Monday, June 27, 2005

Do more abortions mean fewer black criminals?

Michael Duffy:

There is plenty of evidence for the proposition that poor women took particular advantage of the legalisation of abortion. Apart from anything else, it became a lot cheaper (about $US80 compared with $US450 when it was illegal). The birth rate dropped about 5 per cent on average after 1973, but the drop was twice as great for teenage and non-white mothers as it was for others.

Because just 6 per cent of an age group commits about half the crime, such a reduction in the number of children growing up in deprived circumstances could be expected to have a big effect. For example, in the US black youths commit nine times more murders, relative to their population, than white youths. As, after 1973, the black fertility rate fell 12 per cent (it was 4 per cent for whites), this might be expected to reduce the homicide rate.

Legal abortion also enabled more women to choose when they had children, which improved the circumstances in which those babies who were born grew up. This is important because unwanted children are more likely to be involved in criminal activity. It suggests that fewer of those children who were born after 1973 would have become criminals than would have been the case in the past.

So what happened to the US crime rate? It shot up in the 1970s and 1980s, and then dropped dramatically after 1991. Murder fell by 40 per cent and violent and property crime declined by more than 30 per cent. This, of course, was exactly when boys born in the years after 1973 should have been engaged in criminal activities (which peak between the ages of 18 and 24).

Other explanations have been offered for the decline in the US crime rate, particularly the increase in imprisonment rates and the so-called "broken window" policy of tougher policing, in some cases accompanied by more police.

The problem with the first is that the imprisonment rate started to climb in the early 1970s and continued to climb with no effect on crime for 20 years. Why would it have suddenly become a deterrent in the early 1990s? As for more or tougher policing, the problem here is that crime rates have plummeted across the US, even in cities that have not improved their policing. For instance, the "broken window" approach is often credited with New York's fall in crime, but crime also fell dramatically in Los Angeles, where the police force for many years was unreconstructed. Another explanation for falling crime, the booming economy of the 1990s, is dismissed by Levitt and Donohue, who say there is no strong link between economic performance and violent crime.

Something else supports their theory. Five US states legalised or semi-legalised abortion in 1970, three years before everyone else. They were Alaska, California, Hawaii, New York and Washington. Did crime fall in those states before the others? Yes.

I asked Don Weatherburn, director of the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, about Levitt's hypothesis. He says it's plausible, but there are other plausible hypotheses too. (Some can be found in the book The Crime Drop in America, edited by Alfred Blumstein and Joel Wallman.)

So what about Australia, which Levitt suggests has had a similar experience to America? Abortion was legalised here at about the same time as in the US, but Weatherburn says that most crime increased in Australia during the 1990s. He wonders if Australia's more generous welfare provisions meant that legalised abortion had a different impact here. Whatever the reason, our criminal class has remained free of the (unintended) eugenics Levitt says occurred in the US.

Australian columnist makes explicit the anti-black eugenic basis of Levitt's theory


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