by Susan E. Wills
August 20, 1999
Recently University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt and Stanford University Law School professor John Donohue III created a furor with their research paper "Legalized Abortion and Crime." The authors contend that legalized abortion fueled the drop in crime in the 1990s because a new subclass of humanity they've identified--"women most at risk to have children who would engage in criminal activity"-- have higher abortion rates, thus preemptively executing the would-be felons.
This subclass, we are told, is populated predominantly by women who are teens, single and/or African American. Talk about your prenatal racial profiling! The American public is supposed to be grateful to have been spared the cost of not only the crimes, but due process, trial by jury, incarceration, appeals and execution.
The paper brazenly attempts to put a happy face on the achingly personal and national tragedy that is abortion. That is why articles extolling the findings are popping up throughout the pro-abortion press, while indignant editorials are questioning the authors' eugenicist leanings. It was, after all, Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger who established contraceptive clinics in ghettos so that "defectives" and "human weeds" could be eliminated.
With its dispassionate academic tone and its profoundly wrongheaded thesis, "Legalized Abortion and Crime" brings to mind Jonathan Swift's satirical essay "A Modest Proposal." The two papers have so much in common that I'm half expecting an announcement from Messrs. Levitt and Donohue that the whole thing was just a zany joke. Swift proposed to pay mothers for breeding and nursing their children. Poor mothers with many children would not then be forced to spend their days begging and could undertake some gainful employment. And infants would be sold at 12 months, after weaning, as a tasty delicacy for the gentry. The commonwealth would then be rid of children who might "turn thieves for want of work." Swift minutely calculates the monetary benefits to the nation, just as Donohue and Levitt tote up the ever so speculative savings from executing likely criminals in utero.
Unfortunately, it appears that many people are accepting Levitt and Donohue's hypothesis as Revealed Truth (no matter that the paper is unpublished and not peer-reviewed). A few random observations about their methodology and assumptions may illuminate the paths which led them to error.
First, the authors get one point right, but fail to draw out its obvious significance. They acknowledge that "legalizing abortion leads to an increase in the conception rate among women who do not want babies. ..." One recent study cited found the decline in birth rates due to legalized abortion to be only 5-10 percent. In other words, due to the availability of abortion, more women take the risk of being sexually active. They have the "insurance" of abortion to protect them from the risk of bearing an "unwanted" child. Does this not suggest that absent legalized abortion, the subclass of women they identify as most likely to produce the Future Felons of America might just have said no to premarital sex, eliminating the "need" to have legalized abortion protect the populace from miscreant offspring? And what of the effect of legalized abortion on the behavior of males? Freed from the concern of marrying the mother and supporting their child, legalized abortion gave predatory males a carte blanche to beget "fatherless" children.
A second point: It is wrong and deeply offensive to single out young African American women because of their race. It is not one's skin color, but one's marital status that is the primary determinant for anti-social behaviors, including crime "The relationship [between single-parent families and crime] is so strong," writes Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, "that controlling for family configuration erases the relationship between race and crime and between low income and crime." Examples abound. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that over 70 percent of juveniles in state reform institutions had no father in the home. A Michigan State University study found that 75 percent of adolescent murderers surveyed had come from homes where the parents were divorced or never married. And sixty percent of all violent rapists who were repeat offenders came from single-parent households, as reported in Criminal Justice Behavior. More evidence that fatherlessness--not race--contributes to social handicaps: Children of white single parents are two-and-a-half times more likely to be living in poverty than children in African American two-parent families. Dr. Nicholas Eberstadt reports that in the early 1980s, both African American and white babies born to an unmarried college graduate were less likely to survive their first year of life than if they had been born to a married high school dropout. He also found that "so substantial are the differentials associated with illegitimacy that an American baby born to a teenage mother is less likely to register low birth weight if the mother is married and black than if she is unmarried but white." Undeniably, legalized abortion has fueled this epidemic of fatherlessness, by encouraging fathers to think that their first and only responsibility in case of unplanned pregnancy is to offer to pay for an abortion. Childbirth has become "her choice," and so her sole burden, as fathers flee the scene.
A third point: The authors rely on studies conducted in Eastern Europe and Scandinavia of children born to mothers who were denied an abortion by the state at a time when abortions were restricted. In overwhelming numbers, the mothers chose to raise these children rather than making an adoption plan. Researcher P.K. Dagg claims that these "unwanted" children "were substantially more likely to be involved in crime and have poorer life prospects, even when controlling for the income, age, education, and health of the mother." But "wantedness" is such a slippery concept. How many unplanned babies are treasured once the obstacles presented by the pregnancy are overcome--and certainly once the baby is seen and held? Indeed, American adoption law reflects this truth: a mother cannot relinquish her parental rights to an adoptive couple until after the baby's birth. Conversely, researchers have known since before Roe that child abuse is most common in families where children were very much "wanted"--but wanted in the wrong way by insecure parents with unrealistic expectations.
Consider, also, the unspoken assumption inherent in this paper that human behavior is largely predetermined at birth by one's mother's status. Children born to poor single mothers may have a tougher time achieving social, educational and career heights than privileged children in a two-parent home, but many do succeed because someone took the time to instill in them values like self-control, respect for self and others, and persistence in education and work.
Might I suggest another avenue of research? Let's determine what conditions lead families to produce academics who have no sense of the sanctity and dignity of human life. Some early childhood intervention in values education might really pay off.
Mrs. Wills is assistant director for program development, NCCB Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities.