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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.