Where Have All the Criminals Gone?
What Nicolae Ceausescu learned — the hard way — about abortion . . . Why the 1960s were a great time to be a criminal . . . Think the roaring 1990s economy put a crimp on crime? Think again . . . Why capital punishment doesn’t deter criminals . . . Do police actually lower crime rates? . . . Prisons, prisons everywhere . . . Seeing through the New York City police “miracle” . . . What is a gun, really? . . . Why early crack dealers were like Microsoft millionaires and later crack dealers were like Pets.com . . . The superpredator versus the senior citizen . . . Jane Roe, crime stopper: how the legalization of abortion changed everything.
Perhaps the most dramatic effect of legalized abortion, and one that would take years to reveal itself, was its impact on crime.
In the early 1990s, just as the first cohort of children born after Roe v. Wade was hitting its late teen years — the years during which young men enter their criminal prime — the rate of crime began to fall. What this cohort was missing, of course, were the children who stood the greatest chance of becoming criminals. And the crime rate continued to fall as an entire generation came of age minus the children whose mothers had not wanted to bring a child into the world. Legalized abortion led to less unwantedness; unwantedness leads to high crime; legalized abortion, therefore, led to less crime.
This theory is bound to provoke a variety of reactions, ranging from disbelief to revulsion, and a variety of objections, ranging from the quotidian to the moral. The likeliest first objection is the most straightforward one: is the theory true? Perhaps abortion and crime are merely correlated and not causal.
It may be more comforting to believe what the newspapers say, that the drop in crime was due to brilliant policing and clever gun control and a surging economy. We have evolved with a tendency to link causality to things we can touch or feel, not to some distant or difficult phenomenon. We believe especially in near-term causes: a snake bites your friend, he screams with pain, and he dies. The snakebite, you conclude, must have killed him. Most of the time, such a reckoning is correct. But when it comes to cause and effect, there is often a trap in such open-and-shut thinking. We smirk now when we think of ancient cultures that embraced faulty causes — the warriors who believed, for instance, that it was their raping of a virgin that brought them victory on the battlefield. But we too embrace faulty causes, usually at the urging of an expert proclaiming a truth in which he has a vested interest.
How, then, can we tell if the abortion-crime link is a case of causality rather than simply correlation?
One way to test the effect of abortion on crime would be to measure crime data in the five states where abortion was made legal before the Supreme Court extended abortion rights to the rest of the country.
In New York, California, Washington, Alaska, and Hawaii, a woman had been able to obtain a legal abortion for at least two years before Roe v. Wade. And indeed, those early-legalizing states saw crime begin to fall earlier than the other forty-five states and the District of Columbia. Between 1988 and 1994, violent crime in the early legalizing states fell 13 percent compared to the other states; between 1994 and 1997, their murder rates fell 23 percent more than those of the other states.
But what if those early legalizers simply got lucky? What else might we look for in the data to establish an abortion-crime link? One factor to look for would be a correlation between each state’s abortion rate and its crime rate. Sure enough, the states with the highest abortion rates in the 1970s experienced the greatest crime drops in the 1990s, while states with low abortion rates experienced smaller crime drops. (This correlation exists even when controlling for a variety of factors that influence crime: a state’s level of incarceration, number of police, and its economic situation.) Since 1985, states with high abortion rates have experienced a roughly 30 percent drop in crime relative to low-abortion states. (New York City had high abortion rates and lay within an early-legalizing state, a pair of facts that further dampen the claim that innovative policing caused the crime drop.) Moreover, there was no link between a given state’s abortion rate and its crime rate before the late 1980s — when the first cohort affected by legalized abortion was reaching its criminal prime — which is yet another indication that Roe v. Wade was indeed the event that tipped the crime scale.
There are even more correlations, positive and negative, that shore up the abortion-crime link.