Cause or Coincidence? Drop in Crime Rate Tied to Advent of Legal Abortions

America's dramatic drop in crime during the 1990s has been attributed to everything from the strong economy and tougher laws to the massive increase in the number of prisons.  But none of the reasons scholars have offered to explain the nation's safer climate are as controversial as that being proposed by Stanford Law Professor John Donahue.

In research to be published in this month's Harvard Quarterly Journal of Economics, Donahue and a co-researcher claim legalized abortion may account for as much as half of the recent crime reduction.

According to the study, the crime rate in America dropped 18 years after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion, reducing the number of mothers who gave birth to unwanted children, and thus reducing the number of people alive today who would be in the peak age group and demographic for committing crimes.
"The bottom line conclusion is that unwanted children tend to do very badly in many life outcomes, one of them being involvement in criminal activity," said Donohue. "The legalization of abortion in 1973 seems to have dramatically reduced the number of unwanted children and because of those two facts being together we see a drop in crime in the 1990's."

Donohue said his study is not pushing a pro-choice agenda, nor is he recommending abortion as a crime deterrent tool. Instead, he said his study points out the importance of making sure children are born into loving and nurturing environments and preventing unwanted pregnancies.
"All of the beneficial consequences that we observe from the legalization of abortion could be directly generated by having reductions in unwanted pregnancies," Donahue said. "If we want to reduce crime, one way we can do that is to make the lives of children better, more profitable and hopefully increase the number of kids who are brought into loving nurturing families."

The study has elicited strong opposition from abortion foes, but even some researchers neutral on the issue of abortion claim the study doesn't hold up under tough scrutiny.
Statistician David Murray of the Statistical Assessment Service said the drop in crime rate correlates with a number of different social and cultural developments during the same time period -- everything from the advent of the Internet to the demise of disco music. The latter no more explain the drop in crime than legalized abortion does, he said.

"They didn't ask the right question and as soon as you ask the right question the effect they think they're seeing disappears and the picture becomes much more obscure, much more cloudy," Murray said.

Murray said young males between the ages of 17 and 25 do commit the majority of crimes. If abortion did reduce crime, crime rates would have dropped first among young people. They haven't. The number of crimes committed by older people dropped first.

"Your trying to identify, retroactively looking backwards, (if) these people (would) have been likely criminals because they fall in social categories that are also likely to be aborted," said Murray, who said the study amounted to racial profiling.
He said that while the rate of homicide committed by young men has dropped, the rate of aggravated assaults among the young has increased. And the rate of homicides committed by young females -- which should have been equally affected by abortion as males -- has not dropped.
"They didn't ask the right question, they looked at all crimes aggregated together and they looked at all age groups within a certain frame as to whether they have committed crimes," Murray said.

Maryanne Hackett, a spokesperson for the Illinois chapter of Right to Life, said the 1.5 million abortions performed in the U.S. every year span the population spectrum.
"You're not just losing a certain group that might be criminals," Hacket said. "You're losing people that contribute and are valuable to society," she said. 

Hackett said looking to abortion as a solution for the crime problem would be like killing prisoners and drug users to solve crime problems. "We're substituting one thing for another. We're not really solving our problems, we're just killing the people that we think create the problems," she said.

Donohue said his research is not intended to advocate abortions. In fact, it suggests the opposite, he said, it makes the case for reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies and abortions.

"Let's reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies and therefore reduce the need for having 1.5 million abortions in a given year in the United States," Donohue said.  "This country doesn't do a particularly good job of making sure that the kids who come into this world are brought into good loving and nurturing environments and are given the sort of life circumstances that will increase their chance for a useful and productive life."