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President’s Page: Abortion, Crime and Punishment

Not long ago, I was in Cleveland to speak to a pro-life group. At the dinner before the talk, one of my tablemates, who professed to be wholeheartedly against abortion, trotted out the argument that the legalization of abortion in the early 1970s led to a major drop in murder and other violent crimes a generation later.

He had just read Freakonomics by University of Chicago Professor Steven D. Levitt, who maintains that legalized abortion led to a large drop in murder and other violent crime in the late 1980s and early ’90s, and that it continues to reduce crime today. The book suggests that if the aborted fetuses had instead been born, they would have become adults more likely to commit crimes because they were unwanted by their mothers.

Roe v. Wade and Crime

Levitt, who claims to be agnostic on the question of abortion, says that Roe v. Wade resulted in a savings of $30 billion a year due to less crime.

I have heard variations of this argument for years from Planned Parenthood types, who are eager to seize upon any justification for abortion. But it was disconcerting to hear it from friends on the pro-life side.

“I disagree,” I said politely (after all, I was an invited guest). “The legalization of abortion has actually caused violent crime to rise.”

Abortion is Violence

First of all, I said, every abortion is itself a violent crime, taking the life of an innocent unborn child. Beyond that obvious and (to my way of thinking) devastating retort, I added that abortion probably causes violent crime to rise. How so? The widespread availability of abortion led to a breakdown in morals and family structure, which led to increased violence against women and children. After all, if it is legal to kill children before birth, then why not abuse them after birth? It was a common-sense argument verified by real life experience.

And if one wants to talk costs, I went on, then every abortion costs the US. economy the better part of a million dollars in lost production-the present future value of the earnings of the discarded baby. At a million plus abortions a year, the cost of abortions to the U.S. economy is well into the trillions. So much for mere billions of dollars of savings.

My tablemate was not entirely convinced during dinner. So I took advantage of my captive audience to pound the point home during my talk.

Now my argument is receiving additional statistical support from a high-profile economist, Professor John R. Lott Jr., a former University of Chicago economist now teaching in New York. In a paper to appear in the October issue of the journal Economic Inquiry, Lott and fellow researcher John Whitley say that legalization of abortion prompted a cultural change that increased the number of children born out of wedlock. Those children of unwed mothers were more likely to commit murder than children born in wedlock.

In 1998 alone, Lott and Whitley calculate, there were 700 more murders than there would have been absent Roe v. Wade, murders which cost the public more than $3.3 billion in “victimization costs.”

Defective Study

The Levitt study was defective, says Lott, because it did not consider the increased number of children born out of wedlock. As anyone who has followed the sexual follies of the late ’60s and early ’70s knows, the legalization of abortion made women more likely to have premarital sex, but less likely to get married. Many had their babies and raised them as single parents. It is common knowledge that such children are more likely to get into trouble as they grow older, a fact which Lott attributes to the smaller investment in “human capital” that their parents made in them.

Lott rehearses the dismal percentages of children born out of wedlock. On average, his paper says, about 5% of whites were born out of wedlock from 1965 to 1969, rising two decades later to 16%. For blacks, the figure rose from about 35% to about 62%, the paper says. Before legalized abortion, more than 70% of children born out of wedlock ended up in families with a father, but the fraction fell to 44% in 1984, according to the paper.

Abortion has thus caused an increase in violent crime, and society as a whole is being punished for its failure to protect the defenseless.

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