Steven D. Levitt has gotten sensational publicity for Freakonomics implying that legalizing abortion increased the "quality" of the upbringing that children who actually went on to be born received. That idea has proven so attractive that the fact that the crime rate shot up among the first kids born after legalization has been repeatedly dismissed out of hand. That's why, way back in my debate with Levitt in 1999, I offered an alternative theory that would better fit the historical record: that abortion was used more by the more responsible women in the black community, which therefore lowered the overall cultural and moral level of African-Americans, setting the stage for the catastrophic crack years.
A reader sent me a 1996 Brookings Institution policy brief called "An Analysis of Out-Of-Wedlock Births in the United States" by George A. Akerlof and Janet L. Yellen. It has some important data tables comparing the last years before legalization, 1965-1969, the first half-decade after legalization, 1975-1979. The abortion rate for nonwhites peaked in 1977, so this is a good comparison. Blacks born in 1965-1969 had relatively low teen murder and other serious violent crime rates, while those born in 1975-1979 had the worst records ever recorded.
Before legalization, the birthrate for married black women was 129 and for unmarried black women 91. A decade later, the married black birth rate dropped from 129 to 93, while the unmarried black birth rate fell only from 91 to 86. So, social changes, including abortion legalization, had barely any effect on the unmarried black birth rate, but drove down the black married rate sharply.
Moreover, black women weren't getting married as much, in part because of the collapse of the shotgun wedding (i.e., a wedding less than 9 months before the birth of the first child). Akerloff and Yellen write:
We have found that this rather sudden increase in the availability of both abortion and contraception we call it a reproductive technology shock is deeply implicated in the increase in out-of-wedlock births. Although many observers expected liberalized abortion and contraception to lead to fewer out-of-wedlock births, in fact the opposite happened because of the erosion in the custom of "shotgun marriages."...
The increased availability of contraception and abortion made shotgun weddings a thing of the past. Women who were willing to get an abortion or who reliably used contraception no longer found it necessary to condition sexual relations on a promise of marriage in the event of pregnancy. But women who wanted children, who did not want an abortion for moral or religious reasons, or who were unreliable in their use of contraception found themselves pressured to participate in premarital sexual relations without being able to exact a promise of marriage in case of pregnancy. These women feared, correctly, that if they refused sexual relations, they would risk losing their partners. Sexual activity without commitment was increasingly expected in premarital relationships.
Advances in reproductive technology eroded the custom of shotgun marriage in another way. Before the sexual revolution, women had less freedom, but men were expected to assume responsibility for their welfare. Today women are more free to choose, but men have afforded themselves the comparable option. "If she is not willing to have an abortion or use contraception," the man can reason, "why should I sacrifice myself to get married?" By making the birth of the child the physical choice of the mother, the sexual revolution has made marriage and child support a social choice of the father.
So, the black illegitimacy rate climbed from 35 percent to 52 percent over the course of that decade, with the number of black out-of-wedlock births growing from 189,000 to 280,000, despite all the wonderful increase in "wantedness" of children that Dr. Levitt attributes to the legalization of abortion. We sure didn't see an increase in wantedness by fathers.