Freakonomics on Abortion

I recently finished reading a Christmas present, Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, a book most folks probably read a while ago (but hey, I read a book and I have a 1-year-old, so cut me some slack). The book basically explores interesting questions that defy conventional wisdom (which isn’t as wise as you might think). Like why do crack dealers live with their mothers? And does a realtor selling your house really have your best interests at heart (a timely question for us)?

The most intriguing question was what prompted the sudden and dramatic drop in crime in the 1990s. Crime had been escalating at incredible rates and experts were predicting doom and gloom. And then suddenly it stopped and dropped considerably. A number of reasons were tossed around at the time, but Levitt and Dubner dismiss most of them and credit a single reason that was never mentioned in the media for the majority of the drop in crime. That reason? Abortion.


The legalization of abortion on January 22, 1973–30 years ago today–paved the way for a dramatic drop in crime 20 years later. Why? Levitt and Dubner argue that the children most likely to be aborted are also the children most likely to become criminals. Low income, poorly educated would-be mothers who don’t really want to be mothers often make poor mothers, leading to neglected, low-income, poorly educated children who often turn to crime. It was those mothers who before 1973 couldn’t afford illegal abortions and gave birth to those crime-prone babies. After 1973 access to abortion became cheap and legal and those mothers could now opt for abortion and not bring those potential criminals into the world.

It’s kind of a head-scratching, mind-boggling, heart-aching correlation. The authors go to great pains to show their discomfort with the issue, trying not to make any judgment calls on abortion but simply look at the data. And obviously it’s just data. Not every low income mother give birth to criminals. Not every low income mother turned to abortion. Not every baby that was aborted would have grown up to be a criminal. Levitt is an economist and simply looks at numbers. How likely are these outcomes given the data?

The authors share a similar but reversed story from Romania in the 1960s. Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu outlawed abortion in 1966, hoping to rapidly increase his country’s population. It worked. The very next year the birth rate doubled. But life for all these Romanian children was miserable. Much more so after the abortion ban:

Compared to Romanian children born just a year earlier, the cohort of children born after the abortion ban would do worse in every measurable way: they would test lower in school, they would have less success in the labor market, and they would also prove much more likely to become criminals.

Again, we see the correlation with crime.

Ceausescu and his abortion ban stood until 1989 when the Communist nation collapsed and he was executed by firing squad.

Of all the Communist leaders deposed in the years bracketing the collapse of the Soviet Union, only Nicolae Ceausescu met a violent death. It should not be overlooked that his demise was precipitated in large measure by the youth of Romania–a great number of whom, were it not for his abortion ban, would never have been born at all.

The conventional wisdom on abortion doesn’t look at these kinds of issues at all. The pro-life stance supports life despite the circumstances. In the face of this data, it seems those circumstances aren’t so great, and can often be a drain on the rest of society. That doesn’t mean we should support abortions for all, but perhaps it means the pro-life supporters should turn their attention to some of those circumstances. If you’re going to lobby so hard that every baby should have a chance, maybe you should also lobby hard that every baby has the best circumstances–perhaps fighting for better public education, help for low income mothers, fighting the cycle of poverty, etc.

The pro-choice stance also doesn’t look at these kinds of issues. They insist it’s a woman’s right to choose, but typically focus on the woman’s reasons (focusing on the child would mean acknowledging that it’s a child). I’ve never seen a pro-choice group argue that legal abortion will mean less crime (and I can understand why). But it seems like talking about the consequences of the woman’s choice has merit, rather than simply focusing on having the legal option to choose. Talking about those consequences might lead to fighting for better education about birth control, abstinence or other methods that would make abortion less necessary.

I’m not trying to start an argument about abortion. I’ve done that before and it’s not exactly productive. I’m not suggesting “Less Crime! More Abortions!” should be any politician’s rallying cry (or even “Less Abortions! More Political Revolution!”). I just found the data and its implications incredibly interesting. You can apply them any way you like.

One thought on “Freakonomics on Abortion”

  1. It seems to me that most of the recent discussion on abortion has not focused on competing rights-claims, but on the situations in which people have abortions, and what follows. Here’s a sampling from just this past week:

    Nancy Gibbs in Time

    Also in Time:

    Post-Abortion Syndrome

    From my (sparse) reading, these articles don’t seem atypical. Just see what pops up when you google “abortion middle ground.”

    So while I’m used to the rhetoric of rights that I heard growing up, and used to the framing of the debate as it happens in ethics classes, it seems that most of the current media discussion I see is exactly what you’re surprised by. There seems to be two reasons for this:
    1) Political: “Pro-life” advocates have focused their attentions on state elections and judiciaries, and work on piece-meal legislation rather than straight out overturning of Roe v Wade. “Pro-choice” supporters have adapted to this strategy and emphasize keeping abortions “safe, legal, and rare.” Perhaps also evangelicals are becoming less dogmatic (on the surface, at least), more politically savvy, and more aware of the complexities of the issue, but I’m not sure about that.
    2) People dealing with abortion as a political and personal issue have always been interested in the way that abortion ties into other issues: gender roles, family vs. career decisions, poverty, and so on. Many people for a long time (not just abortion supporters, but perhaps them moreso) have been aware of the interrelatedness of these and other issues. (One example is portrayed in the film *Vera Drake*.) Perhaps now it’s just getting more media attention, but I’m in no position to judge that.

    So while I’ve heard the people unhelpfully yelling at each other about right to life vs. right to choose, smart people on both sides of the debate have always investigated further to see where and how abortions actually occur and their reasons and effects. Let’s hope that continues, and not just on this issue.

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