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Crime Rates and Legal Abortion

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The reasons for the United States' crime drop in the 1990s have been the subject of considerable debate. As noted here, tough sentencing policies are one major reason, with even the anti-punishment side's experts grudgingly conceding that tough sentencing caused more than a quarter of the drop. Other estimates are higher.

One of the most controversial* hypotheses is that of Donohue and Levitt that the legalization of abortion by the Supreme Court's decision in Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973) was actually a major factor. See Donohue & Levitt (2001) The Impact of Legalized Abortion on Crime, Quarterly Journal of Economics, 2, 379-420.

A new study of English data challenges that hypothesis.

This post on Vox, a European economics and policy blog, is by Leo Kahane from Cal. State, David Paton from Nottingham, and Rob Simmons from Lancaster. They plot out crime data for the U.S. and for England & Wales** in years since legalization, normalized to the starting point. A drop in crime rates where the first post-legalization cohort reaches its peak crime years appears in the U.S. data but not the English data.

No response has been posted yet on the Freakonomics Blog, but we have probably not seen the end of debate on the question.

* "All the death threats I got came from the left and not from the right." -- Steven Levitt.

** In the U.K., crime data for Scotland and Northern Ireland are tabulated separately. England and Wales together are one unit.

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The reasonably plausible counterargument is that England and Wales lacked the ghettoized underclass that is a pervasive factor U.S. crime rates, at least until a much later in time surge in immigration. Certainly, England and Wales was not without poor people around the time that it legalized abortion, but the percentage of people who were in the most dire circumstances was much lower.

In this analysis, not all legalized abortions contribute equally to the decline in U.S. crime rates as a result of Roe. Instead, the reduction in U.S. crime is a result of the impact of legalized abortion on the number of children born into underclass ghetto circumstances in the U.S., while abortions by middle class Americans has had little or no impact on crime rates. Indeed, England and Wales probably had fewer pockets of deep poverty even compared to Scotland or Northern Ireland at the time.

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