at least two other studies - one from the United States and one from Great Britain - that suggest no correlation between legalized abortion and lower crime rates.

Ted Joyce, an economics professor at City University of New York, conducted a study, concluding there is "little evidence to support the claim that legalized abortion caused the reduction in crime."

The British study, done by two U.K. professors and Leo Kahane of California State University-East Bay, determined it was "unable to find a link between the legalization of abortion and reductions in crime in England and Wales."

Dueling data on abortion

Because there is often more demand for something that is less costly, said Lott, fewer men felt obligated to marry women as in the past because of liberalized contraception and abortion laws. But when it came to an actual abortion, far fewer women than anticipated could go through with it and decided to keep their babies, Lott said.

Out-of-wedlock births were 5 percent of all births between 1965 to 1969, according to Lott's study. That rose to 16 percent of all births 20 years later. Among blacks, the number jumped from 35 percent to 62 percent.

Although crime rates fell in the 1990s, the drop was in arrests of older people born before the Roe v. Wade ruling, according to Lott. And those born four years after Roe v. Wade were more likely to commit murder. As a result, murder rates increased between 0.5 percent and 7 percent as a result of abortion, the study concluded.

However, a 2001 analysis by Levitt of the University of Chicago and John Donohue, a law professor at Yale University, showed otherwise.

Their study looked at Alaska, California, Hawaii, New York and Washington: the five states that had legalized abortion before 1973.

"Between 1988 and 1994, violent crime in the early legalizing states fell 13 percent compared to the other states," they reported. And "between 1994 and 1997, their murder rates fell 23 percent more than those other states."

"Freakonomics" further reports: "The states with the highest abortion rates in the 1970s experienced the greatest crime drops in the 1990s, while states with low abortion rates experienced smaller crime drops. ... Since 1985, states with high abortion rates have experienced a roughly 30 percent drop in crime relative to low-abortion states."

The information from the Donohue and Levitt study, however, over-simplifies the data, according to Lott.

As for the state-by-state comparisons, the Levitt-Donohue study data were collected on the false premise that abortion was entirely banned in 45 states before Roe, Lott said.

"No state banned abortions. They allowed exceptions for the life or the health of the mother," he said. "Kansas, of all places, had a lot of abortions. In California, prior to 1969, hospitals had a three-doctor panel that would decide whether the mother's life or health was in danger (to warrant an abortion). In Kansas, the woman's doctor could decide."

"Some states had a fair number of abortions. Some were more restrictive," he said. "You can't assume there was zero before Roe."

Questions surrounding researchers

Further, in 2005, The Economist magazine reported that two economists with the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston determined that the Levitt-Donohue study was filled with statistical errors. The magazine opined, "To be politically incorrect is one thing; to be simply incorrect, quite another."

Levitt was traveling this week and deferred comment to Donohue.

In a written statement, Donohue did not comment on either study. He instead raised questions concerning Lott's research methods and said, "I am a social scientist, however, so Lott's behavior has in my mind, put him outside the bounds of scientific discourse."

Donohue was referring to Lott's 1998 book, "More Guns Less Crime," which was roundly criticized in some academic circles and on blogs for allegedly being founded on faulty research. Lott also admitted to going on to one of the blogs under a different name to defend his work, a practice that many academics engage in.

Lott disputed the criticism.

Despite those controversies, Lott's commentaries continue to be reviewed and published in such places as The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, as well as other establishment media.

The two sides of the abortion debate take predictable stances on the conflicting data.

"Lott offers so many unfounded, fallacious, racist, and confused assumptions that his overall opinions are useless," said Marjorie Signer, spokeswoman for the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Rights, in a statement sent to Cybercast News Service.

"To speculate that abortion is responsible for various and sundry social trends is irresponsible and misses critical points," she said.

"Abortion has always been an option that women at all socioeconomic levels have considered, and many abortions are performed for medical reasons. Trying to correlate abortion with social trends smacks of pseudo-science and shows little understanding of women's lives and decisions," Signer added.

Yet David O'Steen, executive director of the National Right to Life Committee, said making abortions more accessible would almost necessarily lead to more crime.

"If you increase a violent activity, it will lead to a coarsening of society," O'Steen told Cybercast News Service. "It would be extraordinary if it did not lead to a more violent society."

See Earlier Story:
Author Accuses Media of Intentional Bias Against Guns (May 20, 2003)

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