New research linking abortion and crime reduction brings old debate back to life


Crime rates in the United States have fell about half since the early 1990s. new working document of the National Bureau of Economic Research finds that abortion legalized following the historic monument of the Supreme Court Roe vs. Wade decision taken in 1973 explains 45% of the drop in crime rates over the past three decades.

The authors of the article, economist at Stanford University John donohue and University of Chicago economist Steve Levitt, take new data and run pretty much the same model they used in their influence – and controversial – Analysis 2001 published in the Quarterly Economics Journal, where they first suggested an association between abortion and crime.

In the 2001 paper, they found that legalized abortion seemed to account for up to half of the drop in violent crime and property crime rates at this point. They also predicted that crime would drop an additional 20% over the next two decades. Levitt featured the research in the 2005 bestseller Freakonomics. The new paper also examines violent crime and property crime.

“What is most interesting about the [new] We just repeated the regression process that we went through 20 years ago with more data and the results got even stronger, ”says Donohue, referring to the statistical method that researchers often use to study the relationships between the variables. “It was a pretty interesting and powerful assertion of the original hypothesis that was originally proposed.”

Several states recently passed legislation restricting access to abortion; and research into the social effects of abortion since Roe could inform legal arguments as restrictive laws are called upon and challenged in court. The Roe ruling effectively legalized abortion in the United States, based on a 7-2 ruling that ruled the ban on abortion was unconstitutional because it violates women’s right to privacy.

The main finding of the new article is based on the idea that, as the authors say, “unwanted children are at high risk of less favorable life outcomes on multiple dimensions, including criminal involvement, and legalization. abortion appears to have dramatically reduced the number of unwanted births. “

In the new paper, they use an analysis model almost identical to that of 2001, but add data on abortion and crime covering 1997 to 2014. The original analysis covered from 1985 to 1997.

“By imposing the restriction of using the same model that we used for an article published in 2001, no one could claim that we were tampering with the model to generate a particular result,” says Donohue.

Changes in crime within States

The figure of 45% reduction in abortion crime comes from several types of analysis. The authors examine crime in states that legalized pre-Roe abortion; crime in states with high and low abortion rates after Roe; differences in state crime patterns among those born before and after Roe; and differences in arrest rates within states among those born before and after Roe.

In analyzing the differences in crime patterns within states, they find a 10% to 20% reduction in abortion-related crime, after controlling for several variables: prisoners and police per 1000 population, personal income state per capita, welfare, unemployment rates, poverty rates and beer shipments.

“There has been this literature that talks about how alcohol abuse is linked in particular to violent crime,” says Donohue. “Therefore [beer shipments are] a crude measure of alcohol abuse, but the best possible correlation. “

As with their 2001 article, not all economists are convinced by Donohue and Levitt’s new findings.

“Modern econometrics focuses on examining really abrupt changes in the variable that drives your analysis,” says Theodore Joyce, a professor of economics at Baruch College whose research on abortion has been published in several academic journals, including the New England Journal of Medicine and The Journal of Political Economy. “In other words, you are looking for really crisp breaks [changes] because you can isolate what has changed and if something moves when it moves. When you have smooth changes, smooth changes in employment, crime, demographics – abortion is part of that smooth change as you move into the 80s, 90s, and 2000s – you can’t. identify the abortion from the other things going on at the time. time.”

During the 2000s, Joyce published many NBER papers and elsewhere who criticized the original findings of Donohue and Levitt.

“To run these long panel regressions in which you take the sweep of humanity and say you’ve controlled for poverty – it’s moving really slowly and it gets mixed up with all these other trends, and I don’t think they can. solve the problem, “he says.

Donohue and Levitt responded to several of Joyce’s criticisms in an article from 2004 in the Human Resources Journal.

Changes in Crime in States

Another part of the new NBER analysis compares crime trends in states with low and high post-Roe abortion rates. The authors report that there was no connection between abortion and crime before 1985, as there were fewer criminals affected by legal abortion. In their analysis, a 20-year-old arrested for a property crime in 1985 is part of a cohort unaffected by legal abortion because he was born in 1965 – before Roe. But a person born in 1975 would be part of an affected cohort.

From 1985 to 1997, researchers show a pattern where crime declined more in states with high rates of arrestees affected by legalized abortion, compared to states with low rates. Again, other economists are not convinced that state-to-state comparisons are appropriate.

“There are a number of reasons why crime in New York City might go down relative to crime in Utah,” says Christophe Foote, Senior Economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. “You can try to control what’s going on with unemployment and beer sales, but at the end of the day you never really know if a state like New York is better prepared to thrive in the new economy than maybe it is. ‘Oklahoma, so maybe there are different types of people moving to New York rather than Oklahoma. There are all kinds of other factors that you can’t take into account when doing this cross-state comparison. “

Foote and fellow economist Christopher Goetz identified several technical flaws in Donohue and Levitt’s original analysis in a 2008 commentary published in the Quarterly Economics Journal. They then noted that the comparisons between states were accompanied by too much data noise, which means that these comparisons include variables that cannot be controlled. More precise results could be drawn from intra-state comparisons, they argued.

“The best way to determine whether abortion has a causal effect on crime is to compare two people who find themselves in a similar environment today, but who had different probabilities of being wanted at birth,” said they wrote.

Donohue and Levitt replied to Foote in 2008 in the Quarterly Economics Journal, acknowledging and correcting the errors in their 2001 analysis while reiterating their finding that “legalizing abortion reduces crime”. They acknowledge in the new discussion paper that they added more intrastate analysis due to Foote’s comment from 2008.

Questions about the validity of the cross-state data comparison are “certainly appropriate to ponder,” Donohue says. “One thing that is so interesting is that we are able to look not only across states at the current level, but also within states.”

An ongoing scientific discussion

Donohue and Levitt have provided their data and methods over the years. Authors who have written articles criticizing their previous work often thank them for sharing their data or providing comments.

NBER paper As of 2008, it is possible that legal abortion had an impact on crime, but questions the magnitude seen by Donohue and Levitt. A 2008 paper in Criminal justice policy review cautions against using events that occur at an individual level – such as a person who was never born into a situation that might have led them to want or need to commit a crime – to draw conclusions general – such as legalizing abortion represents a huge drop in national crime rates.

Other research has found links between abortion and crime reduction, but for different reasons than Donohue and Levitt. An article from 2007 in The BE Journal of Economic Analysis and Policy examines data from Canada and suggests that lower crime rates are not attributable to at least one “unwanted” birth in a given year, but rather to fewer women becoming teenage mothers.

Likewise, a 2015 study in Crime and delinquency finds that “if there is a statistically significant relationship between crime and abortion, it is due to varying concentrations of teenage abortions from state to state, and not to unwanted pregnancy.”

Whether the new working paper arouses another academic controversy may depend on where the paper is published. Donohue and Levitt completed their NBER article less than two weeks ago and are still tweaking it for peer review. Their 2001 article caused a stir in part because the Quarterly Economics Journal is among the most influential economics journals around the world.

Whatever the destination of the new analysis, Donohue and Levitt remain confident: “It is rare for an economic theory to make forecasts for 20 years that are both bold and precise,” they conclude in their discussion paper.

Abortion rates are falling – will crime increase?

Levitt, in 2006 blog post, explained a subtle point worth remembering. One critic had raised the fact that abortion rates among white women were falling and asked if Levitt would expect crime among white teenage girls to increase.

(Total abortion rates have dropped significantly since the early 1980s.)

As Levitt explains in his blog post, the idea is that it is not access to abortion per se that leads to a drop in crime, but rather a drop in unwanted births. Here’s how he said it:

“It seems that the 90s were a time when factors such as AIDS caused people, for example, to use condoms or to abstain from having sex altogether. Not conceiving an unwanted baby is just as effective in reducing unwantedness as having an abortion. “

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