Chicago -- August, 1999 -- A study by a Stanford University law professor and a University of Chicago economist has sparked a national stir over its racist conclusion: legalizing abortion in the 1970s may be a leading cause of plummeting crime rates in the 1990s.
The unpublished research, conducted by Stanford's John Donohue III and Chicago's Stephen Levittand and titled "Legalized Abortion and Crime," relies heavily on previous research suggesting that unwanted children are more likely to commit crimes. It suggests that those most likely to commit crimes as young adults -- unwanted children of poor, minority or teenage mothers -- were aborted at disproportionate rates more than two decades ago.
The link between race, poverty, crime and abortion has touched a national nerve, causing some to accuse the authors of espousing racist or even eugenic theories.
"We have not read the study, but the notion that it's appropriate to solve any of society's problems by killing unborn children is completely unfounded," said April Holley, a spokeswoman for the National Right to Life Committee in Washington, D.C. "The idea that it's certain people you kill before they're born that reduces crime is horrific and smacks of eugenics."
On Monday, a day after the Chicago Tribune published a lengthy story about the study, both researchers were besieged with telephone calls from reporters and comments from pro-life advocates.
"We've been stunned by the angry response, particularly from the left," Levitt said Monday. "Our intention was solely to understand this puzzling drop in crime, and it was really only after we'd begun working on the paper that these other politicized issues came to the forefront. This isn't a paper about class or race. This is a paper about being unwanted."
While acknowledging that their conclusions are a bit speculative, the authors found that states with high abortion rates in the 1970s experienced greater crime drops than those with lower rates, even when contributing factors such as unemployment and income were included.
The research grew out of previous studies examining causes of nationwide crime declines that Donohue had conducted with Levitt, who holds a joint appointment with the University of Chicago and the American Bar Foundation.
Researching a side issue, Donohue was struck by the magnitude of abortions in the years after Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion throughout the nation. Within a few years of the landmark decision, more than one million abortions were being performed annually -- roughly one abortion for every three live births.
Unsatisfied by the explanations, such as increased incarceration, that had been offered for steadily declining crime rates in the past five years, Donohue wondered: could that social tidal wave have contributed to declining crime rates?
To test the idea, the scholars examined the correlation between state abortion rates from 1973-1976 and state crime rates from 1985-1997, ostensibly when the children, had they not been aborted, have reached the prime crime-committing age group of 18-24.
After factoring out such influences as income, racial composition, unemployment and incarcerations, Donohue and Levitt found a statistically significant correlation between high abortion rates and lower crime rates.
For example, Donohue noted, the 10 states with the lowest incidence of abortions saw their murder rate rise 16.9 percent between 1985-1997, while the 10 with the highest incidence of abortions saw their murder rate drop 31.5 percent.
Reaction from the pro-life movement was united against it. A spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Boston John Walsh called the study's logic "bone-chilling." Maryclare Flynn, executive director of Massachusetts Citizens for Life, said it is "disgraceful to suggest that 40 million babies that have been aborted since 1973 would have become criminals. (The study) is making an assumption that poor women and minority women are breeding criminals" (Conroy, Boston Herald, 8/10).
The National Right to Life Committee noted that "The conclusions of the study seem bizarre, since in the 90s the drop in the crime rate correlates with the drop in the abortion rate. One could just as easily argue that an increase in the respect for human life has led to a decrease in both the abortion rate and the crime rate. The true effects of the over 40 million lives lost since 1973 may never be known."
A Boston Herald editorial ripped into the study, calling it "sickening" and a "quack thesis." Asserting that sociological studies usually have "predetermined" conclusions, and that the "square pegs of evidence are pounded and reshaped until they fit the hole," the editorial calls the study "a stretch to suggest the overall effect (of abortion) has been positive because so many minority fetuses have never been allowed to become babies." It concludes that "such a suggestion reeks of the most defamatory statements by the worst hate groups. It almost makes you wonder whether these so-called researchers are so cynical about the pro-life movement that they think it can be swayed with hints that more abortions mean less crime for the white folks to worry about" (Boston Herald, 8/10).
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