Abortion, Unwed Births, and Crime

Back in 2001, law professor John Donahue and economist Steven Levitt made headlines with a study in theQuarterly Journal of Economics suggesting that legalized abortion may account for almost half the drop in the U.S. crime rates during the 1990s. Now a study by John R. Lott Jr. of the American Enterprise Institute and his colleague John Whitley showcase substantial evidence that shows just the opposite, particularly that the legalization of abortion has increased murders in the U.S. by more than 7 percent. Lott and Whitley reach this finding by improving upon the methodology of Donahue and Levitt. First they document how widespread abortion was in 45 states that restricted abortion prior to 1973, allowing them to include data since 1970 in their analysis where Donahue and Leavitt had presumed no abortions had taken place. The researchers also use the Supplement Homicide Reports instead of the arrest reports in the Uniform Crime Reports, allowing them to more accurately disaggregate the number of murders committed by different age groups in each state. The researchers then arranged their data to examine the number of murders committed each year, allowing them to track each cohort over time and account for the number of abortions in their respective states in what would have been their year of birth. If Donahue and Leavitt’s theory is right—that abortion eliminates those in the population most likely to commit murder—then the panel data would reveal significantly lower murder rates among age cohorts that were born immediately after abortion was legalized. Yet the regressions conducted by Lott and Whitley reveal that when abortion rates increase, so does the murder rate when the remaining offspring born during that time come of age. In multiple specification tests, which included more than 5,000 regressions, their coefficients are remarkably robust, revealing what they call “a strong consistent positive relationship between abortions and murder.”
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