From the Left



Did Legalized Abortion Lead to Lower Crime Rates?

Froma Harrop on

Growing restrictions on the right to an abortion have revived talk of what many still regard as a highly controversial theory. It holds that the legalization of abortion in 1973 reduced the number of unwanted children, who might have been at higher risk of committing serious crimes. And that explained the sharp drop in the crime rate that started in the early 1990s.

This theory, which rubbed many nerves raw as racist, occupied a chapter in "Freakonomics," a 2005 bestseller. "There is a long lag between abortions being performed and the affected cohort reaching the age at which crime is committed," one of the authors, University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt, recently wrote in the Economist. "It is rare -- almost unprecedented -- in academic economics to be able to make a testable prediction and then to go back and actually test it decades later."

Because young people who commit the crimes were disproportionately Black, arguing that abortion would lead to a reduced criminal population might have sounded intended to reduce the Black population. The counterargument, however, could be that the victims of murder were also disproportionately Black.

The former MSNBC host Mehdi Hasan jumped on the racial implications in crime statistics. "White people kill other white people at almost the same rate black people kill other black people," he tweeted, "& yet you never hear anyone complaining about 'white on white crime.'"

Hasan seemed to confuse numbers with rates. Although the number of white-on-white homicides about equaled Black-on-Black homicides in 2019, whites made up about 60% of the total population, while Blacks represented only about 12%. Thus, the per capita murder rate was much higher among the Black-on-Black contingent.

"Pro-life" groups have long made the case that abortion is itself racist. They cite eugenicists from early last century who pushed all forms of birth control as a means to target "inferior races." White women currently account for about 39% of abortions in this country, while Black women account for about 28%, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which collects such data. Perhaps the more relevant statistic is this one: 75% of women who obtain abortions are low-income.

The Economist didn't and still does not like the "Freakonomics" theory. It noted other explanations for the drop in homicides. "No-fault divorce, rather than legalized abortion, may have played a bigger role," it said unconvincingly.

A more plausible counterargument might be that increased incarceration and improved policing, as well as more police, accounted for much of the falling crime rates. Levitt questioned whether that conclusion was being pushed by "those whose livelihoods came from fighting crime."


A personal observation: Back in the very bad-old-days of urban crime, I lived in a mostly poor neighborhood mostly occupied by "people of color." I recall a 7-year-old girl playing in a park behind my building getting killed in the crossfire of gang warfare. It was at dusk when white grown-ups like me avoided the park, but where were little kids supposed to play before going home for dinner?

We are urged to remember the names of young Black people killed by police, and that is fine. But what about that 7-year-old? Try as I might, I couldn't find reference to her name. She rightfully could have had a family of her own by now. The remaining members of her family must be traumatized to this day.

Because of the racial implications, the Freakonomics abortion theory must be treated with care. But look at the life stories of the most vicious criminals, whites included, and you see major dysfunction made worse by poverty. The abortion discussion should rightfully go beyond a woman's right to control her body.


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