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Jewish World Review Sept. 13, 1999 /3 Tishrei, 5760

Mona Charen

Mona Charen
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Does abortion reduce crime? --
EVERYONE HAS HEARD by now of the study purporting to show that legalized abortion has been at least partly responsible for the drop in crime we have been experiencing nationwide. Initial reaction ranged from cautious (from those who believe it) to contemptuous (from those who don't). Could it be, many wondered, that Steve Levitt of the University of Chicago and John Donohue III of Stanford are recommending prenatal capital punishment?

If we can take them at their word, they were simply searching for truth. The question is: Does the study illuminate the drop in crime, or simply play upon unspoken prejudices in the minds of most educated people? Steve Sailer makes an extremely persuasive case in the online magazine Slate (the liveliest site on the Internet) that the study is quite flawed.

Levitt and Donohue began with a postulate: 1) that legalized abortion results, by definition, in fewer unwanted babies being born, and 2) that since unwanted children are more likely to grow up to be criminals than others -- an assumption bolstered by plenty of data -- then abortion should lead to lower crime rates.

They tested this hypothesis by examining crime rates in the years after Roe vs. Wade became law. Eighteen years after Roe, they conclude, crime began to drop. Moreover, in the five states that legalized abortion in 1970, three years before Roe, crime rates began to fall three years earlier. Levitt and Donohue further found that those states that had high abortion rates in the mid-1970s experienced greater decreases in crime in the 1990s than states that had low abortion rates in the 1970s.

Not so fast, says Sailer, businessman, gadfly and intellectual jack-of-all-trades. If Levitt and Donohue are correct, the kids who managed to get born despite legalized abortion should have been more law-abiding than previous generations. Instead, they launched the greatest youth crime spree in American history. According to FBI statistics, the murder rate for 1993's crop of 14- to 17-year-olds (who were born in the freely available abortion years of 1975 to 1979) was 3.6 times that of the children born between 1966 and 1970 (pre-Roe).

If abortion reduces crime, Sailer continues, then the lower crime rates should have shown up first among the youngest (the wanted babies). But instead, the crime rate drop began among those ages 35 to 49.

The 800-pound gorilla that Levitt and Donohue ignore, Sailer insists, is the crack epidemic that transformed urban neighborhoods in the 1980s.

Looking at black males born between 1975 and 1979, Sailer notes that their youth murder rate grew 5.1 times. And although black women have abortions at three times the rate of white women, the black juvenile murder rate grew relative to the white rate, from five times worse in 1984 to 11 times worse in 1993.

It was the waxing and waning of the crack epidemic -- including better policing, more prisoners, more deaths and more youths in wheelchairs -- that accounts for the rise and fall of crime, Sailer believes. A large percentage of the national statistics come from just a few large states, including New York and California, which legalized abortion early but also experienced the worst of the crack epidemic. The good news is that youths born in the early 1980s have shown the biggest decline in murder. Perhaps seeing their older brothers maimed and killed has scared them straight.

Sailer contends that many abortion advocates secretly believe that undesirable people are aborted. He offers a different hypothesis. Suppose that sober, upstanding middle-class blacks are having the abortions, while drug-addicted, disorganized, black mothers are not? Suppose further that legalization of abortion has made underclass women even more careless about birth control than they were pre-Roe (Levitt and Donohue's study itself suggests that up to 75 percent of fetuses aborted in the 1970s would never had been conceived without Roe). In that case, Sailer contends, the sheer number of unwanted babies conceived might overwhelm the supposed "beneficial" effect of free abortion.

Finally, two capping arguments: Abortion-on-demand spelled the end of the shotgun wedding and, derivatively, of male responsibility. Since Roe, both abortion and illegitimacy have soared, with doleful effects on crime. And it is just possible, in a culture that condones the rampant destruction of unborn babies, that youngsters fail to see the moral outrage of shooting born ones.

JWR contributor Mona Charen reads all of her mail. Let her know what you think by clicking here. Please bear in mind, though, that while all letters are read, due to the heavy amount of traffic, not all letters can be answered.

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©1999, Creators Syndicate