Sunday, May 15, 2005

Abortion and Crime

REVISED 05/15/05 (9:11 PM)

Several months ago, in "How to Fight Crime," I said:
According to an article in today's, "Most Crimes of Violence and Property Hover at 30-Year Lows." Three important things happened after 1995 -- the year in which the rate of violent crime began to drop markedly. First, the incarceration rate continued to rise: Persistence pays off. Second, the percentage of the population that is male and 20-24 years old continued to drop, in keeping with the general aging of the population. (Age usually brings with it a greater degree of maturity, stability, and aversion to committing criminal acts.) At the same time, spending on criminal justice functions (police, corrections, and courts) continued to rise, especially spending on police.

I'm sure there are other causal factors, but those are probably the big ones. The first and third of those factors -- incarceration and spending on the criminal justice system -- go hand in hand. And they are the public-policy weapons of choice in a society that values individual responsibility.
Then Freakonomics was published. In it economist Steven Levitt challenged that orthodoxy. Here's how The Washington Post reported Levitt's findings about the drop in crime:
Freakonomics is packed with fascinating ideas. Consider Levitt's notion of a relationship between abortion access and the crime drop. First, Freakonomics shows that although commonly cited factors such as improved policing tactics, more felons kept in prison and the declining popularity of crack account for some of the national reduction in crime that began in about the year 1990, none of these completes the explanation. (New York City and San Diego have enjoyed about the same percentage decrease in crime, for instance, though the former adopted new policing tactics and the latter did not.) What was the significance of the year 1990, Levitt asks? That was about 16 years after Roe v. Wade . Studies consistently show that a disproportionate number of crimes are committed by those raised in broken homes or who were unwanted as children. When abortion became legal nationally, Levitt theorizes, births of unwanted children declined; 16 years later crime began to decline, as around age 16 is the point at which many once-innocent boys start their descent into the criminal life. Leavitt's [sic] clincher point is that the crime drop commenced approximately five years sooner in Alaska, California, Hawaii, New York and Washington state than it did in the nation as a whole. What do these states have in common? All legalized abortion about five years before Roe .
Well, Steve Sailer (among others) has attacked Levitt's findings:
First, Levitt's theory is predicated -- at least publicly -- on abortion reducing the proportion of "unwanted" babies, who are presumed to be more likely to grow up to be criminals. The empirical problem with this is that legalization (which occurred in California, New York, and three other states in 1970 and nationally in 1973), didn't put the slightest dent in the illegitimacy rate, which is, by far, the most obvious objective sign of not being wanted by the mother and father, and has been linked repeatedly with crime:

You'll note that the growth in the illegitimacy rate didn't start to slow down until the mid-1990s when the abortion rate finally went down a considerable amount.

My article offers a simple explanation, drawn from Levitt's own research, of why legal abortion tends to increase illegitimacy.

Second, the acid test of Levitt's theory is that it predicts that the first cohort to survive being culled by legal abortion should have been particularly law-abiding. Instead, they went on the worst teen murder rampage in American history. Here's a graph showing the homicide rate for 14-17 year olds, and below each year is the average birthdate of the 14-17 year old cohort.

For example, the 14-17 year olds in the not particularly murderous year of 1976 were, on average, born about 1960 (i.e., 1976 - 16 years of age = 1960), so they didn't "benefit" from being culled by legalized abortion the way that the 14-17 years olds during the peak murder years of 1993 and 1994 should have benefited, according to Levitt.

In contrast, the homicide rate for the 25 and over cohort (none of whom enjoyed the benefits of legalized abortion) was lower in 1993 than in 1983.

Levitt seems to have a good answer to Sailer's second point. But Sailer has the better of it on the first point, which is the critical one to Levitt's case. As Sailer puts it in his American Conservative article:
The most striking fact about legalized abortion, but also the least discussed, is its pointlessness. Levitt himself notes that following Roe, “Conceptions rose by nearly 30 percent, but births actually fell by 6 percent …” So for every six fetuses aborted in the 1970s, five would never have been conceived except for Roe! This ratio makes a sick joke out of Levitt’s assumption that legalization made a significant difference in how “wanted” children were. Indeed, perhaps the increase in the number of women who got pregnant figuring they would get an abortion but then were too drunk or drugged or distracted to get to the clinic has meant that the “wantedness” of surviving babies has declined.
If the legalization of abortion did result in less crime it's only because abortion became more prevalent among that segment of society that is most prone to commit crime. (I dare not speak its name.) What policy does Levitt want us to infer from that bit of causality? Would he favor a program of euthanasia for the most crime-prone segment of society? Now there's a fine kettle of fish for Leftists, who favor abortion and oppose "oppression" of the the segment of society that is the most crime-prone.

I stand by my original assertion that " incarceration and spending on the criminal justice system...are the public-policy weapons of choice" in dealing with crime. Whatever abortion is, it isn't a crime-footing tool.

Related posts:
Does Capital Punishment Deter Homicide?
Libertarian Twaddle about the Death Penalty
Crime and Punishment
Saving the Innocent?
Saving the Innocent?: Part II
More on Abortion and Crime
More Punishment Means Less Crime
More About Crime and Punishment
More Punishment Means Less Crime: A Footnote
Clear Thinking about the Death Penalty
Let the Punishment Fit the Crime
Another Argument for the Death Penalty
Less Punishment Means More Crime
Crime, Explained