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Abortion's secret legacy

By Andrew Leigh and Justin Wolfers - posted Friday, 30 June 2000

One of the hottest debates among American criminologists over the past few years has been why the US crime rate, rising since the 1960s, has fallen sharply during the 1990s. Political fortunes have been made as politicians have claimed vindication for policies that are tough on crime, including longer jail terms, better policing, and the end of the crack epidemic. Some liberals have countered that reduced crime is yet another benefit of a full-employment economy. However, two leading academics have just put forward a much more radical proposition - that the legalisation of abortion explains a large part of the drop.

Their case is stunningly simple. The 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe v Wade effectively legalised abortion, leading to a dramatic increase in the number of terminations performed. The turning point in violent crime in the 1990s coincided with the period when children born in the post-Roe v Wade era would be reaching their late teens, and this decline has continued as this generation reaches the peak ages for criminal activity.

The researchers, Dr John Donohue (Stanford University) and Dr Steven Levitt (University of Chicago), cite several pieces of evidence to support their explanation. First, the drop in crime came around 1992, following roughly 20 years after Roe v Wade. Second, it was disproportionately concentrated among those under 25. Third, the handful of states that legalised abortion before Roe v Wade were also the first to witness a fall in crime. Fourth, states with high abortion rates had larger reductions in crime than states with low abortion rates. Donohue and Levitt estimate that the crime rate in 1997 was 10-20% lower than it would have been without legalised abortion - explaining about half of the total decrease.


Predictably, when the findings of the study were made public, the responses were fast and furious. Pro-lifers were outraged at the study's logic, arguing the murder of a million foetuses is not offset by 6,500 less homicides. Meanwhile, the left voiced discomfort with the eugenics-like notion that greater numbers of abortions - about 40% of which are by blacks and minorities - weeded out society's villains. To these charges, the writers responded that they were simply explaining a phenomenon, not advocating an agenda.

When the political dust settles, we might - surprisingly - learn something far more interesting about child-rearing than about abortion. Roe v Wade had only a minor effect on the number of children brought into the world - its main effect was to change when they were born. Thus, the main effect is not that the underprivileged have less kids, but rather that all of these children are born when the mother feels more ready to raise kids. Thus, Levitt argues that the main finding is simply "that when you remove a government prohibition against a woman choosing, the woman makes choices that lead to better outcomes for her children."

What about Australia? Like most developed countries, we experienced what Francis Fukuyama calls a "great disruption" in the period following World War Two. Part of this was an increase in the crime rate. At first glance, the statistics are astounding, with rates of violent crime and theft growing tenfold in less than forty years. Much of this, however, must be attributed to higher reporting rates. A more reliable guide is generally considered to be homicide rates, which are more comprehensive and considered to be a good indicator of rates of other violent crimes.

From the end of the War onwards, Australia's homicide rate climbed steadily from an annual rate of about 1 per 100 000 in the 1940s to a peak of 2.4 per 100 000 in 1988. Thereafter, it has slowly declined, staying below 2 people per 100 000 throughout the 1990s. Australian criminologists have attributed this fall to a range of factors, chief among them a reduction in the proportion of young people in the population, shifting attitudes towards violence and higher incarceration rates.

But could the legalisation of abortion also have contributed to the drop in crime? Perhaps the best way of approaching this question is by considering each of the four factors pinpointed by Donohue and Levitt.

First, did the drop in crime occur about twenty years after the legalisation of abortion? While there is no single Roe v Wade-type decision in Australia, a number of seminal changes can be identified. Court decisions in Victoria in 1969 and New South Wales and the ACT in 1971 substantially broadened the circumstances in which abortions could be legally performed. Legislative changes in South Australia in 1969 and the Northern Territory in 1974 had a similar effect.


The changes did not occur in every jurisdiction. In Tasmania, Queensland and Western Australia, the legal status of abortion remained unclear throughout the 1970s. But for more than two thirds of the Australian population, the change occurred in the late-1960s or early 1970s - or about 20 years before the decrease in crime rates. Indeed, just as the legalisation of abortion in most parts of Australia preceded Roe v Wade by 2-4 years, so the fall in Australian homicide rates preceded that in the US by a similar amount of time.

Second, was the fall in crime disproportionately concentrated in those under 25? Unfortunately, the relatively small numbers involved make it difficult to draw any statistically significant conclusions on this point.

Third, were those states that legalised abortion earlier also the first to experience a drop in crime? Some evidence seems to suggest so. Victoria (which legalised in 1969) saw homicide rates decline from 1987-88. New South Wales (which legalised in 1971) saw homicide rates decline from 1989-90. The Northern Territory (which legalised in 1974) saw homicide rates decline from 1990-91. By contrast, Western Australia (where the legal status of abortion remained unclear until recently) has not seen any significant drop in its homicide rate. Yet the evidence for other regions does not support this proposition. At best, we can say that this part of the theory holds for the states where most Australians live.

Fourth, we come to the smoking gun - did states with higher abortion rates in the early 1970s have lower crime rates in the 1990s? Unfortunately, only South Australia kept official statistics on abortions performed during the 1970s. These showed that the 1971 legalisation of abortion in South Australia led to a large increase in the number of abortions performed over the subsequent three years. Reporting in 1977, the Royal Commission on Human Relationships cited this phenomenon and concluded that New South Wales and Victoria probably experienced a similar increase following their legalisation of abortion (even accounting for the number of illegal abortions performed before legalisation). Unlike Donohue and Levitt, we cannot point to statistics showing an increase in the number of abortions performed in the first states to legalise abortion. However, there does seem to be a strong connection between the legalisation of abortion and an increase in the number of abortions performed.

While Donohue and Levitt's theory does not fit Australia perfectly, there is enough evidence that we should be suspicious next time we hear a politician or police chief taking responsibility for the latest drop in crime rates. And the good news is that if this theory is correct, the fall in crime rates is here to stay.

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This article was first published in The Age, 27 November 1999.

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About the Authors

Andrew Leigh is the member for Fraser (ACT). Prior to his election in 2010, he was a professor in the Research School of Economics at the Australian National University, and has previously worked as associate to Justice Michael Kirby of the High Court of Australia, a lawyer for Clifford Chance (London), and a researcher for the Progressive Policy Institute (Washington DC). He holds a PhD from Harvard University and has published three books and over 50 journal articles. His books include Disconnected (2010), Battlers and Billionaires (2013) and The Economics of Just About Everything (2014).

Dr Justin Wolfers is an Assistant Professor of Economics at Business and Public Policy Department of the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Andrew Leigh
All articles by Justin Wolfers
Related Links
Australian Institute of Criminology
Children by Choice Association
Queensland Right To Life
Victorian Pro-life
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