Did legalizing abortion in the early ‘70s reduce crime in the late ‘90s by allowing “pre-emptive capital punishment” of potential troublemakers? Or did the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, by outmoding shotgun weddings, adoption, and respect for life, instead make more murderous the early ‘90s crack wars fought by the first generation of youths to survive legalized abortion?
Since 1999, the University of Chicago economist Steven D. Levitt has been pushing his theory that legal abortion is responsible for half of the recent fall in crime. This assertion is the most prominent element in Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, the entertaining new book Levitt co-wrote with journalist Stephen J. Dubner.
Levitt’s theory rests on two plausible-sounding statements. First, he claims that abortion lowers the number of “unwanted” babies, who would be more likely to commit crimes someday. Second, crime did fall. Levitt writes, “In the early 1990s, just as the first cohort of children born after Roe v. Wade was hitting its late teen years—the years during which young men enter their criminal prime—the rate of crime began to fall. What this cohort was missing, of course, were the children who stood the greatest chance of becoming criminals.”
Although Levitt’s research has been praised by normally hardheaded gentlemen such as George Will and Robert Samuelson, few have probed its statistical complexities. Overall crime-trend data are frequently questionable. For example, the city of Atlanta long understated crime to attract the 1996 Olympics. The FBI’s homicide statistics, however, are more trustworthy because, as Arthur Miller might have said, attention must be paid to a dead body with a hole in it.
But the acid test of Levitt’s theory is this: did the first New, Improved Generation culled by legalized abortion actually grow up to be more lawful teenagers than the last generation born before legalization? Hardly. Instead, the first cohort to survive legalized abortion went on the worst youth murder spree in American history.
Abortion became legal in 1970 in California, New York, and three smaller states. Let’s compare the murder rate of 14-to 17-year-olds in 1983 (who were born in the last pre-legalization years of 1965-1969) with that of 14-to 17-year-olds a decade later in 1993 (who were born in the high-abortion years of 1975-1979). Was this post-Roe cohort better behaved than their pre-legalization elders? Not exactly. Their murder rate was 3.1 times worse.
In contrast, 18-to 24-year-olds in 1993—some born before legalization, some after—committed 86 percent more murders than a decade earlier, while people 25 and up—all born before legalization—were 18 percent less lethal. Back in 1983, 14—to 17-year-olds were barely more than half as likely as 25—to 34-year-olds to kill. In 1993 and 1994, however, this purportedly better-bred generation of juveniles was more than twice as deadly as 25—to 34-year-olds.