NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Has Abortion Helped Lower The Crime Rate?

August 25, 1999


According to a study by John J. Donohue III, Stanford Law School, and Steven D. Levitt, University of Chicago, a large share of the drop in the crime rate, perhaps as much as half, can be traced to the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade abortion decision of 1972. That's because many of the children who might have grown up to commit those crimes were never born. Within a few years of the Roe decision, up to a quarter of pregnancies in the U.S. ended in abortion.

  • An analysis of crime rates from 1985 to 1997 examines them as a function of abortion rates two decades before.
  • The timing of the decline in crime coincided with the period when children born shortly after Roe would be reaching their late teenage years -- the peak ages for criminal activity.
  • States that were the first to legalize abortion, including New York, Washington, Alaska and Hawaii, were the first to see a drop in crime, and states with the highest abortion rates had larger decreases in crime than states with low abortion rates.

The reason abortion has had an impact on the crime rate is the high incidence of abortion among mothers whose children are most likely to be at risk for future crime: teenagers, unmarried women and black women have higher rates of abortion, and their children are statistically at a higher risk for crime in adulthood.

The economic benefit to society of abortion in reducing crime may be up to $30 billion annually.


Declining crime rates are the result of a complex series of factors, and half the reduction cannot be attributed, as Donohue and Levitt suggest, to a single cause. Among the possible reasons for the crime drop:

  • The dwindling of the crack cocaine problem.
  • The improved economy and greater job opportunities for low-income youth.
  • Changing attitudes among teenagers and more innovative policing strategies.
  • And the steady growth of the prison population.

News of the report prompted outraged responses ("So fraught with stupidity I hardly know where to start refuting it.") and dismissive ones ("I don't think it has any policy implications whatsoever.") But other critics also questioned both the researchers' knowledge of abortion history and the practical usefulness of the report. That is because the policy implication of the report is that if Medicaid funding for abortion at the federal level was renewed, there would be a potential drop in the crime rate in 17 years. But no interest group is likely to make such an argument.

Source: Erica Goode, "Linking Drop in Crime to Rise in Abortion," New York Times, August 20, 1999.


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