May 5, 2005

Why legalizing abortion didn't cut crime

A reader writes:

I have been following this debate with some interest. It seems to be that most internet commentators merely draw attention to your critique without adding their own thoughts. Perhaps, they are scared of Dr. Levitt.

Obviously, all the commentators who have endorsed Levitt's theory haven't looked hard at the actual crime numbers. But, I suspect they just assume that Levitt is fleshing out an idea they've long had about the effects of abortion. As another reader writes:

I heard this on the Howard Stern radio show 15 years ago

Q. What do you call an abortion clinic in Harlem?
A. Crimestoppers.

So Levitt's chapter is a joke in more ways than one.

To be honest I can't see how abortions haven't reduced crime to a degree. What if all the abortions that took place since 1973 never happened? We would have disproportionately more poor black males being born and hence more crime in all categories except insider trading and spying for the Soviet Union, Israel or China.

That kind of racial eugenics thinking is clearly the reason so many people assume Levitt is right, even when I show his theory badly fails its obvious tests. They understood that Levitt's "wantedness" theory is a euphemism for legal abortion cutting down on the number of blacks (a point Levitt made more explicitly in his 1999 first draft paper, written with John J. Donohue).

But the reality turns out to be much more complicated, when you first realize that legalized abortion led to almost 30% more pregnancies. Indeed, legalized abortion appears to have hollowed out the black middle and working classes, while expanding the black underclass.

The effects at the bottom of the social scale of legal abortion are very hard for someone at the top of the social scale to predict, as this reader shows:

Before I became a lawyer I was a social worker in a major urban area, handling an AFDC caseload. Almost all my clients were similar in that they had at least one child, usually born out of wedlock. But there were big differences when it came to having additional babies. The clients who had fewer out of wedlock children generally were the more intelligent, competent, and organized people in my caseload.

Obviously, I'm speaking in relative terms here. Most of my clients weren’t big brains. But there are gradations of intelligence and ability among welfare clients, as in any group of people. And some members of my caseload clearly were better at learning from life than were others.

For my more able clients, having the first baby sometimes served as a wakeup call. They now realized how difficult it was to raise a kid. They also had an incentive to better themselves through work experience and education so they could support the child and claw their way into the middle class.

By contrast, the less intelligent and less competent often seemed to be "unwakeupable." Learning from experience was not their strong suit. Our office's clients included drug-addicted mothers with multiple babies who had seen one child after another taken away and put into foster care. That didn’t stop them from having more.

Given what I saw as a welfare worker, I'd say that trying to gauge the impact of abortion on crime by making assumptions about "wantedness" makes no sense at all.

Clients who had abortions didn’t necessarily want to do so. They often felt sad, even bitter, about the experience. But they saw themselves as being forced into it by circumstances.

Clients who had multiple out-of-wedlock babies may have "wanted" them, but their attitudes toward childbearing bore no resemblance to middle class notions of "planned parenthood." Many clearly got pregnant intentionally, but for reasons that middle class observers would find incomprehensible. They often thought having a baby would give them status with their friends, or make their boyfriends love them, or provide them with a child who would always need them.

In short, the clients in my welfare caseload who had abortions tended to be reasonably competent and devoted caretakers of their existing children, while those who had additional babies were more likely to be immature and clueless. From what I can tell, my caseload was entirely typical for urban areas throughout the country. I wish someone could explain how this real-world experience fits with Levitt's theory that abortion somehow culls potential criminals.

Many people who subscribe to the idea that abortion cuts crime seem to be thinking something along the lines of the following (though they won’t admit it in polite company): Blacks commit more crimes than whites. Blacks also have more abortions than whites. Culling all those black babies must be cutting crime.

But this is racist nonsense of the worst sort. Not all blacks commit crimes, only a small subset of them do. Is that crime-prone subset having most of the abortions? My experience says no.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

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