Research shows that abortion and crime rate are related. Legalizing abortion increases murder rates by up to 7%. This is because legalizing abortion is a contributing factor to the great increase in out‑of‑wedlock births and single parent families, which in turn contribute to increased crime rates.
However, most people believe a faulty study that concluded abortion increases crime rates. Let us consider the evidence.
The Pro-Abortion Theory: Abortion and Crime Rate
Throughout the twentieth century, eugenicists promoted abortion and birth control, claiming that if the “lower classes” would only have fewer children, crime would also decline. This was one of the primary themes of Margaret Sanger’s Birth Control Review, in which Montgomery Mulford wrote that “I am of the belief that the acceptance of birth control by society, and its frank teaching, can help diminish criminal activity!”1
This theme still resonates strongly with many people today. The best-known study of the abortion-crime connection was performed by John J. Donohue III and Steven D. Levitt in 2001. In Harvard University’s Quarterly Journal of Economics, they concluded that “Legalized abortion contributed significantly to recent crime reductions . . . . Legalized abortion appears to account for as much as 50 percent of the recent drop in crime.” The authors noted, “Crime began to fall roughly 18 years after abortion legalization,” and that the social benefit of this decrease in crime is about $30 billion annually.2
Donohue and Levitt wrote that, since 1991 ― 18 years after Roe v. Wade legalized abortion ― murder rates have fallen faster than at any time since the end of Prohibition in 1933. They added that the five states that legalized abortion earlier than 1973 [New York, California, Washington, Hawaii and Alaska] also experienced earlier declines in crime. Finally, they found that states with especially high abortion rates in the 1970s and 1980s had equally dramatic crime reductions3 in the 1990s.
Levitt went on to co-author the 2005 bestseller Freakonomics, in which he reiterated his thesis that the legalization of abortion is responsible for half of the recent drop in violent crime.
Prominent pro‑abortion groups and leaders immediately seized on the conclusion of the Donohue‑Levitt study and used it as justification for promoting and funding the practice of abortion. For example, Canadian abortionist Henry Morgentaler, in an op‑ed piece heartlessly entitled “It’s Better for Us that They Died,” declared moral vindication and grumbled that he had been saying for decades that abortion and crime rate are related.4
Pro-Life Argument on Abortion and Crime Rate
Donohue and Levitt5 are certainly correct when they say that violent and property crimes are down by astonishing numbers since 1991:
- Murder rate has decreased 49%
- Forcible rapes, 32%
- Robberies, 50%
- Aggravated assault, 39%
- Property crimes, 41%
Additionally, states with very high abortion rates in the 1970s and 1980s also had correspondingly dramatic crime reductions6 in the 1990s.
While Donohue and Levitt were doing their research, however, other scientists were arriving at opposite results, refuting the theory that abortion and crime rate directly affect one another.
Law professors John R. Lott, Jr. of Yale Law School and John E. Whitley of the University of Adelaide found that legalizing abortion increased murder rates by up to 7%. They concluded that legalizing abortion is a contributing factor to the great increase in out‑of‑wedlock births and single parent families, which in turn contribute to increased crime rates. Since 1970, the percentage of single‑parent households in the United States has nearly tripled, from 11 percent to 32 percent, and the percentage of out‑of‑wedlock births has nearly quadrupled, from 11 percent to 43 percent of all children.7 Children born out-of-wedlock and raised by only one parent have a significantly higher incidence of crime.
There are many other fundamental problems with the conclusion that legalized abortion and crime rate increase are related:
- Crime rate dropped first among older people. Statistician David Murray confirms that young males between the ages of 17 and 25 commit the majority of crimes. If abortion reduces crime, the crime rates in the United States should have dropped first among young people. Instead, the number of crimes committed by older people dropped first. Nearly 60% of the decline in murder since 1990 involved killers aged 25 and older — who were born before Roe v. Wade.8
- Other nations with high abortion rates had a large increase in crime about eighteen years after legalizing abortion, as Murray found. For example, in Great Britain, which legalized abortion in 1968, violent crime has been rising steeply since about 1985 ― exactly when it should have been declining, according to the Donohue‑Levitt thesis. Additionally, Russia, with the highest abortion rate on earth, has experienced a tidal wave of every kind of violent crime following the breakup of the Soviet Union.9
- Teen murder rates were higher for teens born after the legalization of abortion. FBI statistics show that the murder rate in 1993 for 14‑ to 17‑year‑olds in the USA (born in the years 1975‑1979, which had very high abortion rates) was 3.6 times higher than that of kids who were the same age in 1984 (who were born in the pre‑legalization years of 1966‑1970).
- Murder rates have skyrocketed among black people. Since black women have abortions at a much higher rate than white women, we should have expected the murder rate among black youth to have declined beginning in about 1991. Instead, it increased more than five hundred percent from 1984 to 1993.10
- Crime rate rose when abortion rates were constant. If abortion reduces crime, the crime rate should have been relatively stable during the time period 1980 to 1991. Instead, the crime rate rose during the time period 1984 to 1991, after a decline from 1980 to 1984.
The huge increase in violent crime that peaked in 1991 and then began to decline is more closely related to the crack epidemic, not abortion. The Donohue‑Levitt study confirms that the crime rate rose and fell exactly where crack cocaine was most easily available ― in the large cities and among young black males.11
The Moral Argument
The central thesis of the Donohue‑Levitt study is a refinement of the pro-abortion slogan “Every child a wanted child.” They said that because a difficult home environment leads to an increased risk of criminality, increased abortion reduces unwantedness and therefore abortion and crime rate are connected.
However, although criminals may more likely come from a “difficult home environment,” many talented and gifted individuals have as well, including: John Lennon, Charlie Chaplin, Louis Armstrong, playwright Eugene O’Neill, Audrey Hepburn, James Dean, Merle Haggard, comedian Tim Allen and, ironically, the politician who has most fanatically supported abortion in the history of the nation, Barack Obama.12
The point here is this: No matter how terrible a home environment is, no child is certain to become a criminal. Crime is not programmed into our DNA. Any program intended to help exterminate the preborn children of the poor is simply pre-emptive capital punishment ― curiously supported by many of the same people who oppose the death penalty for adult criminals.
Correlating abortion and crime rate increase assumes that a child cannot choose whether or not he is a criminal.
Negative Effects of Abortion on Society
Donohue and Levitt also say in their study that because there is a correlation between abortion and crime rate increase, legalizing abortion has caused a social benefit that amounts to $30 billion annually.
This is a narrow and short-sighted view, completely neglecting the benefits each person contributes to society. The direct cost13 of each abortion to society in terms of lost consumption and taxes paid amounts to, on average, $3,720,000. There are about 1,210,000 abortions performed annually in the United States. This means that the total direct cost of abortion in the United States every single year is about four and a half trillion dollars.
So if we use Donohue and Levitt’s benefit numbers, for every dollar of social benefit we accrue from reduced crime rates due to abortion, we lose $150.
How to Really Fix the Crime Rate
In the last paragraph of their paper, Donohue and Levitt agree that an equivalent reduction in crime would be caused by “providing better environments for those children at greatest risk for future crime.”
So the question for all of us, pro- and anti-lifers and alike, is this: Do we want to attack the symptom or the cause? Do we clumsily and bloodily try to eliminate even more criminals through the mechanisms of eugenics, abortion, sterilization and birth control (programs that have proved themselves unequal to the task), or do we embrace the proven remedies of strengthening family life, enforcing the law and providing education, resources and better living conditions for the poor?
Stephen Levitt believes that working on his controversial research actually moved him further toward a pro‑life position. He agrees that one could conclude from the evidence he and Levitt compiled that the answer isn’t more abortions but better education and living conditions for the poor.14
Margaret Sanger advocated the elimination of “human weeds” many years ago in the United States. Wrong about so many things, she certainly erred in claiming a correlation between abortion and crime rate increase. And her eugenics programs did not improve the lot of the poor ― all she did was turn large poor families into small poor families.
Current‑day eugenicists are pushing the same failed program.
A version of this article appeared in The Wanderer.
1 Montgomery Mulford. “Birth Control Lessens Crime.” Birth Control Review, Volume XV, Number 10 (October 1931), page 293. For 888 quotes from Margaret Sanger’s Birth Control Review, e-mail Brian Clowes at email@example.com.
2 John J. Donohue III and Stephen D. Levitt. “The Impact of Legalized Abortion on Crime.” Harvard University’s Quarterly Journal of Economics, May 2001.
4 Canadian abortionist Henry Morgentaler. “It’s Better for Us that They Died.” Guest op‑ed piece in the May 18, 2001 Canadian National Post.
5 For calculations and references, e-mail Brian Clowes at firstname.lastname@example.org and ask for Excel spreadsheet F-24-12, “Violent and Property Crime Incidence and Rates in the United States, 1979-2009.”
6 For calculations and references on state crime rates, e-mail Brian Clowes at email@example.com and ask for Excel spreadsheet F-24-13, “Correlation Between Abortion Rates and Violent Crime Rate Decreases in the States, 1980-2009.” Other statistics that seem to support Donohue’s and Levitt’s conclusions include (1) Unmarried women and teenage girls account for 84 percent of all abortions obtained in the United States, and half of all unmarried women’s pregnancies end in abortion, as compared to only eight percent of married women’s pregnancies (see Excel spreadsheet F-24-A.XLS). Children born to such mothers have a higher than normal probability of committing crimes in the peak ages for crime, 18 to 24. Therefore, a higher abortion rate among unmarried women would apparently lead to a decrease in crime; (2) The likelihood of future criminal behavior declines if children are born into better environments. Teenagers and unmarried and poor women are most likely to consider a pregnancy unwanted, and unintended pregnancies are associated with poor prenatal care, greater smoking and drinking during pregnancy, and lower birth weights, all associated with higher crime rates in children.
7 For calculations and references, e-mail Brian Clowes at firstname.lastname@example.org and ask for Excel spreadsheet F-24-14, “The Increase in Single-Parent Households and Out-of-Wedlock Births in the United States, 1960 to 2010.”
8 “Statistician Says Abortion‑Crime Study is Erroneous.” Fox News, May 16, 2001; Steven Ertelt’s Pro‑Life Infonet, May 17, 2001. Also see the National Post online, May 17, 2001.
10 Federal Bureau of Investigation, United States Department of Justice Web site, table entitled “Homicide Offenders by Age, Gender, and Race, 1976‑99.”
12 John W. Whitehead. “Check the Facts.” The Washington Times, June 28, 2001.
13 For calculations and references, e-mail Brian Clowes at email@example.com and ask for Excel spreadsheet F-24-16, “The Economic Impact of Abortion on the United States.”
14 John J. Donohue III and Stephen D. Levitt. “The Impact of Legalized Abortion on Crime.” Harvard University’s Quarterly Journal of Economics, May 2001.