Steve Sailer asks an excellent question

In response to my last blog post, Steve Sailer posed the following question in the comments:

The abortion rate among whites fell from 19 in 1991 to 11 in 1999, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute of Planned Parenthood. Should we thus soon expect an upturn in crime rates among white 14-17 year olds?

This is a great question. And the answer — no, we likely shouldn’t expect an upturn in crime — may surprise you.

The theory that Donohue and I put forth regarding a link between legalized abortion and crime was based on the following logic:

1) Unwanted children are at higher risk for crime
2) Legalized abortion reduced the number of unwanted children

and therefore

3) Legalized abortion reduced crime.

It isn’t abortion per se that matters, it is the number of unwanted children.

Legalization mattered because after abortion became legal the cost (financial, social stigma, availability, etc.) of getting an abortion plunged. When abortions got cheaper, women on the margin for having an unwanted child elected not to.

But the factors at work in the 1990s that led to declining numbers of abortions were probably not principally tied to an increase in the cost of abortions. Rather, it appears that the 1990s were a time when factors such as AIDS were leading people to, for instance, use condoms or abstain from sex altogether. Not conceiving an unwanted baby is equally effective in reducing unwantedness as having an abortion.

It is a subtle point, one that is missed by most people thinking about the issue, but whether more abortions should be associated with less crime, or possibly with more crime, hinges critically on whether the change in the number of abortions is due to a change in the price of abortions (a movement along the demand curve) or a change in the number of unwanted conceptions (a shift to a different demand curve). Only for movements along the demand curve does theory predict a negative relationship between abortion and crime. When changes in the numbers are due to shifts in the demand curve for abortion, the relationship between abortion and crime is actually positive!

Here’s another way to think about it. The total number of unwanted births is equal to the number of unwanted conceptions times the fraction of women who don’t abort those unwanted pregnancies. Let’s assume that a woman who has conceived an unwanted pregnancy is equally likely to get an abortion in the 1990s or the 1970s, but that because of fear of AIDS, people use condoms and have fewer unwanted conceptions. With fewer unwanted conceptions, there will be both fewer abortions and fewer unwanted births. In that case, lower 1990s abortions are a harbinger of future crime reductions, not future crime increases.

The only argument one could make for declining abortions in the 1990s leading to rising crime rates down the road would be if you think that various abortion restrictions like the Hyde Amendment, protests outside Planned Parenthood, etc. substantially raised the costs of getting an abortion. That may be true, but my sense is that most people who studied it don’t think these factors had such a big impact.

Along with Lars Lefgren, my former student now at BYU, I was writing a paper that made this point formally. Somewhere along the way got sidetracked and never finished it. We probably should because I am certain that before long someone who doesn’t understand the point will follow exactly the line of argument Steve Sailer put forth, not find a negative relationship between abortion and crime for kids born in the 1990s, and erroneously state that it invalidates the arguments Donohue and I made about the 1970s.


wcw

Is there any data from which you could try teasing the lagged effect of more-available contraception on crime rates? You would think that that could form a nice, out-of-sample confirmation of your fundamental hypothesis.

ConnieH

Note also that there are some new and improved birth control methods out there, most importantly, =implants that last up to five years=. That alone may bring down the teen out of wedlock pregnancy rate by quite a bit.

crunchy frog

I wonder if it would be possible to determine the effect of attitudes toward abortion and contraception on the crime rate. If a large enough group of women consider the use of one or both to be morally wrong, is the end result any different than if neither were available?

Electrasteph

A major reason that abortions decreased in the early nineties had to do with the economy; lots more moms moved from the working poor into jobs with healthcare benefits and childcare, and decided to have the kids instead of aborting them. But your point remains true; fewer children were in the "unwanted" category than previously.

If reducing the number of abortions is a long-term goal in our country, figuring out why people are having them in the first place should be the first step in the process. Studies show that women have abortions because they can't afford healthcare to have a child or child care to care for it while working, not because they truly don't "want" it - and if women are able to work at jobs where they have healthcare and childcare, they will almost always have the baby.

The solution to ending abortion is to end poverty.

jomill2000

Steve,

A very nice question, as this is the same one which I have after reading Freakonomics. Mr. Levitt can take an interesting premise (abortion vs. crime) to look retrospectively, but cannot do so prospectively. Now you now he's an economist by trade!

To Electrasteph's comment on this blog, have you at all learned about this fine program initiated in the 1960's dubbed the "War on Poverty"? How is that program working for you?

eburns

I think there's still one aspect of your statistics you have overlooked. Morally, you'd have to conclude that an increased abortion rate "IS" an increase in crime.

There's one situation in which I believe abortion may obviously be perceived as legitimate. If you could determine with 100% accuracy that the fetus to be aborted would, sometime during it's lifetime, come to believe abortion was acceptable - then that's OK to abort that individual. In fact, you could make such a procedure retroactive up until the individual reaches age 80 or so. (probably should take senility into account) If the individual believes abortion is acceptable, encase that person in a large artificial womb and extract their body parts through a small orifice at the bottom with an appropriately sized stainless steel hook.

edwardmking

Um... I'm not sure what eburns is on about. I'll assume that was a joke.

I think the point here is not that abortion prevents crime per se, but that the option prevents crime. Like any market, the availability of choice creates optimal efficiency. It's a lot like the pro-life/pro-choice dichotomy. The difference between pro-choice and pro-abortion should be noted. In my mind, being pro-choice does not neccesarily encourage abortion, it only advocates the option. Many people I know who are pro-choice say they would never make that choice for themselves, but rather support the ability of others to do so.

I brought up this topic with my sister who is militantly liberal (we often butt heads). She did bring up an interesting point: just because abortion is illegal doesn't mean that women aren't getting abortions. I realize that the significant factor is the dramaticly lower cost of abortion when it is legal. However, I wonder if a link between criminalized abortion and crime could be found. Perhaps criminalized abortion could foster crime in the same way that criminalized marijuana does. That is, since marijuana is illegal one must associate with criminals to use it. Or, perhaps criminalized abortion is like criminalized prostitution.

Make sense? This is my first post - let me know if I'm using proper etiquette here. Cheers!

Read more...

Urban Shocker

It seems to me that your argument would be stronger on this issue by proving 1, that is that "Unwanted children are at higher risk for crime".

I don't have a copy of the book handy, but you demonstrated that states with legalized abortion have lower crime, states that were slower to legalize had a lag in crime rate reductions that correlated with their legalization.

Still...surely even today some states have lower abortion rates than others. If you could test for "unwantedness" and then saw states with higher "unwantedness", or lower abortion rates, yet higher crime, wouldn't this prove your thesis as well?

angelofthenorth

Urban Shocker - yes, that lag is demonstrated in the book.

wcw

Is there any data from which you could try teasing the lagged effect of more-available contraception on crime rates? You would think that that could form a nice, out-of-sample confirmation of your fundamental hypothesis.

ConnieH

Note also that there are some new and improved birth control methods out there, most importantly, =implants that last up to five years=. That alone may bring down the teen out of wedlock pregnancy rate by quite a bit.

crunchy frog

I wonder if it would be possible to determine the effect of attitudes toward abortion and contraception on the crime rate. If a large enough group of women consider the use of one or both to be morally wrong, is the end result any different than if neither were available?

Electrasteph

A major reason that abortions decreased in the early nineties had to do with the economy; lots more moms moved from the working poor into jobs with healthcare benefits and childcare, and decided to have the kids instead of aborting them. But your point remains true; fewer children were in the "unwanted" category than previously.

If reducing the number of abortions is a long-term goal in our country, figuring out why people are having them in the first place should be the first step in the process. Studies show that women have abortions because they can't afford healthcare to have a child or child care to care for it while working, not because they truly don't "want" it - and if women are able to work at jobs where they have healthcare and childcare, they will almost always have the baby.

The solution to ending abortion is to end poverty.

jomill2000

Steve,

A very nice question, as this is the same one which I have after reading Freakonomics. Mr. Levitt can take an interesting premise (abortion vs. crime) to look retrospectively, but cannot do so prospectively. Now you now he's an economist by trade!

To Electrasteph's comment on this blog, have you at all learned about this fine program initiated in the 1960's dubbed the "War on Poverty"? How is that program working for you?

eburns

I think there's still one aspect of your statistics you have overlooked. Morally, you'd have to conclude that an increased abortion rate "IS" an increase in crime.

There's one situation in which I believe abortion may obviously be perceived as legitimate. If you could determine with 100% accuracy that the fetus to be aborted would, sometime during it's lifetime, come to believe abortion was acceptable - then that's OK to abort that individual. In fact, you could make such a procedure retroactive up until the individual reaches age 80 or so. (probably should take senility into account) If the individual believes abortion is acceptable, encase that person in a large artificial womb and extract their body parts through a small orifice at the bottom with an appropriately sized stainless steel hook.

edwardmking

Um... I'm not sure what eburns is on about. I'll assume that was a joke.

I think the point here is not that abortion prevents crime per se, but that the option prevents crime. Like any market, the availability of choice creates optimal efficiency. It's a lot like the pro-life/pro-choice dichotomy. The difference between pro-choice and pro-abortion should be noted. In my mind, being pro-choice does not neccesarily encourage abortion, it only advocates the option. Many people I know who are pro-choice say they would never make that choice for themselves, but rather support the ability of others to do so.

I brought up this topic with my sister who is militantly liberal (we often butt heads). She did bring up an interesting point: just because abortion is illegal doesn't mean that women aren't getting abortions. I realize that the significant factor is the dramaticly lower cost of abortion when it is legal. However, I wonder if a link between criminalized abortion and crime could be found. Perhaps criminalized abortion could foster crime in the same way that criminalized marijuana does. That is, since marijuana is illegal one must associate with criminals to use it. Or, perhaps criminalized abortion is like criminalized prostitution.

Make sense? This is my first post - let me know if I'm using proper etiquette here. Cheers!

Read more...

Urban Shocker

It seems to me that your argument would be stronger on this issue by proving 1, that is that "Unwanted children are at higher risk for crime".

I don't have a copy of the book handy, but you demonstrated that states with legalized abortion have lower crime, states that were slower to legalize had a lag in crime rate reductions that correlated with their legalization.

Still...surely even today some states have lower abortion rates than others. If you could test for "unwantedness" and then saw states with higher "unwantedness", or lower abortion rates, yet higher crime, wouldn't this prove your thesis as well?

angelofthenorth

Urban Shocker - yes, that lag is demonstrated in the book.