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For the last decade, the crime rate for serious violent and property offenses has been falling throughout the country — in some cases, reaching levels not seen since the mid-1960s. Homicide rates, for instance, decreased a staggering 42 percent; robbery by approximately 40 percent. Rates for other types of street crime also fell by substantial amounts. Not only are these declines widespread; they are also real, in the sense that they cannot be ascribed to changes in reporting or in record-keeping. Ignoring the adage “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth,” experts have offered many explanations for this welcome development. These include “smarter” policing, greatly increased incarceration, a drop in the crack trade (with its attendant use of firearms), a booming economy and various demographic factors. But none is as startling or controversial as the thesis of Stanford Law School Professor John J. Donohue III and University of Chicago Professor Steven D. Levitt. In a recent article in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, they maintain that legalized abortion may account for up to 50 percent of the shrinkage in the crime rate. At one level, the impact on crime (if not its size) is unsurprising. Abortion reduces the number of people in any given age cohort — including, most significantly, young men in their peak years for violent crime, about 18 through 24. Donohue and Levitt, however, make the much more sweeping claim that children born to mothers for whom abortion was an available option have lower per capita rates of offending. They posit two reasons for this phenomenon. First, research has demonstrated that teens and unmarried and poor women are likeliest to seek abortions. “[T]he early life circumstances of those children on the margin of abortion are difficult along many dimensions,” such as “growing up in a single-parent family and experiencing poverty.” These adverse conditions, including the fact of being unwanted, have been shown to be strongly linked to future criminality. Second, access to abortion gives all women the choice of delaying childbearing until they can provide their offspring with as good (and hence, noncriminogenic) an environment as possible. In support of their thesis, the authors note that legalization — which occurred in five states in 1970 and three years later in the rest with Roe v. Wade — dramatically raised the number of abortions. Crime rates began to fall in the early 1990s (somewhat before, in the earlier-legalizing states), just when the first group born after Roe would attain “its criminal prime.” Donohue’s and Levitt’s more formal analysis, which controlled for a number of factors influencing crime, indicates that states with high abortion rates in the 1970s and early 1980s experienced a decline in crime in the 1990s roughly 30 percent greater than that of low-abortion jurisdictions. Moreover, almost all the decrease occurred in offenses committed by the post- Roe cohort. Although the authors emphatically disclaim any normative stance, their study, if valid, lends ammunition to pro-abortion rights advocates. STILL AN UNSETTLED QUESTION Anti-abortion advocates may draw comfort from the fact that some scholars have challenged Donohue’s and Levitt’s conclusions. Professor Ted Joyce of Baruch College, using different data and modes of analysis, sees no correlation between abortion and violent crime. In fact, he has found that states with higher abortion rates have higher, not lower, fertility rates, which conflicts with the argument that legalized abortion reduces the number of unwanted births. So, too, Professors John R. Lott Jr. of Yale Law School and John Whitley of Australia’s Adelaide University, also using some different data and altering some Donohue-Levitt assumptions, find no negative correlation between abortion and homicide rates. Indeed, on rather weak evidence, they contend that legalization actually increases homicides. Their reasoning is that women who won’t abort have to compete as sex partners with those who will — thereby augmenting the number of out-of-wedlock children at risk for future criminal behavior. Significantly, Donohue and Levitt note that even their view of the data need not support an abortion program; society could, among other things, furnish better environments for youngsters who might otherwise break the law. That, however, would force politicians to address intractable “root causes.” Sadly, politicians know it is easier to call for nostrums like three-strikes laws and the death penalty, and so pander to baseless — but pervasive — fears that crime rates are continually climbing. In any event, Donohue’s and Levitt’s intriguing thesis will surely generate further discussion in years to come. One can only hope that scholarly research and analysis will shed more light on the subject before zealots on either side of the abortion debate hijack the issue for partisan ends. Vivian Berger is a professor emerita at Columbia University Law School.

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