Falling Crime Rates Linked to Abortions

A pair of crime researchers kicked up some dust last week when newspapers reported their study arguing that the legalization of abortion has had a large role in the sudden drop in crime in the United States in the '90s. Although some social scientists consider the theory plausible, antiabortion groups and others have accused the authors of lending indirect support to eugenics.

Stanford law professor John Donohue and University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt have concluded that ripples from the Supreme Court's landmark 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade are discernible decades later in lower crime rates among young males. Other commonly cited factors--including improved policing, the abating of the crack epidemic, and higher employment--do not fully explain the timing and distribution of changing crime patterns, say the authors, who estimate that legalized abortion may be responsible for half the per capita drop in violent and property crimes in the United States between 1991 and 1997. Abortion, they claim, reduces births among uneducated, teenaged, and single mothers, whose offspring are most "at risk" for criminal activity, and improves circumstances for the living children of such mothers.

The authors say their strongest evidence comes from the fact that crime rates have dropped the most in states with the highest abortion rates. Levitt says the numbers might be influenced by such factors as better prenatal care in the high-abortion states, but data on the effects of social programs make it unlikely that "relatively small changes in social programs could have had a major impact."

The authors, who have presented their unpublished findings at meetings at Harvard, Stanford, and the University of Chicago, have been accused of favoring "eugenics" both by antiabortionists and by some African Americans, who are three times as likely as whites to have abortions.

Some experts are not convinced by Levitt and Donohue's thesis. Daniel Nagin, a professor of public policy at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, for example, says it's an "interesting contention," but he finds this no more convincing than any other explanation for the crime drop. But psychiatrist Fred Goodwin, head of the Center on Neuroscience, Medical Progress and Society at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., thinks abortion rates could well be a factor. Most abortions, he says, are sought by single young women, and "the absence of fathers is the biggest single predictor of antisocial behavior."