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.