Michael Duffy writes an important column in the Sydney Morning Herald on the Freakonomics' theory that abortion cut crime. Although he doesn't realize that crime first went up among the groups most affected by abortion, he lays Levitt's eugenic cards on the table:
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.
This is what most people have in the back of their minds when they accept Levitt's theory on faith: the old Howard Stern joke about "What do you call an abortion clinic in Harlem? Crimestoppers!"
Yet, not all blacks are created equally likely to grow up to be murderers, and it appears that legalized abortion cut the birthrate of the more law-abiding blacks faster than the birthrate of underclass blacks. The subsequent shortage of middle class and working class black kids appears to have tipped (as Levitt's buddy Malcolm Gladwell might say) black youth culture toward the underclass gangsta norms that came to predominate in the late 1980s and culturally fueled the catastrophic youth crack wars of 1990-1994.
As Levitt himself documents in Freakonomics, becoming a crack dealer was an incredibly stupid career move -- the pay was no better than McDonald's, and the fringe benefits (going to prison and being murdered) were a lot worse. You needed a lot of cultural indoctrination to do something that dumb, and that's what black youth culture was providing at the time.
In Freakonomics, Levitt claims that Australia saw the same pattern of legalizing abortion lowering crime. Yet, Duffy writes:
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.
I've never offered an opinion on the impact of abortion on crime in other countries because I don't know much about their social structures. Levitt's logic might well be true elsewhere. But I'm coming to learn that anything Levitt says about abortion needs to be checked.
I tracked down an article summarizing one of the two papers Levitt cites in his footnotes as supporting his claim that abortion cut crime in Australia. You can read it here and see for yourself what it says. I read it as being inconclusive, but, hey, I'm not a bestselling glamour boy, so who are you going to believe: Steven Levitt or your lying eyes?