Does abortion reduce the crime rate?

Legalised abortion reduces crime rates.

It’s a statement bound to cause controversy, and probably the main reason the book Freakonomics, which I recently finished reading, is as well-known as it is.

It caused a storm of reaction at the time, and an online search reveals hundreds of examples, mostly furiously emotional rants with not much else to be said for them.

It’s just a statement. It may be true, or not. It doesn’t imply anything morally. I suspect pro-lifers would tend to reject it, while pro-choicers would tend to accept it. Both views are just emotional reactions. We all tend to choose what we accept as knowledge based on how well it fits into the rest of what we choose to believe. But that shouldn’t make it easier to accept or reject – it’s just a statement after all. The controversy arises when the statement is invested with so much more – a welcome benefit of legalised abortion, or a sick attempt to justify to the indefensible. One can accept it as true, and still oppose abortion, or think it’s false, and still be pro-choice.

So is the statement true or not? I’m certainly not going to be able to come to a definitive conclusion from the comfort of my desk. The consensus though does seem to be that the facts support the argument.

The research though clearly debunks one myth – that New York’s zero-tolerance crime policies, much beloved by some SA policymakers, had much to do with that city’s drastic reduction in crime. The same trend was manifesting in all US cities at the same time. New York was in the middle of crime rate falls amongst US cities. So it’s quite clear what wasn’t a cause. So what was the cause? The authors credit the legalisation of abortion many years earlier. If that was actually the case, it’s quite tempting to attempt to justify it. Most recorded crimes are committed by young men. Unwanted young men from broken homes would be more likely to commit crimes. Abortion reduces this pool of potential future criminals.

But those are supposedly common sense arguments that don’t add to the validity or not of the original premise.

Put in context, the book lists four factors that do have something to do with the drop,

  1. Increases in the Number of Police
  2. The Rising Prison Population
  3. The Receding Crack Epidemic
  4. The Legalization of Abortion

and six factors, commonly thought to have an effect, that don’t.

  1. The Strong Economy of the 1990s
  2. Changing Demographic
  3. Better Policing Strategies
  4. Gun Control Laws
  5. Laws Allowing the Carrying of Concealed Weapons
  6. Increased Use of Capital Punishment

There are a few questions not answered by the book. Why did crime increase so quickly up until the 1990’s? One of the more interesting arguments from someone who is presumably a pro-lifer suggested that the pill had something to do with it. The pill unleashed a new morality, greater promiscuity, which led to more unwanted children, etc.

There’s a certain synchronicity to that, as it’s likely to please the same people the original argument annoys, and vice-versa.

But let’s assume for now that the conclusions are valid. What does that mean for the South African crime situation? There are certainly more police these days, and there’ll be even more by 2010 (how lucky we are to have a date in the near future around which everything else revolves). The prison population (and the rate per 100 000) has increased since 1993 (but dropped from its peak in 2002). The drugs epidemic (it’s tik here, not crack), which to my mind (without any stats to back it up) is the single biggest cause, is still soaring. And abortion was legalized in 1994, so soon we’ll start to see any effects from that.

So 3 out of 4 factors are present here. It’ll be interesting to see what happens in the next few years. Will crime decrease anyway? If the tik scourge can be sorted out, will crime decrease dramatically?

There’s certainly a need for more people to be studying this sort of thing, using local data, rather than shouting aimlessly from the rooftops.


3 Replies to “Does abortion reduce the crime rate?”

  1. Hi there…very interesting and controversial article I thought. I wonder if we could put this on to our blog, linking and accrediting to you? Let me know if that’s cool.

  2. How desperate South Africans have become – clutching at straws like those handed out in Freakonomics – to convince themselves that things will improve in future.

    I quote from the article:
    “Most recorded crimes are committed by young men. Unwanted young men from broken homes would be more likely to commit crimes. Abortion reduces this pool of potential future criminals.”

    The one MAJOR factor ignored by someone trying to see the good in the abortion-theory for South Africa, is that they totally disregard the fact that HIV and AIDS are now causing MORE young men to grow up in broken homes – homes without a father, mother, or both – leading to the sad dramatic increase in AIDS orphans.

    So what SA “gains” in terms of abortion, it “loses” in terms of AIDS orphans. And I think it would be a fair call to say that there are more AIDS orphans generated in South Africa than unwanted young men taken away by abortion!

    Freakonomics MIGHT eventually become true – and if it does, South Africa’s crime situation will escalate – as AIDS orphans are lead into the world of crime, in the same way unwanted young men are lead into a world of crime and drugs.

    Dont clutch at straws, South Africa. They have a tendency to break.

    To add further insult to injury, the author takes a very simplistic view by saying that by increasing the number of police officers, crime will be reduced.

    Management theory has, beyond doubt, proven that “throwing resources” at a problem is more often than not the least effective way of dealing with the problem.

    More unmotivated, underpaid, uneducated, often corrupt, policemen are NOT going to improve the crime situation in South Africa. South African POlice willneed to work smarter, get more educated, trained, efficient, for it to become effective in combating crime. Skills need to be retained, and experienced skills need to be brought back.

    So, scratch that one option, Mr. Author. You are now down to 1/4 factors present in South Africa.

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