What Do Declining Abortion Rates Mean for Crime in the Future?

The abortion rate in the United States is at a thirty year low — though even with the decline, we are still talking about a large number of abortions in absolute terms, or 1.2 million per year. To put this number into perspective, there are about 4 million births per year in the U.S.

John Donohue and I have argued that the legalization of abortion in the 1970s reduced crime in the 1990s. The logic is simple: unwanted children have an increased risk of growing up to be criminals, and legalized abortion reduces the number of unwanted children. Consequently, legalized abortion lowers crime in the future.

So what does the steady decline in abortions performed in recent years predict for future crime patterns? The answer is not obvious, because it depends on why abortion rates are falling, and I’m not sure we know the answer to that question.

If abortion rates are falling because it has become harder or more costly to get an abortion, then a falling abortion rate is bad news for crime. As the “price” (whether in monetary terms, social stigma, having to travel a long distance, etc.) rises, women who otherwise would have sought an abortion will not get one. This suggests that more unwanted children are being born, and thus crime rates may rise in the future.

On the other hand, there are other reasons why the number of abortions might fall, and none of these have dire crime implications. For instance, because abortion has been legalized since the 1970s, there may be fewer women today who are seeking abortions — the women who might have been at highest risk for unwanted pregnancies today may never have been born.

A second scenario in which low abortion rates don’t lead to high crime is an increase in reliable birth control. For instance, following the increased spread of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases in the 1990s, condom use may have risen. More condoms would lead to fewer conceptions, including fewer unwanted conceptions. The result would be both a lower abortion rate and a lower number of unwanted births.

A third possibility is that the demographic most likely to obtain abortions is conceiving less for other reasons — including, possibly, less sex. My student Amee Kamdar has a fascinating paper in which she shows that incarceration of twenty-something males greatly reduces the number of teenage births. Indirectly, the continuing rise in incarceration may be contributing to reduced rates of both teen births and teen abortions.

As this discussion points out, the relationship between abortion rates and future crime is subtle. Subtle enough, in fact, that I believe that many researchers studying this issue do not understand it themselves.

Donohue and I present evidence that the rise in abortions in the years immediately following legalization was due to the fact that abortions got “cheaper.” As such, during that period, more abortions implied less crime. Whether that is still true today is quite questionable. My hunch is that the recent declines in abortion are not really a result of abortions becoming more expensive. There are fewer abortion providers today, so maybe that makes it harder to obtain an abortion. On the other hand, when demand for a good (in this case, abortions) falls, you expect the number of providers to shrink. It is unclear which is causing which.

Perhaps more importantly, one might think that the introduction of RU-486 represents an important technological shock that lowers the cost of getting an abortion. Yet there are fewer abortions.

So, ultimately, although this is a bit of a guess, I would surmise that the low abortion rate today is being driven by a decrease in unwanted conceptions. If that is true, then these low abortion rate statistics are good news for future crime rates.


Jim

I'm sure this has been discussed by someone smarter than me, but does the increasing acceptance of teen pregnancy have anything to do with the decrease in the abortion rate? I think it does. Without placing a value judgment or speculating on the causation, I think it safe to say that stigma attached to teen pregnancy has decreased significantly, i.e. high school programs specifically for pregnant mothers.

I'm coming at this from the point that a percentage of "unwanted" pregnancies can better be thought of as "unplanned". "Unwanted" implying a more active displeasure than "unplanned". These "unplanned" pregnancies are getting less difficult to deal with socially, reducing the pressure to terminate in abortion.

The effect on the crime rate? Beat's me.

Be

"There are fewer abortion providers today, so maybe that makes it harder to obtain an abortion. On the other hand, when demand for a good (in this case, abortions) falls, you expect the number of providers to shrink. It is unclear which is causing which."

But let's not forget that the market for abortions is not free. Federal adn state legislatures have steadily chipped away at the legal right to an abortion to the extent that is is very difficult to obtain one now in many states around the country. Abortion providers can't respond to market signals such as demand when they are prevented from doing so by such laws.

ally

The rise in religious fundamentalism may be a reason --the evangelical movement. Women believing they're "doing good" by having it; "That God gave me this baby"---or this is "what I get" from a guilt/penance perspective regardless of whether they can function with, afford, or love a child--or whether they go on to consciously or unconsciously resent the child.

Levitt, looks like some people posting want you to wait twenty years and then prove it again. Not for me, I'm a believer.

Casper Hauser

Since abortion rates are highest amongst african-americans, this suggests that the birthrate for african-americans is much lower now. Since african-americans are arrested at much higher rates than non-african-americans, this suggests a decreasing crime trend in the future. Another way to put it: The genocide is working.

shecky

Higher levels of prosperity and increased acceptance of out-of-wedlock births may also be contributing factors.

HR

Wasn't this nonsensical link proven wrong 2 years ago?

Ellen

When I was in college, I had a roommate who listened to a song called " Kill the Smurfs ". The last verse went " Kill the poor, kill the poor, kill kill kill kill the poor." I never thought that killing the poor would be suggested as a means of lowering crime. I find Mr. Levitts views appalling. And it is concerning to me that such attitudes are considered worthy of publication in the New York Times. Pray for our country.

Stats

You have to parse the data for race.

Certain races account for majority of crime, ilegitimate births, incarceration.

Not being racist, just a realist.

Will

If abortion rates are highest among blacks, could overall abortion rates be lower because blacks make up a smaller percentage of the American population compared to a generation ago?

Westy

Prof. Levitt,

Any thoughts on the recent study by the Guttmacher Institute that claimed that the total number of abortions didn't actually increase with the legalization of abortion after Roe v. Wade?

david

Please don't confuse RU-486 (a medical abortifacient) with "the morning after pill", also known as post-coital or emergency contraception. The latter is composed of hormones found in oral contraceptives, and is thought to work by preventing ovulation. It has become much more available over the last 1-2 years now that Plan B is over the counter for adults.

Several studies demonstrate that the widespread use of post-coital contraception has the potential to dramatically reduce the number of abortions in the US. This effect has already been observed in Europe, where this form of contraception has been widely available for years.

RU-486 is an entirely different medication that may be used to terminate a pregnancy. The confusion over these two medications has the effect of painting Plan B in a negative light.

RDolsen

Dean Mark Roche, professor at Notre Dame University, has pointed out that the highest incidence of abortion is in Latin American countries, where abortion is illegal. The lowest incidence is in Belgium and the Netherlands, where it is legal. The difference, of course, is education and poverty. And if you take many of the uneducated and impoverished off the streets and put them in prison, well, ... maybe that's the answer.

Brian Haile

Might the decrease in abortions have something to do with the large numbers of twenty-something males (and females) deployed overseas during the same timeframe under discussion?

luke

i tend to agree with the idea that this is more about a decline in unwanted pregnancies.

the legalisation of abortion in the 70's lead to a sharp decline in the number of unwanted pregnancies, but since then there has been a slow and steady decline in them... people who might have had abortions just arn't getting pregnant.

scott cunningham

RDolsen - Don't compare apples to oranges. What would Latin American's abortion be if it were legal? Probably, it'd increase over the current levels. The comparisons require assuming a counter-factual, and I seriously doub the Netherlands are the right counterfactual for Latin America.

Chris

Most important question (which I am shocked has not been asked yet):
Is Amee single?

S. Heaton

Chris @25:

No one has asked it because they aren't losers like you. The author did exceptional scholarly work and deserves your respect. For your sake I hope you are a kid and not a professional adult.

reddoorhomeloans.com

If it's true that abortion results in lower crime, then I wonder what the impact will be on breast cancer rates. Breast feeding is inversely related to breast cancer. The more months a woman spends breastfeeding the less the chance of breast cancer. More abortions = less breastfeeding, so is there a link to breast cancer?

Anon

Amee Kamdar's research on teen fertility and incarceration is fascinating.

Loreto Caro Valdés

I seem to be the only person writing from a Latin American country and, since someone else brought in a comparision, I'll make a couple of comments. First, I am not a specialist, but I believe it is very dangerous in social studies to establish cause-effect explanations. For example, my country, Chile) would not fall into the logic established in this discussion: abortion is absolutely illegal (even therapeutic abortion is prohibited), but it is considered the safest nation to visit south of the border, with some of the lowest crime rates in the Americas.