Abortion and Crime

Amidst calls by Christopher Pyne and Tony Abbott to restrict access to late-term abortions, Mark Latham has today stepped into the fray, arguing against any law change (presumably they’re talking about Medicare funding, since criminalising abortion is a matter for the states).

Something that might be relevant to this debate is work by US researchers John Donohue (Stanford University) and Steven Levitt (University of Chicago), which Justin Wolfers and I wrote up in an Age op-ed (with a longer version in AQ) back in 1999.

One of the hottest debates among American criminologists over the past few years has been why the US crime rate, rising since the 1960s, has fallen sharply during the 1990s. Political fortunes have been made as politicians have claimed vindication for policies that are tough on crime, including longer jail terms, better policing, and the end of the crack epidemic. Some liberals have countered that reduced crime is yet another benefit of a full-employment economy. However, two leading academics have just put forward a much more radical proposition – that the legalisation of abortion explains a large part of the drop.

Their case is stunningly simple. The 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe v Wade effectively legalised abortion, leading to a dramatic increase in the number of terminations performed. The turning point in violent crime in the 1990s coincided with the period when children born in the post-Roe v Wade era would be reaching their late teens, and this decline has continued as this generation reaches the peak ages for criminal activity.

The researchers, Dr John Donohue (Stanford University) and Dr Steven Levitt (University of Chicago), cite several pieces of evidence to support their explanation. First, the drop in crime came around 1992, following roughly 20 years after Roe v Wade. Second, it was disproportionately concentrated among those under 25. Third, the handful of states that legalised abortion before Roe v Wade were also the first to witness a fall in crime. Fourth, states with high abortion rates had larger reductions in crime than states with low abortion rates. Donohue and Levitt estimate that the crime rate in 1997 was 10-20% lower than it would have been without legalised abortion – explaining about half of the total decrease.

Justin and I also found suggestive support for this theory in Australia:

From the end of the War onwards, Australia’s homicide rate climbed steadily from an annual rate of about 1 per 100 000 in the 1940s to a peak of 2.4 per 100 000 in 1988. Thereafter, it has slowly declined, staying below 2 people per 100 000 throughout the 1990s. Australian criminologists have attributed this fall to a range of factors, chief among them a reduction in the proportion of young people in the population, shifting attitudes towards violence and higher incarceration rates.

But could the legalisation of abortion also have contributed to the drop in crime? Perhaps the best way of approaching this question is by considering each of the four factors pinpointed by Donohue and Levitt.

First, did the drop in crime occur about twenty years after the legalisation of abortion? While there is no single Roe v Wade-type decision in Australia, a number of seminal changes can be identified. Court decisions in Victoria in 1969 and New South Wales and the ACT in 1971 substantially broadened the circumstances in which abortions could be legally performed. Legislative changes in South Australia in 1969 and the Northern Territory in 1974 had a similar effect.

The changes did not occur in every jurisdiction. In Tasmania, Queensland and Western Australia, the legal status of abortion remained unclear throughout the 1970s. But for more than two thirds of the Australian population, the change occurred in the late-1960s or early 1970s – or about 20 years before the decrease in crime rates. Indeed, just as the legalisation of abortion in most parts of Australia preceded Roe v Wade by 2-4 years, so the fall in Australian homicide rates preceded that in the US by a similar amount of time.

Second, was the fall in crime disproportionately concentrated in those under 25? Unfortunately, the relatively small numbers involved make it difficult to draw any statistically significant conclusions on this point.

Third, were those states that legalised abortion earlier also the first to experience a drop in crime? Some evidence seems to suggest so. Victoria (which legalised in 1969) saw homicide rates decline from 1987-88. New South Wales (which legalised in 1971) saw homicide rates decline from 1989-90. The Northern Territory (which legalised in 1974) saw homicide rates decline from 1990-91. By contrast, Western Australia (where the legal status of abortion remained unclear until recently) has not seen any significant drop in its homicide rate. Yet the evidence for other regions does not support this proposition. At best, we can say that this part of the theory holds for the states where most Australians live.

Fourth, we come to the smoking gun – did states with higher abortion rates in the early 1970s have lower crime rates in the 1990s? Unfortunately, only South Australia kept official statistics on abortions performed during the 1970s. These showed that the 1971 legalisation of abortion in South Australia led to a large increase in the number of abortions performed over the subsequent three years. Reporting in 1977, the Royal Commission on Human Relationships cited this phenomenon and concluded that New South Wales and Victoria probably experienced a similar increase following their legalisation of abortion (even accounting for the number of illegal abortions performed before legalisation). Unlike Donohue and Levitt, we cannot point to statistics showing an increase in the number of abortions performed in the first states to legalise abortion. However, there does seem to be a strong connection between the legalisation of abortion and an increase in the number of abortions performed.

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6 Responses to Abortion and Crime

  1. James Tauber says:

    Imagine that it was demonstrated that a disproportionate number of crimes were committed by people who, at the time of their birth had characteristic X. I’m deliberately leaving what X is open, but it could be related to gender, race, parental socio-economic situation, whatever. It doesn’t have to be causal – just correlative.

    Now consider the frightening scenario where infanticide had been legalised 30 years ago just in those circumstances where the baby had characteristic X.

    Then we would likely find that crime has dropped in the last ten years and that reduction could be attributed to the infanticide legalisation.

    If one finds the means unethical, I’m not sure the crime reduction argument carries much weight.

  2. Andrew Leigh says:

    James, this is an important point, and one that was voraciously made in the wake of Donohue & Levitt’s paper being circulated in the US. If you believe that all abortion is murder, then legalising abortion can only ever increase the crime rate. I respect the view that abortion is murder, and have some friends who share it, though I don’t agree with it myself.

    If however, you believe that life begins at some point after conception, then you can think of abortion as being a means through which women who aren’t ready to have a baby, and don’t want that baby, are able to terminate that pregnancy. Women who have abortions often say that they want a child, but want to be older and more financially secure when they have it. It doesn’t seem to me intuitively surprising that children of parents who are emotionally and materially ready to bear them are less likely to commit crimes when they grow up.

  3. James Tauber says:

    Right. My point was that arguments based on some benefit to society are non-starters with people that have an ethical problem with the method of achieving this benefit.

  4. Andrew Leigh says:

    Fair point. I surfed around just now, looking for a statistic that would indicate that this wasn’t an issue for most people, but was surprised to find a survey in which 39% of Australians agreed that “abortion is child-murder”: http://jonjayray.tripod.com/aborlife.html.

    That said, the same survey asked whether “Any woman should be entitled to an abortion if she wants one”, and a puzzling 66% agreed (puzzling since 100-66

  5. eva cox says:

    Some useful stats from ANU2003 social attitudes survey courtesy shaun wilson. The contradiction in responses quoted comes from the difference between personal beliefs held and whether the law should be used to enforce/prescribe these for others.

    [v121] Agree: Woman should have the right to choose an abortion (Row)
    [v293] R: Gender (Column)
    Female Male Total
    Strongly agree 48.3 35.6 42.4
    Agree 34.3 43.8 38.8
    Neither agree nor disagree 6.3 8.5 7.3
    Disagree 4.7 5.4 5.0
    Strongly disagree 4.3 4.6 4.4
    Can’t choose 2.0 2.1 2.1
    Total 100.0 100.0 100.0
    N= 2220 1956 4176

    2004 The Australian National University. All rights reserved.

    Dataset: The Australian Survey of Social Attitudes, 2003

    [v346] R: If have a religion, please tell us what it is (Row)
    [v121] Agree: Woman should have the right to choose an abortion (Column)
    Strongly agree Agree Neither agree nor disagree Disagree Strongly disagree Can’t choose Total N =
    Catholic 32.9 38.7 10.6 8.1 6.6 3.1 100.0 993
    Anglican/Church of England 41.9 43.9 6.8 3.1 2.2 2.2 100.0 971
    Uniting Church/Methodist 43.3 42.7 5.9 5.0 2.2 0.9 100.0 323
    Presbyterian and Reformed 35.1 44.8 10.4 6.0 3.7 0.0 100.0 134
    Buddhist 47.2 34.0 5.7 5.7 0.0 7.5 100.0 53
    Baptist 11.4 39.2 11.4 21.5 13.9 2.5 100.0 79
    Islam 33.3 33.3 4.2 0.0 16.7 12.5 100.0 24
    Lutheran 34.7 46.9 10.2 0.0 8.2 0.0 100.0 49
    Pentecostal 8.0 20.0 6.0 18.0 46.0 2.0 100.0 50
    Hinduism 38.5 46.2 7.7 3.8 0.0 3.8 100.0 26
    Judaism 73.3 20.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 6.7 100.0 15
    Other (please specify) 31.7 33.1 9.6 11.3 11.6 2.7 100.0 293
    Total 36.5 40.2 8.5 6.5 5.8 2.5 100.0 3010

  6. Andrew Leigh says:

    Eva, thanks for those stats – interesting to see (for me, the eye-opener was that Baptists are more anti-abortion than Catholics, though a majority of both support right to choose). That said, I’m still puzzled that – to combine the questions above – some people believe that abortion is child murder yet that it should be legal.

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