Social and Economic Costs of Legal Abortion

At the World Congresses of Families in Warsaw, Amsterdam, and Madrid, and the demographic summits in Moscow and Ulyanovsk,[1]I presented and updated a country-by-country model of fertility, which has since been published in my book Redeeming Economics.[2]

I’d like to extend that analysis. We often assume that abortion is a tragic byproduct of our current culture of family breakdown. In fact, legal abortion is the main cause of family breakdown, including specifically the rise in rates of divorce, illegitimacy, and crime, and the entry of most developed nations—now including the United States—into “demographic winter.”

Fifteen years ago I published a paper on the “Socioeconomic Costs of Roe v. Wade.” In it, I estimated the impact of legal abortion in reducing the U.S. population (about 20% so far) and concluded, “taken in its entirety, legal abortion is perhaps the single largest American economic event of the past century, more significant than the Great Depression or the Second World War” (see Figure 1).[3]

(Figure 1)

In sidebars I considered important collateral results: For example, showing that legal abortion is single-handedly responsible for the prospective deficits in the pay-as-you-go social security retirement system (see Figure 2), and suggesting that legal abortion was also directly responsible for the 1970s and 1980s rise in crime rates.[4]

(Figure 2)

I was just starting the book which systematized these insights. The cover features Gustave Doré’s engraving, “Arrival of the Good Samaritan at the Inn,” because, transcending nationality and religion, the parable illustrates all the possible economic transactions we can have with our fellow man: the robbers beating a man and leaving him for dead illustrate crime; the priest and Levite who passed him by illustrate indifference; the innkeeper’s bargain with the Samaritan illustrates justice in exchange; and finally, the Samaritan’s devotion of time and money to restore the beaten man to life illustrates a gift. Crime, indifference, just exchange, and gift: this is the range of possible transactions, described by St. Augustine and incorporated by Thomas Aquinas in the original scholastic economics.[5]

In contrast, the premise of modern economic theory was expressed by Adam Smith’s famous assumption in the Wealth of Nations that “every individual . . . intends only his own gain” (see Figure 3).[6] “Neoscholastic” economics differs from Smith’s “classical” and today’s “neoclassical” economics chiefly in retaining Augustine and Aristotle’s theory of distribution: comprising gifts (and their opposite, crimes) and what Aristotle called “distributive justice” as well as exchanges. This also makes the neoscholastic theory much more accurate.

(Figure 3)

For example, updating scholastic theory refutes the famous claim by economist Steven D. Levitt, featured in his mega-bestseller Freakonomics, that the U.S. Supreme Court’s legalization of abortion in 1973 caused the crime rate to fall 15-20 years later, by eliminating potential criminals (see Figure 4).[7] In fact, there is a 90% current inverse relation between “economic fatherhood” and homicide.[8] Legalizing abortion raised crime rates immediately and with a lag by turning new fathers back into men without dependent children.

(Figure 4)

The “Neoscholastic” fertility model is also more accurate. Just four factors explain most variation in birth rates among the 70 countries for which sufficient data are available (comprising about one-third of all countries, but more than three-quarters of the world population).[9] The birth rate is strongly and about equally inversely proportional to per capita social benefits and per capita national saving (both adjusted for differences in purchasing power), which represent provision by current adults for their own well-being. When these factors are taken into account, a legacy of totalitarian government is also highly significant, reducing the birth rate by about 0.6 children per couple (see Figures 5 & 6).

(Figure 5)

(Figure 6)

Finally, the birth rate is strongly and positively related to the rate of weekly worship. This is because all gifts of scarce resources—whether rearing a child or worship—require the same lowering of self and raising of others in our scale of preferences for persons. On average throughout the world in 2005-10 (adjusted for differences in mortality), a couple which never worshipped had an average of 1.2 children; but the average couple which worshipped at least once a week had 2.4 more—an average of 3.6 children (see Figure 7).[10]

(Figure 7) 

There are four main reasons, then, for “demographic winter,” in order of importance: First, low rates of religious practice, which are associated with low birth rates (and high incidence of abortion); second, social benefits so high as to displace gifts within the family, particularly the gift of life; third, legacies of totalitarianism; and finally, heavy reliance on fiscal policies which penalize investment in people: so-called “human capital.”

What does this mean for policy? Based on current projections, the federal budget would substantially increase federal social benefits as a share of GDP. Because of the strong inverse relation between the birth rate and per capita social benefits, I project that the U.S. birth rate will fall significantly under current law, from about 1.83 to about 1.64 children per couple. These projections indicate that the budget is likely to shift U.S. society to conditions approximating the Social Security Trustees’ “High-Cost Assumptions” (see Figure 8).

(Figure 8)

Fifty years ago, the world’s three most populous countries were China, India, and the United States in that order. That is still true today. The practice of abortion in China but not as widely in India, however, is causing a reversal of their first and second population ranks.

Adjusted for differences in mortality rates, in 2005-10 China’s TFR was 1.53 after but 2.10 before abortions; India’s 2.34 after and 2.41 before abortions; the U.S. 2.01 after but 2.66 before abortions; and 4th-largest Indonesia’s 2.04 after but 3.05 before abortions.[11] Based on all 53 countries for which data are available (comprising about two-thirds of the world population), the World TFR was 1.89 after, but 2.38 before abortions.

Of course, the birth rate does not reflect illegitimacy, which has risen from less than 4% in 1940 to more than 40% of all U.S. births. As Janet L. Yellen—yes, that Janet Yellen—and her husband George A. Akerlof were surprised to discover, legalizing abortion contributed to a retreat from marriage: “Although many observers expected liberalized abortion and contraception to lead to fewer out-of wedlock births, in fact the opposite happened [particularly] because of the erosion of the custom of ‘shotgun marriages.’”[12] The role of legal abortion is obvious from its exact proportionality to the divorce rate (see Figure 9).

 (Figure 9)

Many fear that marriage in America is going irretrievably to hell in a handbasket. I would caution against the WSIATI fallacy: that What You See Is All There Is. Data back to colonial times show that American marriage has gone to hell in a handbasket before (see Figure 10). Extramarital conceptions were about one-quarter in 1900 (the same as in 1986) and one-third in 1776. I do not claim another Great Awakening, like the one  I was blessed to be born in, is inevitable; but I do claim that the handbasket is not.

(Figure 10)

I would like to close by endorsing two correct innovations by Pope Francis: first, his rejection of “gender ideology,” which mistakes gender equality for gender identity; and second, his rejection of the prevailing theory of “sustainability’s” premise, that “Population control is the sine qua non of sustainable development”[13];  he points out that “concern for the protection of nature is . . . incompatible with the justification of abortion.”[14] In short, “demographic winter” is unsustainable for “human ecology.”

Economics has been called the “dismal science.” But I like to emphasize that my message is one of hope. All the unfavorable trends we have discussed here are reversible if we reverse the policies which caused them. Ronald Reagan was right in saying, “There are simple answers—there just are not easy ones.”[15]

John D. Mueller is the Lehrman Institute Fellow in Economic at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. This essay is adapted from a presentation given at World Congress of Families IX, October 27-30, 2015, in Salt Lake City, Utah.

[1]     John D. Mueller, “A Family-Friendly Fiscal Policy to Weather Demographic Winter,” remarks at the World Congress of Families IV, Warsaw, Poland, May 11, 2007, available at http:/ /, and; “How Do Nations Choose ‘Demographic Winter’? Is America Doing So?” remarks at the World Congress of Families V, Amsterdam, Netherlands, August 11, 2009, available at, and; “The Demographic Winter (How We Got to Where We Are),” remarks at World Congress of Families VI in Madrid, Spain, May 25, 2012,; “Benefits or Babies: Will Social Benefits ‘Crowd Out’ Children?” remarks at World Congress of Families VI, Madrid, Spain, May 25, 2012, available at; “Practical Steps on Births, Benefits, Booms and Busts,” remarks at the Interparliamentary Forum at the World Congress of Families VI in Madrid, Spain, on May 25, 2012, available at, and; “Babies and Dollars: Implications for USA, Russia, and the World,” remarks at Moscow International Demographic Summit, available at and,pubID.4522/pub_detail.asp; “Tocqueville’s Comparison of America and Russia, Updated,” remarks at Ulyanovsk International Demographic Summit, September 25, 2012,

[2]     John D. Mueller, Redeeming Economics: Rediscovering the Missing Element (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2010). 

[3]     John Mueller, “The Socioeconomic Costs of Roe v. Wade,” Family Policy 13.2 (March-April 2000): 1-20,

[4]     John Mueller, “Abortion is a Cause of Crime, Not a Cure: The Worm-in-the-Apple Effect,” Family Policy 13.2 (March-April 2000): 10-12.

[5]     As Augustine noted, a crime is the opposite of a gift: taking from other persons their own goods. As with “legal” abortion, the objective facts remain the same whether or not the crime is recognized as such by human law. Cf. Augustine, On Christian Doctrine 3.10.16 (Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library), 396-97, available at

[6]     Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (London: W. Strahan and T. Cadell), 2 vols. Facsimile published by Augustus M. Kelley Publishers, New York (1966 [1776]). The definitive Cannan edition is available online: Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, ed. Edwin Cannan (Library of Economics and Liberty, 1904 [1776]),

[7]     Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything (New York: William Morrow, 2005), 117-44.

[8]     “Economic” fatherhood is defined not by biological paternity nor residency with but provision for one’s children. Specifically, “economic fatherhood” equals the total fertility rate, with fertility rates for whites and nonwhites mixed in the same proportion as among men admitted to prison, removing children on welfare (who are not supported by their fathers) from the numerator and men in prison (who cannot support their children) from the denominator.

[9]     The model was first published in John D. Mueller, “How Does Fiscal Policy Affect the American Worker?” Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics and Public Policy 20.2 (Spring 2006): 563-619, available at

[10]   Regular worship is not only positively related to fertility in a roughly linear fashion. It is also inversely related to the incidence of abortion, which (like crime in general) rises exponentially as the rate of worship declines. Data on abortion rates by country from “Abortion statistics and other data,” by Wm. Robert Johnston, Web. Last updated September 13, 2015. 

[11]   Fertility rates should be adjusted for differences in mortality rates. The Net Reproduction Rate (NRR) represents a hypothetical woman whose experience matches the average rates of fertility and death of all women in a given year. (The Total Fertility Rate measures fertility alone.) An NRR of 1.00 indicates that each woman bears exactly one surviving daughter. The Total Fertility Rates used in the model equal twice the NRR. For example, the TFR in Mali in 2006 was 7.42, but the NRR was 1.987, which corresponds to a TFR of 3.97 children per couple. In other words, in Mali the typical couple had about 3.5 children simply to compensate for the likelihood of premature death before reaching child-bearing age. United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, World Population Prospects: The 2008 Revision, New York, 2009,

[12]   George A. Akerlof and Janet L Yellen, “An Analysis of Out-of-Wedlock Births in the United States,” Policy Brief #5, The Brookings Institution, 1996. The original article appeared as George A. Akerlof, Janet L. Yellen, and Michael L. Katz, “An Analysis of Out-of-Wedlock Childbearing in the United States,”  The Quarterly Journal of Economics 111.2 (May 1996): 277-317.

[13]   Herman Daly, “Population control is the sine qua non of sustainable development.” Herman E. Daly, “Carrying Capacity as a Tool of Development Policy: The Ecuadoran Amazon and the Paraguayan Chaco,” Chapter 8 in  Herman E. Daly, Beyond Growth: The Economics of Sustainable Development (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996), 125.

[14]   120. “Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion. How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties? ‘If personal and social sensitivity towards the acceptance of the new life is lost, then other forms of acceptance that are valuable for society also wither away.’” Pope Francis, Encyclical Letter Laudato Si,’ “On Care for Our Common Home,” [quoting Benedict XVI, Encyclical Letter Caritas in Veritate (June 29, 2009), 28: AAS 101 (2009), 663].

[15]   “For many years now, you and I have been shushed like children and told there are no simple answers to the complex problems which are beyond our comprehension. Well, the truth is, there are simple answers—there just are not easy ones.” Ronald Reagan, Inaugural Address, January 5, 1967,