The Freakonomics Of Abortion

by Jimmy Akin

in Economics

The most controversial claim of the book Freakonomics is that abortion appears to be a key factor in lowering the crime rate in recent years.

A decade ago, you may remember, the press was filled with stories about how the youth of America were disintegrating and that soon we would be awash in an unstoppable crimewave perpetrated by "superpredators" who were totally sociopathic.

The experts were sure this was going to happen.

But it didn’t.

Why?

Various explanations were tried: Better law-enforcement techniques, more police officers, a justice system that finally "got tough" with offenders, stricter gun control laws, an aging of the population.

As the authors of Freakonomics explain, some of these (e.g., the justice system getting tough, more police officers) really do have an impact on crime. Others (e.g., restrictive gun control laws) don’t. But even the ones that had an effect weren’t enough to explain the dramatic drop in crime that occurred.

Author Steven Levitt, and his then-co-author John J. Donohue, proposed a different explanation: Abortion was responsible.

The argument runs something like this: If women of every socioeconomic group were equally likely to have an abortion then we wouldn’t expect to see abortion decreasing the crime rate. But that’s not the way thing are. In point of fact, women from certain socioeconomic groups are more likely than others to have abortions, and the groups more likely to do so (e.g., among the poor) are the very groups that tend to give rise to the most criminals. As a result, babies likely to grow up to be criminals were disproportionately aborted and so the overall crime rate went down.

In other words, Evil eugenicists like Margaret Sanger and her cohorts were right: By legalizing abortion it would alleviate certain social problems (crime, at least) by wiping out the people involved. These were, in the words of some, "pre-emptive executions"–applications of capital punishment to those who would have committed crimes in the future (as well as an awful lot who wouldn’t have).

When Donohue and Levitt published their paper, it caused a Big Argument.

When Levitt and new co-author, Stephen J. Dubner, released Freakonomics and rehashed the issue in a more popular format, it again caused a Big Argument.

Many pro-lifers, understandably, did not want to credit abortion with solving or helping to solve any social problems.

My own attitude toward the issue is somewhat reserved. I’m not prepared to concede that their Levitt and Donohue’s work is correct unless I go through it in detail, which I haven’t.

THOUGH THE ORIGINAL PAPER IS ONLINE HERE. (WARNING! Evil file format! [.pdf])

I’m not going to dismiss the claim, either, though. After all <philosophical thought experiment>if the abortion rate were raised to 100% then the crime rate would automatically fall to 0% in one generation</philosophical thought experiment>. There wouldn’t be anybody left to commit crimes!

If it happens to be the case that allowing abortion on demand (for a price) in contemporary American society has a negative impact on the crime rate, that’s an empirical matter, not a moral one.

It does, however, raise a legal question–and a semantic one. The "crime" that we’re talking about is the kind tracked by law-enforcement officials. There are two kinds of crime, though, that are not tracked by law-enforcement.

First, there are crimes that are never discovered and recorded, such as when you stole that pen from work a while back. It may have been illegal for you to do that, but it’s not worth anybody’s time to both hunting down and prosecuting such offenders.

Second, there are crimes that are not illegal. These are crimes against the higher law to which human law is oriented. They are "crimes against humanity," "immoralities," "sins," or whatever you want to call them. They violate human rights, natural law, moral law, God’s law, or whatever you want to name the higher law.

Abortion is one of these.

So what happens to the violent crime picture if we take these crimes into account? Well, currently there are about 15,000 people killed a year in the tracked-by-law-enforcement sense of "killed." Now let’s add to that the 1.6 million people killed a year by abortion in an "off the books" way. What’s the actual homicide rate in the United States? 1.615 million people murdered each year.

That dwarfs any "savings" caused by abortion in the "on the books" homicide level that the Bureau of Justice Statistics might tell you about. Even if you subtract out the abortions that were occurring before 1973 (so that we have an apples to apples comparison), the same remains true.

So no, abortion has not decreased the violent crime rate in the U.S. It has dramatically increased it. Whether it has alleviated the "on the books" violent crime rate, or even the "on the books" crime rate in general, is a subsidiary question. The fact remains that far more people are being slaughtered in the era of abortion than was the case before.

Now let’s loop this back to Freakonomics: How does the book treat this aspect of the issue? Surprisingly well.

The authors do have an overly simplistic analysis of the effects of "wantedness" versus "unwantedness" on children. (Not surprising since one is a journalist and the other is an economist; neither is a pro-life researcher who has gone over the subject carefully enough to see past those simplistic labels). The authors also betray their own perspective by fatuously editorializing that when the government lets women make decisions in this area that they do a "good job" deciding whether they can raise a child. (This is fatuous because abortion is not the only alternative to raising a child. Not conceiving a child or putting one up for adoption also are, and the government had been letting people use these options and thus make the decision of whether to raise a child long before Roe v. Wade. Roe simply added murder to the list of options parents had if they concluded they didn’t want to raise a child.)

Nevertheless, the authors are much more evenhanded than one would expect. Not only do they make the pro-life point I made above, they also cite a quotation attributed to G. K. Chesterton to the effect that when there is a shortage of hats the solution is not to lop off a few heads.

They even go above and beyond by exploring a middle view between the pure pro-life and pro-abort positions.

What if someone put some value on the life of an unborn child, the authors ask, but not as much as they put on the life of a newborn?–as, in fact, many people in the "mushy middle" of American politics do. What should people in such a position conclude about whether abortion has been a good thing or a bad thing for society in terms of its impact on crime?

Suppose that a person thought that the life of an unborn child was worth 1% of the life of a born person?

Now, you may be thinking: "That’s sounding pretty dang close to the pure pro-abort view to me!"–which it is. But here’s where the math kicks in: If the life of an unborn child is just 1% the life of someone post-birth and you multiply that by the 1.6 million abortions we have a year then that makes the number of abortions equilvalent to 16,000 murders, which is roughly the number of people that are killed in the U.S. each year by legally-trackable homicide. It’s also more than the "savings" in the homicide rate that they hold abortion to have produced.

So even if you only view unborn children as 1% as valuable as post-born people, abortion has still been a net negative to the country in terms of loss of life.

The conclusion–though the authors don’t pose it in these terms–would be that only pure pro-aborts (who view the kid’s life as worth nothing), and those who view unborn children as worth less than 1% what born children are, should be touting the violent crime-reducing effects as a justification for having abortion in this country.

My point is not that I buy their analysis of whether abortion cuts crimes. I’m not in the market to buy into any position until such time as I’d be able to go over the case in detail (the original, Donohue-Levitt one) and the best rebuttals available to it.

There may be a surface plausibility to the argument, but then there are superficial plausibilities all over the place that don’t pan out in economics. Levitt and Dubner point to some of them in their book (as when fining parents for being late to pick up their kids from daycare resulted in an increase in parental lateness). Letting people abort their babies does not mean that the resultant babies will be more "wanted" than if abortion were not allowed. Giving kids contraceptives results in more conceptions out of wedlock, not less, and something similar may be true with abortion. The net impact of abortion may be a devaluing of children and viewing them with a more jaundiced and calculating eye, leading to worse parenting rather than better parenting.

I’m merely suggesting that the book offers a less polemicized discussion of the argument than many might suppose and that before pro-lifers start foaming at the mouth when they hear the abortion-crime link being discussed that they

READ THE BOOK.

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{ 14 comments }

Anonymous June 28, 2005 at 9:23 am

Their abortion-crime paper was trashed by all kinds of economists.

Bob L. June 28, 2005 at 9:45 am

I’m not going to dismiss the claim, either, though. After all <philosophical thought experiment> if the abortion rate were raised to 100% then the crime rate would automatically fall to 0% in one generation </philosophical thought experiment>. There wouldn’t be anybody left to commit crimes!
Hey Jimmy! We could call abortion “preemptive capital punishment.”

Tim June 28, 2005 at 9:53 am

I have often wondered about the effects of abortion on toy companies. LEGO has had a horrible year when it comes to the bottom line. What do you think an extra 1.6 million American babies / year would have done to sales?

Bobby G June 28, 2005 at 10:12 am

If anyone (in San Diego anyway) wants to read Freakonomics for free, it is available online through the county library at http://www.sdcl.org. All you need to set up an account is a library card.

Thomas E. Vaughan June 28, 2005 at 11:26 am

Why is PDF an “evil file format”? By the format’s not being secret, it is substantially less evil than, say, Microsoft’s Word doc format.

John Gordon June 28, 2005 at 11:37 am

I seem to remember when abortion was legalized in Washington State in the early 1970s that it would “end child abuse” because women wouldn’t be forced to bear and raise all those “unwanted” children.
Building on the Lego comment above, how STUPID can the national educ. association be to be a big supporter of abortion “right” and “choice?” Let’s see… If we can support killing 1.6 million children a year that will allow us to have smaller class sizes!
John

P. June 28, 2005 at 11:58 am

Hi,
Steve Sailer is very critical about this theory. His analysis is here:
http://www.isteve.com/abortion.htm

BillyHW June 28, 2005 at 2:05 pm

I have often wondered about the effects of abortion on toy companies. LEGO has had a horrible year when it comes to the bottom line. What do you think an extra 1.6 million American babies / year would have done to sales?
And you’d think that teacher’s unions would figure out that abortion literally kills job security.
Why is PDF an “evil file format”? By the format’s not being secret, it is substantially less evil than, say, Microsoft’s Word doc format.
Amen:
http://www.jimmyakin.org/2004/12/evil_file_forma.html
I seem to remember when abortion was legalized in Washington State in the early 1970s that it would “end child abuse” because women wouldn’t be forced to bear and raise all those “unwanted” children.
*sigh*

Randolph Carter June 28, 2005 at 3:15 pm

Everyone should follow the above link to Steve Sailer’s article on this issue. It really does debunk the entire claim that abortion played a factor in reducing crime rates. Most interestingly of all, the drop in crime was not first experienced in the younger age groups who would have been “filtered” of criminals via abortion, but dropped first in older criminals.

pazdziernik July 3, 2005 at 8:21 pm

Has Cecil Adams of “The Straight Dope” (book) touched this topic?

berenike July 4, 2005 at 2:10 am

dlaczego pazdziernik?

berenike July 4, 2005 at 2:18 am

There was a statement recently by one of the abortion-promoting type organisations in Britain two or three years ago bemoaning the fact that teenage girls from poor neighbourhoods were less likely to have abortions than their wealthier peers. Sorry about lack of references.

Jonesy June 20, 2007 at 8:53 pm

I dont think Steve Sailor is objective. From what I know about him I think his reason for attacking the Freakonomics abortion theory is that he thinks that intelligent white women are having too many abortions (he’s anti-abortion). So he has an ax to grind and I wouldnt trust his numbers or the reasoning behind them. I think you could expect the same from any anti-abortion organisation. Levitt doesnt have a political ax to grind at all, and his theory makes sense.
Comparing abortion to murder is confusing two unrelated issues, and shows an ignorance about why laws are made. Murder is crime against order, the same way assault or mugging is. Its a threat to everyone and to society. You can’t have a productive society if people are going around killing, mugging, assaulting… each other. This is why government has a compelling reason to make these actions illegal. Its also not a infringement of anyones Rights to make them illegal either. It is an infringement of Rights to make abortion illegal though (the Right of a woman to control her own body). And theres no compelling government interest in making it illegal; society is not threatened in any way by abortion. You may think its immoral, or unethical, or you may personally think its murder, but thats no reason for it to be illegal.

matt June 21, 2007 at 6:19 am

Murder is crime against order, the same way assault or mugging is. Its a threat to everyone and to society. You can’t have a productive society if people are going around killing, mugging, assaulting… each other. This is why government has a compelling reason to make these actions illegal. Its also not a infringement of anyones Rights to make them illegal either. It is an infringement of Rights to make abortion illegal though (the Right of a woman to control her own body). And theres no compelling government interest in making it illegal; society is not threatened in any way by abortion. You may think its immoral, or unethical, or you may personally think its murder, but thats no reason for it to be illegal.
By your reasoning a crime is only a crime if it is a threat to everyone and society. So, euthanising the old, and infirm, the disabled, etc. would not be a threat to everyone, so let’s get on with it… Is it more a threat to society to kill off those who are a drain on society, than to kill of those who are it’s future? So your positive opposition to abortion as a crime is clearly incongruent unless you believe in euthanising unproductive members of society, and still fails the test… it can be clearly shown that abortion is bad for society. Actually it can easily be shown that euthanisizing the aged is bad for society, as the foundation of human society is that humans are inherently valuable and human life ought to preserved and protected regardless of productivity, anything that cheapens the value of human life damages society, this would also include indiscriminate wars or use of capital punishment.
On your “woman’s rights” argument. No right is absolute when it infringes on the rights of another. Biology clearly shows that an unborn human is a human distinct from his or her parent though ensconsed in the woman’s womb. A location does not change what something “is”, a baby in the womb or out of it is the same entity… So you have the woman’s right to “privacy” a right that is written between the lines of the constitution, extending to a right to “control one’s own body”. The state has always been allowed by the constitution to “take control” over peoples bodies for a certain time under certain circumstances out of compelling state interest (ie. the draft, incarceration, etc.). In this case the compelling state interest is preventing a permanent destruction of the baby’s right to life (explicit in the constitution) by a temporary injuntion against the implicit right to privacy of the woman, furthermore the harm to society of killing the baby is great as can be clearly demonstrated. Another point is that the first step here is probably outlawing 3rd parties from committing abortions, this is not an infringement on the right of the victims (mother and child) since any sort of medical care is not a constituional right. Criminalizing a self-induced abortion does infringe on the mother’s rights, but it is relatively smaller than the infringement on the child’s rights that the abortion causes.
I think perhaps, the answer for libertarians like you is to find a medical procedure that can separate the child from the mother without causing his or her death, oh wait, we have one, it’s called delivery and it happens less than 9 months after the baby is concieved (conception which 99% of the time is with the consent of the mother I might add).
God Bless,
Matt

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