Does Abortion Prevent Crime?

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Aug. 24 1999 9:30 PM

Does Abortion Prevent Crime?


It is so refreshing to have someone challenge our study based on the facts instead of the knee-jerk reactions I have been hearing and reading about in the press the last few weeks.


The set of facts that you offer is indeed challenging to our theory: The late '80s and early '90s were periods of high inner-city youth homicide, fueled by the crack epidemic, declining juvenile punishment, and the increased availability of handguns to kids. I would never deny that legalized abortion is only one factor among many that affect crime rates. According to our estimates, abortion has had the effect of suppressing crime by about 1 percent per year over the last decade. Compared with the gyrations in the crime rate caused by other factors, this is pretty small stuff. But since the impact of abortion builds year after year as more cohorts of potential criminals are covered by legalized abortion (unlike factors such as crack, which tend to rise and fade), eventually the impact of abortion begins to overwhelm the noise in the data.

Because the time-series data are so volatile, I have always been more convinced by the cross-state changes in crime that we uncover (see my previous e-mail). In particular, we find that by 1997, crime among those under age 25 had fallen much more sharply in high-abortion states than low-abortion states. The same was not true for crime among those 25 and over. I do not have the data at my fingertips to see what was happening across states to 17-year-olds in the early '90s. This is clearly data I should gather and analyze.

Your hypothesis that crack, not abortion, is the story, provides a testable alternative to our explanation of the facts. You argue:

  1. The arrival of crack led to large increases in crime rates between 1985 and the early '90s, particularly for inner-city African-American youths.
  2. The fall of the crack epidemic left many of the bad apples of this cohort dead, imprisoned, or scared straight. Consequently, not only did crime fall back to its original pre-crack level, but actually dropped even further in a "overshoot" effect.
  3. States that had high abortion rates in the '70s were hit harder by the crack epidemic, thus any link between falling crime in the '90s and abortion rates in the '70s is spurious.

If either assumption 1 or 2 is true, then the crack epidemic can explain some of the rise and fall in crime in the '80s and '90s. In order for your crack hypothesis to undermine the "abortion reduces crime" theory, however, all three assumptions must hold true.

So, let's look at the assumptions one by one and see how they fare.

  1. Did the arrival of crack lead to rising youth crime? Yes. No argument from me here.
  2. Did the decline in crack lead to a "boomerang" effect in which crime actually fell by more than it had risen with the arrival of crack? Unfortunately for your story, the empirical evidence overwhelmingly rejects this claim. Using specifications similar to those in our paper, we find that the states with the biggest increases in murder over the rising crack years (1985-91) did see murder rates fall faster between 1991 and 1997. But for every 10 percent that murder rose between 1985 and 1991, it fell by only 2.6 percent between 1991 and 1997. For your story to explain the decline in crime that we attribute to legalized abortion, this estimate would have to be about five times bigger. Moreover, for violent crime and property crime, increases in these crimes over the period 1985-91 are actually associated with increases in the period 1991-97 as well. In other words, for crimes other than murder, the impact of crack is not even in the right direction for your story.
  3. Were high-abortion-rate states in the '70s hit harder by the crack epidemic in the '90s? Given the preceding paragraph, this is a moot point, because all three assumptions must be true to undermine the abortion story, but let's look anyway. A reasonable proxy for how hard the crack epidemic hit a state is the rise in crime in that state over the period 1985-91. Your theory requires a large positive correlation between abortion rates in a state in the '70s and the rise in crime in that state between 1985 and 1991. In fact the actual correlations, depending on the crime category, range between -.32 and +.09 Thus, the claim that high-abortion states are the same states that were hit hardest by crack is not true empirically. While some states with high abortion rates did have a lot of crack (e.g., New York and D.C.), Vermont, Kansas, Hawaii, Massachusetts, and Washington were among the 10 states with the highest abortion rates in the '70s. These were not exactly the epicenters of the crack epidemic.

So, what is the final tally? Two of the key assumptions underlying your alternative hypothesis appear to be false: The retreat of crack has not led to an "overshoot" in crime, causing it to be lower than 1985, and even if it had, the states with high abortion rates in the '70s do not appear to be affected particularly strongly by the crack epidemic. Moreover, when we re-run our analysis controlling for both changes in crime rates from 1985 to 1991 and the level of crime in 1991, the abortion variable comes in just as strongly as in our original analysis.

Crack clearly has affected crime over the last decade, but it cannot explain away our results with respect to legalized abortion.

The best test of any theory is its predictive value. The abortion theory predicts that crime will continue to fall slowly for the next 10 to 15 years. Also, the declines in crime should continue to be greater in high-abortion states than in low-abortion states. What do you predict based on your crack theory? If you are willing to wait 10 years, perhaps we can resolve this debate.

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