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.

scott cunningham

First, I agree that Amee's paper is fascinating. Particularly since one can imagine that the effect of incarceration could go the other way. High rates of incarceration among males offset sex ratios, and theory also predicts that this imbalance could lead to an increase in sexual risk-taking among men due to the surplus of unattached women. Posner, Becker and William Julius Wilson have all looked at this possibility. What has not been heavily studied, though, is the incapacitation effect. Amee's paper and Stephane Mechoulan's papers on this are the first that I've seen that carefully examine this separate mechanism by which incarceration could have the reverse effect of driving down teen fertility. Amee and Stephane's work on this both find evidence of such incapacitative effects.

Also, just to quibble, it's not necessarily the case that more expensive abortions would have the effect you note. If abortions are becoming marginally more expensive, then it might also have the effect of reducing crime (given your selection effect), and not the other way around. Studies have found some evidence for reductions in abortions with no change in birth rates when parental involvement laws are adopted, for instance. See Philip Levine's excellent book Sex and Consequences for the literature review on that. Sexual behavior and fertility decisions are endogeneous, after all, to the price, and so if at the margin it is slightly more expensive, then women may adjust their pregnancy risk downward, resulting in fewer abortions and no increase in births.

Also, the AIDS epidemic did have a significant effect on condom use. Ahitivus, Hotz and PHilipson have a 1996 JHR paper entitled "The Responsiveness of the Demand for Condoms to the Local Prevalence of AIDS", and in it they find very large elasticities of condom use with respect to AIDS incidence locally. Thomas Dee and Harrell Chesson find that the AIDS mortality rate appears to be driving down syphilis rates, and in a working paper, Chris Corwnell and me find that it also is driving down gonorrhea (which is suggestive more of deterrence than incapacitation). Stephane Mechoulan has a new paper in the Forum for Health Economics and Policy entitled "Risky Sexual Behavior, Testing, and HIV Treatment" in which he finds the availability of highly active antiretroviral treatments (HAART) starting in 1996 resulted in increased risky sexual behavior among a sample of gay males in San Francisco. Other papers, such as a recent 2006 QJE paper entitled "HIV Breakthroughs and Risky Sexual Behavior" by Goldman, Lakdawalla, and Sood, also find such things. If the AIDS epidemic really is responsible for declines in abortions, and ultimately crime rates themselves, then the increased availability of HAART may be a way of testing the theory, since HAART has dramatically reduced mortality rates, and increased risky sexual behavior in HIV-positive and negative gay males, at least found in a few studies using observational data.



There's also the morning after pill... talk about a life saver. (Kind of an unintentional pun)


What about recent studies which suggest environmental lead was a large cause of crime rate surges? I'll bet that grossly outweighs abortion availability.


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

Nothing. This myth of causation between the 2 was debunked years ago.


Could fertility rates be dropping in females much like it is in the male population?

Perhaps there is an environmental factor that is reducing fertility overall.


If the decrease in abortions was due to a decrease in the number of unwanted female babies, we should have seen the decrease ten years ago, when crime rates started falling (supposedly due the the decrease in unwanted born men). I could not clearly from the statistics I found when the downward trend in abortions started.

In any case, the less-unwanted-females causes less-abortions hypothesis should be amenable to the same type of analysis of the abortion-crime link.


"The genocide is working"? Ignorance is bliss, isn't it, Casper Hauser? What a tired argument.


"This myth of causation between the 2 was debunked years ago."

By who? When? Where?
My guess: Rush Limbaugh, in the 90s, on the radio.


I thought it was obvious that abortions were down because of the abortion pill. All of the other items mentioned may factor in, but to explain the majority of the decline in abortions it's clear that the abortion pill has just replaced the medical procedure.


The drop in abortions is probably due largely to a combination of the reasons discussed above - greater social acceptance of single motherhood, increased condom use among the young, over-the-counter Plan B, fewer abortion providers due to state regulations, etc. But I wonder how much of the drop is actually a reporting issue.

I am not sure what the reporting requirements are for RU-486. The article I read on the recent drop in abortions mentioned that when women obtain RU-486 from their private physicians on a self-pay basis, this is widely underreported.

In addition, the ulcer drug Cytotec (misoprostol) is widely used off-label in Latin America as an abortifacient; its use may also be spreading in the U.S. A legal prescription drug with no reporting requirements - how is anybody to know if a woman is taking it to terminate a pregnancy or because she's at risk for ulcers?

Finally, are we seeing a resurgence of back-alley abortion providers, particularly in areas where legal abortion providers have disappeared because of hostile regulatory climates? (That old Law of Unintended Consequences, it'll bite you in the butt every time.)



I can't help but feel that some of this stuff smacks of racism, or at least classism- alluding to the fact that our record incarceration rate reduces teen pregnancies seems to foster the attitude that it's better to keep these thugs (dispropotionately minority) from procreating more thugs- if not, where's your treatise on white collar crime?- a punk steals a car and is thrown in jail, while a coporate criminal steals @ $1 billion (functionally equivalent to stealing every man,woman,and child's car in Montatna), but then there's a debate on whether this is a crime (perhaps 'malfeasance')- so should we foster condom use for CEOs and banking executives?- I guess what I'm saying is that if white collar crime rises as abortion rates rise, and you tout an argument that abortion may weed out criminals by weeding out the minority/poor underclass criminal, it's a biased point, if not basically racist/classist



perhaps the real reason for less abortions is the psycological torture that mothers who have aborted go through. Many women suffer from phantom babies as a result of aborting their young.

also at post 15. these are biblical accounts of punishment. those who were not following God were punished by being deprived of sanity (ie. eating their young and having their children killed) and through war. and Luke 23:29 is a warning of bad times to come, whenever that was/is.

Attila Gf. Matuschka

Crime rates have a more complex and the causes are in Job supply more than number of people who have children. Theft, robbery, and pickpocketing are self employment crimes. Corporate crime are pay raise or job security crimes.
It is the relationship of employed to unemployed that is the underlying cause for this selfemployment in criminal enterprise.
Its simplest form is food theft when a person is hungry. Since food is absorbed and last at most a day pro activity takes over. Money can last for extended periods of time and reduce the danger of apprehension because of the lesser exposure to getting caught, prosecuted and jailed.
As with any theory there are exceptions here to complex to list and explain. Sorry to disappoint you. Ciao Atti

Kelly Bridenstine

I am simply amazed. Less people equals less crime. The logic is so easy to follow. If we reduce the number of people then naturally less crime will follow. Hmmmm, how can we reduce the number of people and also develop a means that is heralded as a virtuous and noble right? Convince women that they have the noble right to reduce human life and then tell them that it will also help reduce crime.

Wasn't there a dictator once who stated that if we just got rid of a certain kind of human race the world would be a better place?

Your reasoning, Mr. Levitt is frightening to behold.


Looking from outside the US, I would have thought the explanation for falling abortion rates was obvious, and the outlook for fewer disaffected young people and less crime was excellent.

There have been 35 years since Roe v Wade for the "pro-life" people to build up excellent support systems for mothers in need -- including both teenage single mothers and the significant numbers of older mothers who feel they cannot adequately care for another child. So many Christian churchgoers must be offering lots of help for those innocent children whose lives they have fought to save.

It is worrying that no-one has mentioned such aid, but surely it exists?


"It is worrying that no-one has mentioned such aid, but surely it exists?
- Posted by KJhojb "
It might exist somewhere, but generally does not in the US. The social support network is actually weakest in regions where religiosity is strongest. Their support for the children extends only up to the moment of birth

Brian Utterback

It is said to see the number of people here who are vilifying Dr. Levitt without the least bit of understanding about what he is actually saying. People have said that they are "ashamed" and "appalled", and that Dr. Levitt is "frightening", while at the same time, each person also made statements that made it quite clear that they had a fundamental misunderstanding of the research. At least those that thought the research had been refuted can be forgiven for not being up-to-date. But how unfortunate that others are so ready to condemn without even attempting to understand.



A private member's bill brought by David Steel MP led to the Abortion Act 1967, which is still the law governing abortions in England, Scotland and Wales.
How the British Crime Survey (BCS) works
For a variety of reasons, people do not always report crimes to the police - which means they don't get reflected in police recorded crime figures.
The British Crime Survey (BCS) asks people about their actual experiences - and so gives us a more accurate picture of crime levels and trends across England & Wales. (more...)
Note: The BCS does not include crimes against businesses or commercial property.
According to the BCS:

In 2005/06 the total number of crimes in England and Wales was around 10,912,000.
Total crime peaked in 1995, and has since fallen by 44%.
In 2005/06 around 23% of the population were the victim of some type of crime.
This has fallen from a high in 1995 of nearly 40% of the population.


Josh Parris

You've tried measuring unwanted pregnancies using the abortion rate. You might try using the adoption rate as another yardstick.


Mr. Casper talks about "genocide" which is the way religious people look upon abortion. If we are going to consider abortion from a religious point of view and look in the bible, we find that abortion is not mentioned, so, how are we going to know what the bible's god feels about? Since nothing is mention about the fetus, let's go to the next closest thing which is a baby and we find the following:

Numbers 31:17 Now therefore kill every male among the little ones.

Deuteronomy 2:34 utterly destroyed the men and the women and the little ones.

Deuteronomy 28:53 And thou shalt eat the fruit of thine own body, the flesh of thy sons and of thy daughters.

I Samuel 15:3 slay both man and woman, infant and suckling.

2 Kings 8:12 dash their children, and rip up their women with child.

2 Kings 15:16 all the women therein that were with child he ripped up.

Isaiah 13:16 Their children also shall be dashed to pieces before their eyes; their houses shall be spoiled and their wives ravished.

Isaiah 13:18 They shall have no pity on the fruit of the womb; their eyes shall not spare children.

Lamentations 2:20 Shall the women eat their fruit, and children.

Ezekiel 9:6 Slay utterly old and young, both maids and little children.

Hosea 9:14 give them a miscarrying womb and dry breasts.

Hosea 13:16 their infants shall be dashed in pieces, and their women with child shall be ripped up.

Then there are the dire warnings of Jesus in the New Testament:
"For, behold, the days are coming, in which they shall say, Blessed are the barren, and the womb that never bare, and the paps which never gave suck."--Luke 23:29

Let's face it, with all this, do you think the christian god cares about abortion? Why then, the religious people do?