Thursday, April 28, 2005

Does Abortion Fight Crime?

NOTE: Blogger hissy fit prevented this from posting yesterday. Not that my timing actually matters ... the debate over this topic has been raging for a short while ... I'm simply adding one more voice to the mix.

Does abortion fight crime? Um... not really. And not directly at any rate. There are some interesting findings for the decline in the U.S. crime rate between 1991 and 2001, but ...

Let me back up a bit.

Steven Levitt is an economist. But instead of rhapsodizing over the nuances of compounded interest, Levitt is more interested insuch real-world issues as:

What key words in a housing ad correlate with higher prices?

Which ones correlate with lower prices?

Levitt's penchant for sifting through data to find practical relationships lands him squarely in the realm of sociology, and his latest book, Freakonomics:A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, is certainly sociological to the core. And, boy, is it being hyped! (I just checked, and it is #3 in book sales at When was the last time you saw an economist's book on social issues climb the bestsellers list? I'll tell you: Never!Somebody is hyping this thing somewhere). What does this any of this haveto do with abortion and crime? Well, beforethis morning, I might not have been able to attempt ananswer. But today I heard Michael Smerconish interview Mr. Levitt onhis morning radio show. I was about to switch stations when Smerconish baited me: "Next, we'll talk Freakonomics with economist Steven Levitt, who has published a book that claims the legalization of abortion is the single largest factor contributing to the declining crime rate." I actually froze and thought: Man, I gotta hear this.

Now, before I go into the segment, and relate the discussion, I want to mention the book again. I think this information will serve to explain how Levitt ended up on Smerconis's program. You see, in addition to its nifty title, Freakonomics has chapter titles that seem geared toward raising hackles, eyebrows, or both. And even if the titles fail to get a rise out of readers, the suggested answers will certainly be cause for some debate. For example:

  • Do Schoolteachers and Sumo Wrestlers Have In Common? (Answer: It's cheating, and it will surprise you)
  • How Is the Ku Klux Klan Like a Group of Real Estate Agents? (Answer: Haves abusing the have-nots)
  • Why Do Drug Dealers Still Live with Their Moms? (Answer: A strange commonality with the "You want fries with that?" crowd)
  • What Makes a Perfect Parent? (Answer: Be instead of Do)
  • Where Have All the Criminals Gone? (Answer: Roe v. Wade)
Wait! Was that last answer actually Roe v. Wade?

Yup, Levitt claims that the legalization of abortion in 1973 had the most impact on the decline of crime between 1991 and 2001. This is probably the most inflammatory topic in his book, and it is likely the sole reason that Smerconish invited Levitt to be on his show. After all, Smerconish is a conservative radio host on 1210AM in Philly -- the same station that proudly blares Rush "I'm-louder-and-righter-than-you" Limbaugh and Sean "Can-you-believe-I'm-gainfully-employed?" Hannity. Ah, but Michael Smerconish is much classier -- and more intelligent, I'll wager -- than either of those Neo-con blowhards. And while I don't always agree with him, I do appreciate the way Smerconish treats his guests (i.e., he doesn't shout them out of the studio or off the phone), and I think he is sincere in his attempts to understand a different side of an issue. Such was the case here.

After introducing Levitt with suitable fanfare to pique the interest of the show's core fans, Smerconish went right into the background of Levitt's Criminals chapter. In case you didn't know, there are many explanations for the dwindling crime rate in the 1990s -- many of which were proposed by the same folks who actually expected an increase -- ranging from "Innovative Police Tactis" to "Strong Economy" to "Tougher Gun Control". But Levitt wasn't buying into any of them. Too many, too varied. So he did a search on the LexisNexis database to find the most common theories and rank them. (In English Rules' book review, you can see the chart of explanations and the number of times each one cited). Levitt addresses each one of these commonly held reasons and debunks them all. Instead, by looking at the data, he finds that the legalization of abortion, by the Roe v. Wade case in 1973, had the biggest impact.

Some folks get into quite a twist over this. Conservatives accuse Levitt of being a callous pro-choice poster-boy who is advocating murder. Liberals, uncomfortable with some of the perceived implications of this study, say that Levitt speaks of eugenics. But, as Levitt explained on the radio, he is neither.

In the radio interview, Levitt claims he was pro-choice prior to the study but is somewhat ambivalent now. He feels strongly that his results are right: "I keep saying that if you give me 30 seconds I can help you understand this." But even he is less sure of the message it sends.

Here is more or less how he explained it on the radio (no direct quotes ... just what I remember):

You have to look at it this this way. Between 1973 and 1975, a number of unwanted children children were aborted. That is the only way to refer to aborted fetuses -- they are unwanted children. This is not a value judgment, it is a statement of fact. If the child was wanted, no abortion would have occurred. But, since free, easy, and legal abortion was (and is) available, fewer children of unwed mothers are out on the street. This means there are fewer children most likely living in poverty. This further means that, fifteen years down the road (getting into the 90s now), when those kids would have been entering adolescence -- the age for budding criminals -- they are simply not there.
It is rather oversimplified, but it makes sense. If there are fewer children being born into the conditions that foster criminal activity, then the crime rate will go down. And the fifteen year gap is probably why it has not been seriously considered before.

Now, this is not a rubber stamp on the morality or necessity of abortion. Nor is anyone, least of all Levitt, championing abortion as a means of keeping the crime rate low. It's just an interpretation of data. Levitt actually seems somewhat disappointed or saddened after finding these results. If anything, Levitt feels that the results speak volumes regarding the value of a wanted child and of having loving parents.

Me? I personally feel that Levitt's results lend much needed credence to my own philosophy that both the pro-choice and pro-life camps are not only ill-named, but they are looking at the issue entirely wrong. By focusing on abortion, both camps are missing the most important piece here: The fact that every child conceived should be a wanted child. How do we get there? If I knew that, I probably wouldn't be just another goofball with a free blog. But I think this kind of thing has to start with the parents and be continued in our learning institutions. Kids of all ages (and I am referring to college kids and young adults under the "all ages" banner here, too) need to learn to be responsible with and have respect for the reproductive powers of their bodies. This society needs to stop treating sex like a dirty activity that has to be kept under wraps. True, it is a private, intimate act. But it is also just about the most natural and beautiful thing on this planet. But all the guilt and hush-hush surrounding sex has led to a booming porn industry, increased infidelity, and soaring teen pregnancy rates. Oh, not to mention all the STDs that are now available.

Please know that I am in no way so naive as to think that I actually have a solution. Nor do I think my so-called solution will affect abortions inthe short term. But, again, I am not focusing on abortion per se. I am talking about a shift in emphasis. A positive one at that. Our wholesociety must shift focus from the legal/moral fight over abortion, and insteadfocus on people and our behavior. I want to empower people with education.

I'm talking about personal responsibility, I am talking about teaching the consequences of sex, I am talking about advocating abstinence and providing birth control. I actually believe that abortion can still be kept free, safe, and legal. But that we as a society can eventually come to a point where its use wanes to become almost unheard of.

But, you may say that I'm a dreamer and all that.

The Book in Question:

By the way, I'm still interested in the book, so I just might be looking for the unabridged audio CD that comes out May 1.

Reviews, Musings, etc. on Freakonomics and/or Related Theories:


Thivai Abhor said...

Brainwise--thanks for a unique take on this issue (abortion) ... I will now check out the book...

Would you like to review it for the journal I work for... I would get you a free copy?

Let me know...

Josh the Free Man said...

I have always found it incredible that, as a society, we spend huge amounts of money and effort promoting violence (movies, games, guns, etc), and spend huge amounts of money and effort on an activity - sex - that harms no-one (if done responsibly and with full consent) and helps a lot of people by cementing the bonds of love.

Today, I was reading the online edition of the Philadelphia (PA) Inquirer. They had an editorial decrying the most recent shooting of a child in the city, and right next to it was an ad encouraging you to "shoot the ninja" in order to win a prize. What does that say about what we value? We dis sex, while glorifying violence. Listen to the way the American Taliban (Rove, Reed, Sheldon, etc) talk, and theirs is the language of violence. I think Jesus would faint.

Catmom said...

Jesus would faint indeed. I agree that our society needs to stop treating sex as something of which we must all be ashamed. But until the fascists currently in control of this country are run out of town, religiosity will prevail and this country will continue its sordid relationship with the power of money and violence.

Yes, I am adamantly pro-choice (and I have no problem with that label), so I feel obliged to point out that abortion is not "free" now, nor has it ever been. While some insurance companies recognize abortion as a legal medical procedure and will provide coverage for it, a large number of women who seek abortion services do not have insurance coverage. There are non-profit organizations which raise money to provide funds for women who choose abortion, but are in financial distress, but here as well, the service is not free. Further, in my mind, "free" means a woman can visit a clinic without being screamed at by religious protesters. She can choose abortion services without being preyed upon before and after the fact by those who claim a higher moral ground because of their "personal relationship with Jesus Christ". So no, abortions have never been "free" by any stretch of the imagination.

"Every child a wanted child" should be any civilized society's goal.

Difster said...

It's obvious that this makes some of you grin from ear to ear.

Those of us that are PRO LIFE actually see abortion as murder and therefore a criminal act. The fact that the SCROTUM ...oops, SCOTUS somehow found the right to abortion hidden in the Constitution changes nothing. Abortion is still murder and murder is a crime. Yes, abortion is now legal but legality and morality hardly seem to be synonymous these days.

If every abortion is murder, then the murder rate has gone up. It's that simple.

If you don't want a baby, keep your clothes on.

Steve Sailer said...

Levitt said: " You have to look at it this this way. Between 1973 and 1975, a number of unwanted children children were aborted."

Yet, precisely those children born during those years following legalization went on to committ an unprecedented number of murders and other serious violent crimes as teenagers. Both the murder rate and serious violent crime rate for 14-17 year olds reached its historic peack in 1993, precisely when Levitt's theory says it should have been reaching a new low.

For a full analysis of what's wrong with Levitt's abortion-cut-crime theory, see