Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Abortion Up, Crime Down?

James Skillen


August 16, 1999

News reports last week suggested a startling explanation for decreasing crime in America's major cities. Murders, other violent crimes, and theft have all been going down. Why? Better policing? Better social policy? A strong economy? Perhaps. But none of these offers the major explanation, according to economist Steven D. Levitt and law professor John J. Donohue III. They hypothesize that half of the decrease in crime may be due to the high rate of abortion in the United States since the U.S. Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision in 1973.

Here's their reasoning. The greatest decline in criminal behavior is due to fewer offenses now being committed by people under 25. Those at greatest risk of committing crimes, once they become adults, are born to "the women most likely to have abortions"--"teenagers, unmarried, and African Americans" (Washington Post, 8/10/99). Moreover, the decline in the crime rate first showed up in states that had the highest rates of abortion. Thus, they conclude, crime may be down because fewer potential criminals were born, starting about 25 years ago.

Has abortion thus been a good thing? Should it be encouraged even further as a crime-prevention measure? Professor Levitt admits that their hypothesis cannot be proven with a high degree of scientific certainty. However, we should not be surprised, he says, that, with a quarter of all pregnancies in the United States ending in abortion, there have been very significant social effects.

I wonder whether Levitt and Donohue have considered the following: How many unwanted pregnancies did not end in abortion because at-risk women turned for help to the growing number of Christian and other pro-life counselors? Because of the special help they found, how many women, whose children might have been at risk of becoming criminals, are now raising their children in supportive circumstances or gave them up for adoption to families who could care for them?

There's another factor that should be investigated. How many at-risk young men are not pursuing a life of crime because Christian and other religious groups have moved in to help—offering drug rehabilitation services, mentoring, life-management skills, and more?

The fact is that the rate of abortion has also begun to drop recently. So we must ask: Is this a warning sign that crime is likely to increase 20-25 years from now? Or is it a sign that fewer women are turning to abortion to solve unwanted pregnancies and are looking for more positive alternatives?

For those of us who oppose abortion-on-demand, the hypothesis put forward by Levitt and Donohue should spur serious critical reflection. Many pro-life Americans are also strong anti-crime advocates. Instead of receiving this report with gladness, however, we should ask if there is more that families, churches, voluntary organizations, and governments can do together to encourage positive alternatives to abortion that will strengthen the familial, social, and economic circumstances of at-risk families and children.

It will be wonderful if 20 years from now the statistics show that the rate of abortion continued to decline over all those years and that crime continued to go down. And won't it be wonderful if the researchers can report that the number of pro-life counseling centers, Christian drug-rehabilitation programs, Muslim after-school programs, and Jewish job-training programs have all grown to the point where they have become the primary reason for both fewer abortions and declining crime.

—James W. Skillen, Executive Director
   Center for Public Justice

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”