What seems to be an unlikely and “surprising” connection between legalizing abortions and a decrease in crime from 1997 and 2014 is real, according to a paper by John J. Donohue of Stanford Law School, and Steven D. Levitt of the University of Chicago’s Department of Economics.
The Donohue-Levitt study, published as a National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) Working Paper, was released as a follow-up to research by the same authors published in 2001, titled The Impact of Legalized Abortion on Crime, which found that the “five states that allowed abortion in 1970 experienced declines [in crime] earlier than the rest of the nation,” which legalized abortion in 1973 following the Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v Wade decision.
Their paper comes at an awkward time politically.
Anti-abortion activists are increasingly throwing their political weight behind model legislation restricting abortion during the early stages of pregnancy. Versions of the so-called Fetal Heartbeat Bill, (also known as the LIFE Act), which declares that “abortions [are] illegal as soon as the fetus’ heartbeat can be detected,” regardless of rape or incest, have already been passed in Louisiana, Missouri, Alabama, Georgia, and Ohio.
North Dakota passed a similar bill in 2013, but it was declared unconstitutional two years later. Iowa had its 2018 bill blocked by a state judge in January. In Mississippi and Kentucky, judges have temporarily blocked Fetal Heartbeat Bills passed earlier this year, according to Fortune.
The authors said their motivation behind the 2019 paper evolved from decades of psychological research that proved, before abortions, unwanted children were at a “higher risk for less favorable life outcomes on multiple dimensions” —another way of suggesting that such children are likely to become justice-involved during their lifetimes.
“Less favorable life outcomes” can be explained in part because of the poor socioeconomic standing in the household that unwanted children run the risk of being born into. Economic restrictions can result in living in dangerous neighborhoods, which would expose the child to criminal behavior, according to Ultius.
After the legalization of abortion, the U.S. saw a dramatic reduction in the number of unwanted births. But even though the Roe v Wade decision legalized abortion nationwide in 1973, it took a few years for the numbers to reach a quantifiable state because there was originally a lack of abortion providers.
So, Donohue and Levitt began looking at data from 1997 to 2014 for their study.
They admitted that the analysis is complicated by the fact that the impact of abortion on crime is can only be measured over a period of decades. Rather, it is only felt when the fetus exposed to abortion in utero would reach “an age at which crimes are committed.”
Examining crime patterns and statistics from the five states that legalized abortion before the Court ruling, (Alaska, California, Hawaii, New York, and Washington), in the period between 1982 and 1997—around when those aborted fetuses would have been of “criminal age”— Donohue and Levitt found a 30.4 percent decrease in crime compared to the increase in crime in the rest of the country.
They tested their theory again by looking at the relationship between crime and the number of abortions in each state, finding that “high-abortion states experience more favorable [decreased] crime trends than medium-abortion states, with low-abortion states faring the worst [in crime trends].”
Lastly, they found that the relationship between abortion rates and arrests from 1985-2014 shows that there’s a slight decrease in arrest rates as abortion rates increase.
“Twenty years from now, the impact of abortion will be roughly twice as great as the impact felt so far,” the authors predicted. “Our results suggest that, all else being equal, legalized abortion will account for persistent declines of 1 percent a year in crime over the next two decades.”
But, that prediction is now subject to doubt, as the anti-abortion movement gains more traction.
The link between crime and unwanted births adds another dimension to fears that toughening restrictions on abortion will have a direct impact on women’s health.
Women’s advocate groups have warned that a return to the pre-Roe era will lead to a dramatic increase in unsafe “D.I.Y” abortion methods in years to come.
Abortion tends to be safer where it is broadly legal than in more legally restrictive settings, according to the Guttenmacher Institute.
“According to recent estimates, at least 8 percent of maternal deaths worldwide are from unsafe abortion,” the Institute said. “At least 22,800 women die each year from complications of unsafe abortion.”
In 2018, the Institute released a paper which found that, worldwide, there are about 35 abortions per 1,000 women of reproductive age (15 to 44).
The complete report, The Impact of Legalized Abortion on Crime over the Last Two Decades, can be downloaded here.
Andrea Cipriano is a TCR news intern. Readers’ comments are welcome.