Aug. 12, 1999
Vol. 18 No. 20

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    Chicago economist links abortion to falling crime rates

    By Amy Rust
    News Office

    Presented at seminars at the University, Stanford and Harvard but not yet published, “Legalized Abortion and Crime,” Chicago economist Steven Levitt’s recent study that links the legalization of abortion to the country’s falling crime rate in the 1990s, already is receiving national attention.

    The study, co-authored by Levitt, Professor in Economics at Chicago, and Stanford University’s John Donohue III, suggests legalized abortion may be responsible for approximately half of the crime rate’s recent fall.

    According to the researchers, the decline of the U.S. crime rate may be the result of two mechanisms related to legalized abortion. First, following the Roe vs. Wade decision in 1973, more women at risk of having children who could later engage in criminal activity––teen-agers, those living in poverty or those with unwanted pregnancies, for example––opted for abortion. And second, improved maternal, familial or fetal circumstances may have led to better environments for raising children.

    Levitt and Donohue stress that their findings do not carry an endorsement of abortion. “We do not take a position on abortion, and the study was not undertaken as a study of abortion, but crime,” said Levitt. “Neither is the study about race or class. Many studies have shown that children who are born unwanted have unsatisfactory outcomes, including involvement in crime.”

    As evidence for their findings, the researchers point to data regarding the timing of the crime drop: the first generation of pregnancies terminated under legalized abortion would have otherwise resulted in children who reached the peak ages for criminal activity, 18 to 24, in the early 1990s. Increases in 1970s abortions by high-risk mothers may have lowered the number of potential criminals coming of age in the 1990s.

    The study also reports that states such as California and New York, which legalized abortion before 1973, experienced a drop in their crime rates before the rest of the nation. Furthermore, empirical evidence suggests states with higher abortion rates have seen more dramatic decreases in crime since 1985, and those drops in crime have been concentrated among individuals under age 25 in 1997––precisely the group possibly affected by abortion legalization in 1973.

    While many explanations have been given for the dramatic decline of crime during this past decade, the authors maintain in a study abstract that “each of them has difficulty explaining the timing, large magnitude, persistence and widespread nature of the drop.” The researchers also predict crime rates will continue to fall slowly for 15 to 20 more years as the full effects of legalized abortion continue.

    “A better understanding of the reasons for declines in crime helps policymakers as they formulate programs to reduce crime. For instance, with lower future crime rates, there may be less need to build prisons,” Levitt said.