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JOHNRLOTT Discussion on the link between abortion and crime at Barron’s

John Lott has a review of Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner’s new book “Think Like a Freak” in Barron’s. The review covers many points, but one of them is the claimed relationship between the liberalization of abortion and crime rates. Here is the relevant discussion.

Levitt and Debner also brag in Think Like a Freak about the author's "truely original" thesis, presented in Freakonomics, that liberalizing abortion lowered crime rates. Abortion, they argued, lowered the number of unwanted children who would be prone to commit crimes. But again, the authors naively ignored the new set of incentives that legalized abortion offered.

What actually happened when abortion was legalized will sound ironic, but no more so than the unintended consequences of many other changes in laws and regulations. Multiple studies have shown that the availability of legalized abortion increased the incidence of unprotected sex, which led to more unwanted pregnancies, which in turn boosted the number of unplanned births, even offsetting the reduction in unplanned births due to abortion. The net result: an increase in the number of single-parent families who couldn’t devote a lot of time to raising their children, an effect Levitt and Dubner ignored and one that more than offset what they focused on. . . .

Because of space constraints the original discussion had to be shortened. Lott’s original discussion had these additional points:

As a primary example of the “truly original” thinking Levitt and Dubner claim to have done, they point again to the assertion discussed in Freakonomics that liberalizing abortion lowers crime rates. The problem with this bragging is that neither the basic idea that “unwanted children” who are brought up in bad environments that lead to crime was not a new idea nor was their test of it.

While these authors take credit for the idea, it is actually an old argument. The 1972 Rockefeller Commission on Population and the American Future cited research purporting that the children of women denied an abortion didn’t get the attention that others received and “turned out to have been registered more often with psychiatric services, engaged in more antisocial and criminal behavior, and have been more dependent on public assistance.” Roe v. Wade even discusses the consequences of “unwanted children” not getting the attention that they need.

The research the commission cited went back even further. For example, a 1966 study followed the lives of children born to 188 women who were denied abortions from 1939 to 1941 at the only hospital in Gothenburg, Sweden. They compared the lives of these kids over the next twenty years to the next child of the same sex who was born after them. . . .

The remaining part of the discussion was then similar to the second paragraph quoted above from Barron’s.

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