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. Teed Rockwell says:

    Salier writes”Lots of people assume that illegitimacy and abortion must be inversely correlated, but the historical record in America shows that they are both high at the same time and low at the same time.”

    Actually there is no reason to assume that they should be correlated at all, once we acknowledge that people chose to have children out of wedlock in greater numbers from the sixties on. Whether or not this was a wise decision, this fact shows that there is no reason to assume any correlation whatsoever between out-of-wedlock births and unwanted births. Consequently this rise in out-of-wedlock births is completely irrelevant to this issue of unwanted births, because both out-of-wedlock and within-wedlock births will contain large numbers of both wanted and unwanted births. This rise is the only fact that Sailer offers in his argument, and it doesn’t support his thesis. Consequently, all that is left is a racist classist rant against stupid dark poor people, supposedly based on “what we all saw on the street.” My guess is that Sailer’s paranoid racism stopped him from going to any of the streets where he could have actually interacted with these people, and that his descriptions are fabrications of his own diseased imagination.

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  2. DaveF says:


    I’m assuming you’re aware of recent remarks in the economist magazine that call this theory discredited :


    I thought I would ask whether there had indeed been evidence to cause you to abandon this hypothesis or whether you thought it still held.


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    • todd says:

      I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for a reply from Levitt or Donohue. After Foote and Goetz thoroughly trounced Levitt’s first example of error generation due to acute confirmatory bias ( I know of no other way of explaining it), Donohue and Levitt paid homage to compounding their own errors by publishing http://pricetheory.uchicago.edu/levitt/Papers/ResponseToFooteGoetz2006.pdf. Which was subsequently readily refuted and then not further defended. http://www.nber.org/papers/w13759 and http://scholar.harvard.edu/files/miron/files/comment_on_dl_fg_0.pdf.

      One would think that if their postulate were defensible, they’d have done so by now.

      Frankly, I find it both disheartening and astounding that such a brilliant mind as levitt’s could have been so thoroughly fooled by itself. But then, I guess, we are all human and vulnerable to egoistic hubris, or confirmatory bias, or whatever mechanism it was that resulted in the original and subsequent arguments on abortion and crime.

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  3. Andy Rhodes says:

    Regarding the Freakonomics theory that legalized abortion beginning in the 1970s was one of the major causes of the crime decline in the 1990s, Steven Pinker argues against this in his book, “The Better Angels Of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined”, pages 119-121. He says that the statistics don’t support this theory:


    The 1990s crime decline inspired one of the stranger hypotheses in the study of violence. When I told people I was writing a book on the historical decline of violence, I was repeatedly informed that the phenomenon had already been solved. Rates of violence have come down, they explained to me, because after abortion was legalized by the 1973 Roe v. Wade U.S. Supreme Court decision, the unwanted children who would ordinarily have grown up to be criminals were not born in the first place, because their begrudging or unfit mothers had had abortions instead. I first heard of this theory in 2001 when it was proposed by the economists John Donohue and Steven Levitt, but it seemed too cute to be true.147 Any hypothesis that comes out of left field to explain a massive social trend with a single overlooked event will almost certainly turn out to be wrong, even if it has some data supporting it at the time. But Levitt, together with the journalist Stephen Dubner, popularized the theory in their bestseller Freakonomics , and now a large proportion of the public believes that crime went down in the 1990s because women aborted their crime-fated fetuses in the 1970s.

    To be fair, Levitt went on to argue that Roe v. Wade was just one of four causes of the crime decline, and he has presented sophisticated correlational statistics in support of the connection. For example, he showed that the handful of states that legalized abortion before 1973 were the first to see their crime rates go down.148 But these statistics compare the two ends of a long, hypothetical, and tenuous causal chain— the availability of legal abortion as the first link and the decline in crime two decades later as the last— and ignore all the links in between. The links include the assumptions that legal abortion causes fewer unwanted children, that unwanted children are more likely to become criminals, and that the first abortion-culled generation was the one spearheading the 1990s crime decline. But there are other explanations for the overall correlation (for example, that the large liberal states that first legalized abortion were also the first states to see the rise and fall of the crack epidemic), and the intermediate links have turned out to be fragile or nonexistent.149

    To begin with, the freakonomics theory assumes that women were just as likely to have conceived unwanted children before and after 1973, and that the only difference was whether the children were born. But once abortion was legalized, couples may have treated it as a backup method of birth control and may have engaged in more unprotected sex. If the women conceived more unwanted children in the first place, the option of aborting more of them could leave the proportion of unwanted children the same. In fact, the proportion of unwanted children could even have increased if women were emboldened by the abortion option to have more unprotected sex in the heat of the moment, but then procrastinated or had second thoughts once they were pregnant. That may help explain why in the years since 1973 the proportion of children born to women in the most vulnerable categories—poor, single, teenage, and African American—did not decrease, as the freakonomics theory would predict. It increased, and by a lot.150

    What about differences among individual women within a crime-prone population? Here the freakonomics theory would seem to get things backwards. Among women who are accidentally pregnant and unprepared to raise a child, the ones who terminate their pregnancies are likely to be forwardthinking, realistic, and disciplined, whereas the ones who carry the child to term are more likely to be fatalistic, disorganized, or immaturely focused on the thought of a cute baby rather than an unruly adolescent. Several studies have borne this out.151 Young pregnant women who opt for abortions get better grades, are less likely to be on welfare, and are more likely to finish school than their counterparts who have miscarriages or carry their pregnancies to term. The availability of abortion thus may have led to a generation that is more prone to crime because it weeded out just the children who, whether through genes or environment, were most likely to exercise maturity and self-control.

    Also, the freakonomists’ theory about the psychological causes of crime comes right out of “Gee, Officer Krupke,” when a gang member says of his parents, “They didn’t wanna have me, but somehow I was had. Leapin’ lizards! That’s why I’m so bad!” And it is about as plausible. Though unwanted children may grow up to commit more crimes, it is more likely that women in crime-prone environments have more unwanted children than that unwantedness causes criminal behavior directly. In studies that pit the effects of parenting against the effects of the children’s peer environment, holding genes constant, the peer environment almost always wins.152

    Finally, if easy abortion after 1973 sculpted a more crime-averse generation, the crime decline should have begun with the youngest group and then crept up the age brackets as they got older. The sixteen-yearolds of 1993, for example (who were born in 1977, when abortions were in full swing), should have committed fewer crimes than the sixteen-year-olds of 1983 (who were born in 1967, when abortion was illegal). By similar logic, the twenty-two-year-olds of 1993 should have remained violent, because they were born in pre-Roe 1971. Only in the late 1990s, when the first post-Roe generation reached their twenties, should the twenty-something age bracket have become less violent. In fact, the opposite happened. When the first post-Roe generation came of age in the late 1980s and early 1990s, they did not tug the homicide statistics downward; they indulged in an unprecedented spree of mayhem. The crime decline began when the older cohorts, born well before Roe, laid down their guns and knives, and from them the lower homicide rates trickled down the age scale.153

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  4. kevin says:

    too hard :(

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  5. Scott Reynolds says:

    I hope there is a 3rd, 4th, and 5th book you’re working on.

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  6. Robert says:

    What about the advance of forensics and our understanding of DNA? Couldn’t that have acted as a major deterrent to crime around the same time period?

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  7. Jeff says:

    “But for every 10 percent that murder rose between 1985 and 1991, it fell by only 2.6 percent between 1991 and 1997″. Doesn’t this imply that the murder rate in 1997 was higher than 1985? I don’t understand.

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  8. Porkins says:

    Something I never seem to see in relation to this issue, is the fact that the graph for juvenile and adult violent crimes are almost identical for the peak violence years — which means that people born in the late ’70s were just as prone to violence as people born in the late ’60s. If abortion, lead exposure, or any of the other strictly age related stressors are to blame, then why is it that literally _everoyone_ went bonkers at the same time? We tend to see the term “peak crime ages” used a lot, but in reality, it was across the board. This suggests that there was a large cultural component.

    As someone who suffered through the ’80s as a teenager, the things that most affected me were: the fallout from the Vietnam War (the hoards of depressed, drug addled 20 and 30 somethings that clogged most of our public parks back in the late ’70s and ’80s); the dirt and grime in our cities which was a result of the decay of the post-WWII boom; and the horrible behaviour of the “grown ups” of the era (most of whom seemed very anti-progress, clung to power way longer than they should have, and shared very little of it with younger generations).

    In my honest, and I think very reasonable opinion, the Internet, personal computers, videogames, and the new indoor culture that they spawned had as much (if not more) to do with the taming of our youth than anything. The Internet gave people hope, as a new and powerful way to not only impact the world, but to make a solid, respectable living. And our obsession with media and videogames has grown almost in perfect relation to the drop in violent crime. The “crack” of the modern world is media, and media is not only cheap (often free), but attaining it is almost completely removed from the need for violence in any capacity.

    I’d really, really love to see someone put together data that doesn’t just blame all violent crime on “peak violence years”, but breaks it down by birth year (i.e. number of crimes per person, per birth year).

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