No truth to the rumour abortion reduces crime

by Steve Sailer

National Post of Canada, Tuesday, August 24, 1999

Did legalizing abortion in 1973 drive down the U.S. crime rate in the mid-to-late '90s? Professors Steven Levitt of the University of Chicago and John J. Donohue of Stanford have bravely outraged pro-lifers and embarrassed pro-choicers. They argue that aborting millions of "unwanted" foetuses in the 1970s means the survivors were less likely to grow up to be vicious thugs in the 1990s. Thus, they attribute half the recent sharp fall in crime to legal abortion.

By emphasizing the unwantedness of the aborted (as opposed to, say, their racial makeup), Levitt and Donohue try to cling to a semblance of political correctness. But they also note that African-Americans have three times the abortion rate of whites. That fact is essential to any theorizing about abortion and crime because, as the U.S. Department of Justice notes, "Blacks are eight times more likely than whites to commit homicide." Levitt and Donohue argue, in effect, that legal abortion means fewer but better blacks. To the discomfort of the right-to-choose movement, though, this argument inevitably reminds us that plenty of other white supporters of abortion have long whispered that abortion's chief eugenic benefit is simply fewer blacks.

Since moralizing is easy while analyzing is hard, almost all pundits have merely assumed Levitt's and Donohue's highly statistical 63-page paper is correct, and then went on to chatter about the meaning of it all. This theory is so important, though, that it demands intense scrutiny. Fortunately, we can easily test the most obvious prediction of their logic: that babies born soon after 1973 should have grown up to be especially law-abiding teens in the early '90s. Did they?

Not exactly. Instead, they went on the worst youth murder spree in U.S. history. According to FBI statistics, the murder rate in 1993 for 14- to 17-year-olds (born in the high abortion years of 1975-1979) was a horrifying 3.6 times higher than that of the kids who were the same age in 1984 (who were born in the pre-legalization years of 1966-1970). In dramatic contrast, over the same time span the murder rate for those 25 and over (all born before legalization) dropped 6%.

What about just black male youths? Since their mothers were having abortions at three times the white rate, their murder rate should have fallen spectacularly from 1984 to 1993. Instead it grew an apocalyptic 5.1 times.

Why, then, is this generation born in 1975-1979 now committing relatively fewer crimes as it ages? It makes no sense to give the credit to abortion. Instead, it's the rise and fall of the crack cocaine epidemic that largely drove crime first up, then down. Thus, the crime rate has fallen fastest exactly where it had previously grown fastest due to crack -- in the biggest cities and among young black males. This generation born right after legalization is better behaved today in large part because so many of its bad apples are now confined to prisons, wheelchairs, and coffins. For example, over the past two decades the United States has doubled the number of black males in prison to nearly one million.

Encouragingly, the biggest decline in murder from 1993 to 1997 was among the newest generation of black males aged 14-17. These kids born in the early 1980s survived abortion levels similar to those faced by the crime-ridden 1975-1979 generation. Yet, their murder rate in 1997 was less than half that of the 14 to 17-year-olds of 1993. Seeing their big brothers gunned down in drive-by shootings and their big sisters becoming crack whores may have scared them straight.

Now, it's theoretically possible that without abortion the black youth murder rate would have, say, sextupled instead of merely quintupling. Still, there's a more interesting question. Why, as Prof. Levitt admits, did the states with the highest abortion rates in the '70s tend to suffer the worst crack-driven crime waves in the early '90s? The most obvious answer is that the liberal politics and permissive social attitudes that made abortion popular in places such as New York City and Washington D.C. also contributed to the crack epidemic. For example, D.C. enjoyed both the highest abortion rate in the U.S. and a popular mayor, Marion Barry, who was himself a crackhead.

It's possible legal abortion itself helped fuel the carnage of the crack years. In the '70s, paradoxically, both the abortion rate and the illegitimacy rate (closely linked to the crime rate) soared. Why? One answer might be that legalizing abortion finished off the traditional shotgun wedding. Earlier, the birth control pill had shifted responsibility for not getting pregnant from the boyfriend to the girlfriend. Then, legal abortion relieved the impregnating boyfriend of the moral duty of making an honest woman out of his girlfriend.

More speculatively, but also more frighteningly, the revolution in social attitudes that excused terminating the unborn may also have helped persuade violent youths that they could be excused for terminating the born.

Steve Sailer is a businessman and writer.

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