A Simple Test of Abortion and Crime Ted Joyce Baruch College and Graduate Center City University of New York and National Bureau of Economic Research
Forthcoming in Review of Economics and Statistics
A Simple Test of Abortion and Crime
I replicate Donohue and Levitt’s results for violent and property crime arrest rates and then apply their data and specification to an analysis of age-specific homicide rates and murder arrest rates. The coefficients on the abortion rate have the wrong sign for two of the four measures of crime and none is statistically significant at conventional levels. In the second half of the paper, I present alternative tests of abortion and crime that attempt to mitigate problems of endogeneity and measurement error. I use the legalization of abortion following the 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade in order to exploit two sources of variation: between-state changes in abortion rates pre and post Roe, and cross-cohort differences in exposure to legalized abortion. I ind no meaningful association between abortion and age-specific crime rates among cohorts born in the years just before and after abortion became legal.
The debate as to whether legalized abortion lowers crime leaped from academic journals to mainstream discourse with the huge success of Freakonomics.1 In the Chapter titled, ”Where Have All the Criminals Gone?” Levitt and Dubner summarize academic work by Levitt and coauthor John Donohue, which shows that a one-standard deviation increase in the abortion rate lowers homicide rates by 31 percent and can explain upwards of 60 percent of the recent decline in murder.2 If one accepts these estimates, then legalized abortion has saved more than 51,000 lives between 1991 and 2001, at a total savings of $105 billion. But the policy implications go beyond crime. If abortion lowers homicide rates by 20 to 30 percent, then it is likely to have affected an entire spectrum of outcomes associated with well-being: infant health, child development, schooling, earnings and marital status. Similarly, the policy implications are broader than abortion. Other interventions that affect fertility control and that lead to fewer unwanted births–contraception or sexual abstinence–have huge potential payoffs. In short, a causal relationship between legalized abortion and crime has such significant ramifications for social policy and at the same time is so controversial, that further assessment of the identifying assumptions and their robustness to alternative strategies is warranted.
The New York Times more or less sets the agenda for the rest of the news media. If the NYT decides a story is fit to print, much of the the rest of the press will soon decide, what do you know!, that the topic deserves coverage. But if a tree falls in the forest and the NYT doesn't cover it ... This means the NYT has a particular responsibility to avoid giving in to conflicts of interest, which they have clearly succumbed to over the last two years in their refusal to report on any of the controversies swirling around their star columnist turned blogger Steven D. Levitt.