Abortion and crime: who should you believe?

Two very vocal critics, Steve Sailer and John Lott, have been exerting a lot of energy lately trying to convince the world that the abortion reduces crime hypothesis is not correct. A number of readers have asked me to respond to these criticisms. First, let’s start by reviewing the basic facts that support the Donohue-Levitt hypothesis that legalized abortion in the 1970s explains a substantial part of the crime decline in the 1990s:

1) Five states legalized abortion three years before Roe v. Wade. Crime started falling three years earlier in these states, with property crime (done by younger people) falling before violent crime.

2) After abortion was legalized, the availability of abortions differed dramatically across states. In some states like North Dakota and in parts of the deep South, it was virtually impossible to get an abortion even after Roe v. Wade. If one compares states that had high abortion rates in the mid 1970s to states that had low abortion rates in the mid 1970s, you see the following patterns with crime. For the period from 1973-1988, the two sets of states (high abortion states and low abortion states) have nearly identical crime patterns. Note, that this is a period before the generations exposed to legalized abortion are old enough to do much crime. So this is exactly what the Donohue-Levitt theory predicts. But from the period 1985-1997, when the post Roe cohort is reaching peak crime ages, the high abortion states see a decline in crime of 30% relative to the low abortion states. Our original data ended in 1997. If one updated the study, the results would be similar.)

3) All of the decline in crime from 1985-1997 experienced by high abortion states relative to low abortion states is concentrated among the age groups born after Roe v. Wade. For people born before abortion legalization, there is no difference in the crime patterns for high abortion and low abortion states, just as the Donohue-Levitt theory predicts.

4) When we compare arrest rates of people born in the same state, just before and just after abortion legalization, we once again see the identical pattern of lower arrest rates for those born after legalization than before.

5) The evidence from Canada, Australia, and Romania also support the hypothesis that abortion reduces crime.

6) Studies have shown a reduction in infanticide, teen age drug use, and teen age childbearing consistent with the theory that abortion will reduce other social ills similar to crime.

These six points all support the hypothesis. There is one fact that, without more careful analysis, argues against the Donohue-Levitt story:

7) The homicide rate of young males (especially young Black males) temporarily skyrocketed in the late 1980s, especially in urban centers like Los Angeles, New York City, and Washington, DC, before returning to regular levels soon thereafter. These young males who were hitting their peak crime years were born right around the time abortion was legalized.

If you look at the serious criticisms that have been leveled against the Donohue-Levitt hypothesis, virtually all of them revolve around this spike in homicide by young men in the late 1980s-early 1990s. (There are also some non-serious criticisms, which I will address below.) This is the point that Sailer is making, and also the point made far more rigorously by Ted Joyce in an article published in the Journal of Human Resources.

So, a reasonable thing to ask yourself is: Was there anything else going on in the late 1980s that might be causing young Black males to be killing each other at alarming rates that might be swamping the impact of legalized abortion over a short time period? The obvious culprit you might think about is crack cocaine. Crack cocaine was hitting the inner cities at exactly this time, disproportionately affecting minorities, and the violence was heavily concentrated among young Black males such as the gang members we write about in Freakonomics. So to figure out whether this spike in young Black male homicides is evidence against legalized abortion reducing crime, or even evidence legalized abortion causes crime, one needs to control for the crack epidemic to find the answer. This is the argument that I have been making for years. First in the Slate exchange with Steve Sailer back in 1999, then in the Donohue and Levitt response to Ted Joyce, and now in a recent paper by Roland Fryer, Paul Heaton, me, and Kevin Murphy.

The key points I mentioned in Slate five years ago in debating Sailer are reprinted below:

Your hypothesis that crack, not abortion, is the story, provides a testable alternative to our explanation of the facts. You argue:

The arrival of crack led to large increases in crime rates between 1985 and the early ’90s, particularly for inner-city African-American youths. The fall of the crack epidemic left many of the bad apples of this cohort dead, imprisoned, or scared straight. Consequently, not only did crime fall back to its original pre-crack level, but actually dropped even further in a “overshoot” effect.
States that had high abortion rates in the ’70s were hit harder by the crack epidemic, thus any link between falling crime in the ’90s and abortion rates in the ’70s is spurious.

If either assumption 1 or 2 is true, then the crack epidemic can explain some of the rise and fall in crime in the ’80s and ’90s. In order for your crack hypothesis to undermine the “abortion reduces crime” theory, however, all three assumptions must hold true.

So, let’s look at the assumptions one by one and see how they fare.

1)Did the arrival of crack lead to rising youth crime? Yes. No argument from me here.

2) Did the decline in crack lead to a “boomerang” effect in which crime actually fell by more than it had risen with the arrival of crack? Unfortunately for your story, the empirical evidence overwhelmingly rejects this claim. Using specifications similar to those in our paper, we find that the states with the biggest increases in murder over the rising crack years (1985-91) did see murder rates fall faster between 1991 and 1997. But for every 10 percent that murder rose between 1985 and 1991, it fell by only 2.6 percent between 1991 and 1997. For your story to explain the decline in crime that we attribute to legalized abortion, this estimate would have to be about five times bigger. Moreover, for violent crime and property crime, increases in these crimes over the period 1985-91 are actually associated with increases in the period 1991-97 as well. In other words, for crimes other than murder, the impact of crack is not even in the right direction for your story.

3) Were high-abortion-rate states in the ’70s hit harder by the crack epidemic in the ’90s? Given the preceding paragraph, this is a moot point, because all three assumptions must be true to undermine the abortion story, but let’s look anyway. A reasonable proxy for how hard the crack epidemic hit a state is the rise in crime in that state over the period 1985-91. Your theory requires a large positive correlation between abortion rates in a state in the ’70s and the rise in crime in that state between 1985 and 1991. In fact the actual correlations, depending on the crime category, range between -.32 and +.09 Thus, the claim that high-abortion states are the same states that were hit hardest by crack is not true empirically. While some states with high abortion rates did have a lot of crack (e.g., New York and D.C.), Vermont, Kansas, Hawaii, Massachusetts, and Washington were among the 10 states with the highest abortion rates in the ’70s. These were not exactly the epicenters of the crack epidemic.

So, what is the final tally? Two of the key assumptions underlying your alternative hypothesis appear to be false: The retreat of crack has not led to an “overshoot” in crime, causing it to be lower than 1985, and even if it had, the states with high abortion rates in the ’70s do not appear to be affected particularly strongly by the crack epidemic. Moreover, when we re-run our analysis controlling for both changes in crime rates from 1985 to 1991 and the level of crime in 1991, the abortion variable comes in just as strongly as in our original analysis.

Re-reading this response five years later, it still sounds pretty good to me. Interestingly, at the time, Sailer refused to respond directly to my arguments. His response in Slate completely side-stepped the fact that I had destroyed his core argument. He wrote, for instance, “…rather than mud wrestle in numbers here, I’ll privately send you my technical suggestions. In this essay I’ll step back and explain why this straightforward insight [that abortion reduces crime] might not work in practice.” I should note that I am still waiting for those technical suggestions he promised to arrive!! And if you compare his Slate arguments to his “new” article in the American Conservative, you will see that his thinking has not progressed very far on the issue. In contrast, I spent two years working on that paper on crack cocaine, which provides hard, quantitative evidence in favor of those earlier conjectures I had made.

Now let’s talk about John Lott for a minute. Along with John Whitley, he wrote a paper on abortion and crime. It is so loaded with inaccurate claims, errors and statistical mistakes that I hate to even provide a link to it, but for the sake of completeness you can find it here. Virtually nothing in this paper is correct, and it is no coincidence that four years later it remains unpublished. In a letter to the editor at Wall Street Journal, Lott claims that our results are driven by the particular measure of abortions that we used in the first paper. I guess he never bothered to read our response to Joyce in which we show in Table 1 that the results are nearly identical when we use his preferred data source. It is understandable that he could make this argument five years ago, but why would he persist in making it in 2005 when it has been definitively shown to be false? (I’ll let you put on your Freakonomics-thinking-hat and figure out the answer to that last question.) As Lott and Whitley are by now well aware, the statistical results they get in that paper are an artifact of some bizarre choices they made and any reasonable treatment of the data returns our initial results. (Even Ted Joyce, our critic, acknowledges that the basic patterns in the data we report are there, which Lott and Whitley were trying to challenge.)

To anyone who actually made it this far, I applaud you for your patience. Let me simply end with an analogy. Let’s say that we are living in a world in which global warming is taking place, but also a world in which El Nino occasionally leads to radical, short run disruptions in normal weather patterns. You wouldn’t argue that global warming is false because for a year or two we had cold winters. You’d want to figure out what effect El Nino has on winter weather and then see whether controlling for El Nino it looks like global warming is taking place. The impact of legalized abortion on crime is a lot like global warming — it is slow and steady and grows a little year by year. Crack is like El Nino, it comes in with a fury and then largely disappears. That is why I have invested so much time and effort in understanding both abortion and crack, and why the criticisms made against the abortion-reduces-crime hypothesis to date have not been very compelling.

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  1. While analogy is a powerful tool and Steven attempts to avoid importing disagreements in the arena of statistical combat over global warming into that of the social consequences of abortion by using a loosely ‘arguendo’ technique, i.e. “Let’s say that we are living in a world in which global warming is taking place”, he simultaneously invokes the ‘be careful what you wish for’ proposition.

    If we were to take these abortion arguments in the context of those over global warming, in line with this analogy, this would buttress the case of those who suggest that it we haven’t a clue of all the variables involved and that trying to tease a clear result in favor of a predominate influence for one variable is almost inevitably the result of subconsciously favoring that argument (well, in the case of global warming it mayn’t be subconscious).

    In other words, lets forget about the varying strength of the sun, let’s all but give up on reliable modeling of how cloud formation figures in this dynamic regimen, and when the results don’t seem to support the original proposition don’t go zero sum, look for a factor to back out and support the original conclusion about the cause. This starts to sound a lot more like judges looking for precedents that get them to a desired outcome in a case than a scientists reaching articulately defensible propositions.

    The abortion reduces crime theory has far more intuitive plausibility (without regard to what one thinks of abortion) than a human signal in global warming. This is not to advance the notion that a human contribution to climate via CO2 emission is implausible or nonexistent, but to suggest that any rational consideration of the climate system puts global warming more in the realm of a ‘tipping point’ theory than a solid statistical argument) and I think Steven thus does his arguments a disservice for the sake of a simple analogy.

    Of course the idea of El Nino as representative of the ‘crack’ epidemic is convenient, but in the world of global warming advocacy virtually all weather changes are blamed by the popular press reprinting environmentalist news release on the purported background trend rather than seriously advancing the idea of disaggregation. If you have a colder winter it’s global warming, if you have a warmer winter it’s global warming, if Florida gets hit by 4 hurricanes its global warming, some folks even pussyfooted around with how to blame the southeast Asian tsunami on global warming. Given that the very idea of Freakonomics is putting these analyses before popular, rather than scientific, readers there is a great risk in invoking this comparison.

    I do appreciate the reasoned response to Sailer’s essay and it is telling that there has been no comeback. However I think Tierney has the right idea in the article on your debate with Gladwell (unsurprisingly in my book as Tierney first burst onto my viewscreen with a radical – some would argue reactionary but, once the status quo goes over to the progressives, libertarian economists become the radicals — debunking of the notion that recycling was necessarily a good idea). He seems to be saying that cooler heads should prevail. That there likely is not a stupendous narrative in the New York crime story but numerous factors that contributed to a new equilibrium.

    It may be rhetorically convenient to focus on the squeegee men in the same way that politicians focus on some tiny constituency of the electorate that they think offers them the extra percentage point to win a close election while all but ignoring the base that got them to 49%. Nor should one necessarily disregard the possibility that the public perception of that waning squegee trend or other similar discouragements regarding who ‘owned’ the streets could have significantly contributed to a co-dependent effect I intuit that more comfort with the streets means more people on the streets as pedestrians, as subway riders, etc. making them plausibly safer by creating more possible observors and intervenors relative to crime. Crime must retreat to the fringes where people are fewer and easier to pick off meaning it loses geographically as well as demographically.

    But Tierney points to the ‘base’ of these trends, more police — perhaps more to the point a 100% increase in performance (25% to 50% of police actually policing). He only hints at the statistical basis for this claim but this could represent to crime what solar influence represents to global warming, i.e. the lion’s share. Figuring this out is going to be difficult, but presumably there was some significant change in arrests or convictions per officer. Of course the question is does that mean more crime was going on or more criminals were being apprehended. My guess is that it is really going to be difficult to find good data sets that could compare the multiplicity of social factors that contributed. That does not negate the idea that a strong signal on the effect of legalized abortion deserves serious inquiry.

    I haven’t seen anything in this argumentation regarding whether one can fairly relate crime rates to the absolute number of criminals. My recollection is that the solving of crime is still relatively low although I can’t quote any numbers (it is something that sticks in the back of mind like peanut butter on the tongue) so how do we know how many people were actually committing these crimes. How do we know that a diminished crime rate doesn’t still represent more people committing a small number of crimes? In which case the fundamental notion that abortion reduced the number of likely criminals wouldn’t wash. Can these statistics be translated reliably into comparative numbers of individuals? One supposes of the crimes that are ‘solved’ you can try to extrapolate the number of murders per murderer or robberies per robber although that would only apply for the solved murders and robberies and not necessarily insure that we understood the number of other crimes that may or may not have been committed by convicted criminals.

    Now I’m just dreaming up confounders. So it’s time to throw it back to the blog. I do agree with Tierney’s conclusion that the ideas that make you comfortable are the one’s to watch out for. Of course that is a two-way street. The ‘abortion reduces crime’ argument makes me comfortable. It seems not simply intuitively, but deductively, seductive, so I’m watching out for it.


    Brian (not the same Brian – as Monty Python’s troupe once said, “I’m Brian and so’s me wife”)

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 24 Thumb down 28
  2. Steve Sailer says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

    Disliked! Like or Dislike: Thumb up 35 Thumb down 42
    • ELi says:

      Yes, but my understanding was that the argument was based on the data from each state, where decreases in crime trailed the legalization of abortion. That is, the data tell us which of the competing (and perhaps equally appealing) theories is accurate. I admit, I’m not familiar with the data beyond what Levitt presents. Are the data false or misleading?

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  3. George B says:

    Levitt’s thesis is not an argument about the ethics of abortion. In fact, he may not have even framed his thesis in the most effective way. If he had a way to measure the number or rate of undesired pregnancies that were carried to term with the unwanted child kept by the birth mother he might have a better way to frame the problem to those that don’t believe in abortion. Levitt’s analyzes an unintended consequence of Roe v. Wade – a likely reduction of the crime rate. However, because his analysis concludes that unwanted children are much more likely to become criminals than wanted children, there are other solutions than abortion to help reduce crime.

    Those that believe abortion is wrong would benefit their cause by supporting alternatives to abortion to reduce the number of unwanted children. Churches that oppose birth control aren’t helping the cause of reducing the number of abortions, for example. Conservatives that oppose sex education and providing birth control to minors are likely to increase the abortion rate and/or the crime rate. Liberals who support generous welfare programs are likely to have the unintended consequence of increasing the crime rate by encouraging mothers to keep children that are unwanted other than for the payments.

    I suspect one factor contributing to the high rate of crime in the African American community is that black babies are more likely to end up in foster care than babies of other backgrounds. There is a huge demand for adopting white babies so no unwanted white child need be kept by the birth parents. If the adoption demand for black babies could be increased, it is reasonable to conclude that crime could be reduced.

    If conservatives want to decrease the abortion rate they could press to change laws that prevent mothers from benefiting financially from giving up babies. While we may view baby selling as unethical, it is rational to conclude that allowing baby selling would reduce the abortion rate.

    My primary point is that there are often unintended consequences to laws that we don’t recognize. When someone like Levitt identifies an unintended consequence he is providing information that helps us make informed decisions. Much of the discussion here seems to be missing that point.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 55 Thumb down 5
  4. porchwise says:

    I don’t think deadman understood your analogy otherwise he would have thrown smog into your analogy. Anyway, I think your essay was well put. Now, WHERE is the blog on your interview with O’Reily. And did this particular subject come up? I can imagine he’d answer this with spin/spun/spin/spun etc.

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  5. Jacob says:

    Is this is the same John Lott who-sotto voce-smeared you by calling you “rabidly antigun” and then continued to attack you in his book?

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  6. Thomas says:

    When abortion is outlawed, what will social conservatives say when kids who may have been aborted get into Harvard instead of their kid?

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  7. The Real ME says:

    Crime goes in waves just like everything else in this country. I think it is impossiable to say 1 or even 2 social issues were the cause of a increase or decrease in crime. It’s so many factors. For example all accross the country crime increases during the summer, it is certainly more factors than just the heat.

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  8. Bryan says:

    I dont know if you are anti gun or not. I am very pro gun. The study that shows states with increased concealed carry rights have lower crime rates work just as well.

    Lets face it. The only way to end most crime is to completely end poverty.

    I escaped poverty the only way I had at the time. I joined the military after losing my academic scholarship.

    I have been in 8 years. Am I a patriotic chest thumper? Hell no. Do I believe abortion should be unrestricted? yes. let the OB/GYNs do their jobs.

    Do I believe that guns should be restricted? With the exception of the GCA of 1968 and the NFA of 1934, I dont think we need more laws. Just more enforcement. I also dont think we should have to have special permits to carry firearms on our person, provided they arent concealed.

    Anyway, great article, enough of my ranting.

    SPC Trim OUt.

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