Slate.com runs a deeply misleading essay by their "Human Nature" columnist William Saletan entitled "Natural Unborn Killers: The bigotry of Bill Bennett's low expectations." I'll get back to explaining the hypocrisy of Saletan's central argument later, but let me start with the parts about me. Saletan writes:
Here's what Bennett's defenders are saying...
6. The idea of linking crime and abortion to race came from liberals. Bennett implies he got the idea from Slate: "The author of Freakonomics, Steve Levitt, engages the theory that abortion reduces crime, and he also discusses, as I did, the racial implications of abortion and crime. And he does that in an extended debate on Slate.com."
Sorry, wrong again. Here's Levitt's debate in Slate. Paste his comments into a word-processing file and run a search for the word "black." You won't find it. The only person who brings up race in the exchange is Steve Sailer, a conservative Bennett supporter. Levitt shrugs it off, saying "race really is not an integral part of the story." As to Bennett's latest comments, Levitt repeats,
Race is not an important part of the abortion-crime argument … [O]nce you control for income, the likelihood of growing up in a female-headed household, having a teenage mother, and how urban the environment is, the importance of race disappears for all crimes except homicide. (The homicide gap is partly explained by crack markets). In other words, for most crimes a white person and a black person who grow up next door to each other with similar incomes and the same family structure would be predicted to have the same crime involvement.
Sailer and Taranto point out that four years ago, Levitt mentioned the black crime rate in a paragraph deep in a 67-page article in the Quarterly Journal of Economics. Please. The probability that Bennett ever read this article is zero.
Dear Mr. Saletan:
Your essay today about the abortion-crime question is deeply misleading about the question of who first injected race into the abortion-crime controversy. That distinction belongs to Dr. Steven D. Levitt, bestselling co-author of Freakonomics and a contributor to Slate.com this year, and his research partner Dr. John J. Donohue III.
You imply that I first brought up the fact that blacks have both higher abortion and higher crime rates, but that is wrong.
The linkage between race, crime, and abortion is in the earliest draft paper written by Steven D. Levitt and John J. Donohue in December 1998, which bears the striking title "THE IMPACT OF RACE ON POLICING, ARREST PATTERNS, AND CRIME." In it they write:
"The selective-abortion channel will operate if the women who have abortions are those most at risk to give birth to children who would engage in criminal activity. Women who choose to have abortions are not a random subset of all pregnant women; teenagers, unmarried women, and African-Americans are all substantially more likely to seek abortions (Levine et al. 1996). Recent studies have found children born to these mothers to be at higher risk for committing crime in adolescence."
Levitt and Donohue then presented their idea that abortion-cut-crime at seminars at prestigious universities. In the summer of 1999, their theory was leaked to the Chicago Tribune, where I first read about it.
The Levitt-Donohue theory caused an instant sensation, and reports that race played a role in their theory were widespread in the mass media. For example, the New York Times reported on August 20, 1999, three days before the debate between Dr. Levitt and myself in Slate:
"'Most of the reduction,' Dr. Levitt and Dr. Donohue write, 'appears to be attributable to higher rates of abortion by mothers whose children are most likely to be at risk for future crime.' Teen-agers, unmarried women and black women, for example, have higher rates of abortion, the researchers note, and children born to mothers in these groups are statistically at higher risk for crime in adulthood."
Then, in their 2001 paper "The Impact of Legalized Abortion on Crime," Levitt and Donohue explicitly quantified the sizable role that race played in their theory:
"Fertility declines for black women are three times greater than for whites (12 percent compared to 4 percent). Given that homicide rates of black youths are roughly nine times higher than those of white youths, racial differences in the fertility effects of abortion are likely to translate into greater homicide reductions. Under the assumption that those black and white births eliminated by legalized abortion would have experienced the average criminal propensities of their respective races, then the predicted reduction in homicide is 8.9 percent. In other words, taking into account differential abortion rates by race raises the predicted impact of abortion legalization on homicide from 5.4 percent to 8.9 percent."
Since then, such as in his huge bestseller Freakonomics, Levitt has been trying to cover his tracks to avoid being crucified for political incorrectness, but thanks to the Internet, the historical record is indisputable.
The funny thing about all this is that I have been arguing for six years that Levitt's racial logic didn't work, that the Levitt Effect DIDN'T HAPPEN. I first brought up race in my debate with Levitt to show that his theory's logical prediction that legalized abortion would cut the murder rate more among blacks than whites (because blacks use legal abortion about three times more) was flatly contradicted by history. The overall teen homicide rate for the first cohort born after legalization was hugely higher than that of the last cohort born before legalization, and, in contravention of Levitt's logic, the growth in the murder rate among black teens was even worse. As I wrote in your publication in 1999:
Here's the acid test. Your logic implies that the babies who managed to get born in the '70s should have grown up to be especially law-abiding teens in the early '90s. Did they?
Not exactly. In reality, they went on the worst youth murder spree in American history. According to FBI statistics, the murder rate for 1993's crop of 14- to 17-year-olds (who were born in the high-abortion years of 1975 to 1979) was a horrifying 3.6 times that of the kids who were 14 to 17 years old in 1984 (who were born in the pre-legalization years of 1966 to 1970). (Click here to see the graph.) In dramatic contrast, over the same time span the murder rate for those 25 and over (all born before legalization) dropped 6 percent.
Your model would also predict that the recent decline in crime should have shown up first among the youngest, but the opposite was true. The murder rate for 35- to 49-year-olds has been falling since the early '80s, and for 25- to 34-year-olds since 1991, but the two most homicidal years for 14- to 17-year-olds were 1993 and 1994.
The dubiousness of your theory becomes even more obvious when we break down this post-Roe vs. Wade generation by race.
Now, you say that your theory isn't "about race," but simply about the greater likelihood that "unwanted" babies will grow up to be bad guys. That correlation sounds plausible. Still any realistic theory about abortion and crime must deal with the massive correlation between violence and race. As you note, African-Americans have three times the abortion rate of whites. You don't mention, however, that, as Janet Reno's Justice Department flatly states that "blacks are 8 times more likely than whites to commit homicide." Therefore, blacks commit more murders than whites in total as well as per capita.
So, let's look at just black males born in 1975 to 1979. Since their mothers were having abortions at three times the white rate, that should have driven down their youth murder rate. Instead, from 1984 to 1993 the black male youth homicide rate grew an apocalyptic 5.1 times. (Click here to see graph.) This black juvenile rate also grew relative to the white juvenile murder rate, from five times worse in 1984 to 11 times worse in 1993.
You can read far more about how Levitt's logic didn't work at www.iSteve.com/abortion.htm .
I would greatly appreciate you clearing up the misleading aspects of your article.