How did legalization of abortion legal help reduce the crime rate in the United States?In the recent past, the increase in crime rates was exponential. At the end of the 1980s, the numbers were skyrocketing and entailed the rise of homicide, drug dealing, robbery, and rape. The rates were growing exceptionally fast in regard to violent crimes and juvenile offenses. It was, thus, unsurprising, that, at the time, respectful criminologists and sociologists were all predicting that the rise will continue steadily, and the society will have to face a severe deterioration of public safety in key American cities. The grimmest scenarios were painted about the horrible future of teenage crime, which became an issue of highest political agenda in the country with President Clinton making speeches about the imminent threat to the American people.

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All the predictions were terribly wrong. A persistent countrywide crime drop started to happen with all major types of offense. The fall did not exclude the teenage issue either, as the teenage murder rate fell over 50 percent in the period of five years. Eventually, the United States entered the new century with the lowest crime rate in decades. The failure of political scientists, criminologists, and politicians to predict the astonishing fall did not discourage them from jumping into unsubstantiated explanations of the phenomenon. The reasons put forward at the time varied from gun control laws and labor market dynamics to innovative policing and the specific “broken windows” theory. They were either completely wrong or only pointed out minor factors while missing out the most significant association. High-quality economic research eventually revealed the most prominent correlation: the crime drop was the result of the extension of abortion rights in the mid-70s.

Before we proceed to explain how the correct reason was validated, let’s have a brief overview of the factors that turned out to be rather insignificant. A group of different labor-related reasons, such as falling unemployment rates and higher wages, can be seen together as the “stronger economy” argument. The proponents of this factor insisted that it was the amelioration of social conditions as the result of economic growth that reduced crime risks. The theory seems to ignore the fact that the unemployment rate was reduced only by 2 percent in the 1990s, while the crime rates dropped approximately 40 percent. Moreover, there is no correlation whatsoever between labor market dynamics and violent crime, which was exactly the issue in the 1990s. While social conditions embodied in the stronger economy theory do show some correlation with some minor offenses, there has been no reliable research on the favorable effect of a better economic situation on homicide rates.

One other mostly false theory has gained a lot of popularity. Many policy-makers continue to make assumptions that the crime drop in the 1990s was the result of smarter approaches to policing. Sometimes, the view is rather technical: the reduction of crime is linked to the increased number of police. In fact, the increased number of police indicates that there is an appalling criminal situation. It does not prove any causality between the two variables, but rather demonstrates a policy approach to dealing with the rising crime. The study on increasing police numbers for different reasons revealed a valid correlation between hiring new policemen and –women and the crime drop: the increased number of law enforcement officers accounted for about 10 percent of the 1990s crime drop. Thus, it was an important factor, which was, however, very far from having any determinative nature.

In any event, the popular argument was about the numbers – it concerned (and it still does) the introduction of innovative police strategies. In particular, the approach has become very attractive in New York City where the police department implemented the so-called “broken windows” theory in their enforcement practices. In a nutshell, the theory entailed that the tolerance towards minor infractions like public urinating, petty theft, and using the subway without a valid ticket induced more violent crime. Accordingly, the New York police intensified their fight against minor criminal offences, and many believed that this approach had a positive effect on reducing crime rates altogether. In reality, the crime drop had begun before the implementation of the “broken windows” theory, and, thus, the attractive policing strategy could not have been the major factor either.

In the interests of being concise, we will now proceed with validating the most significant correlation: the relationship between the extension of abortion rights in the 1970s and the crime drop in the 1990s. Roe . Wade is one the most prominent decisions of the Supreme Court, as it found the constitutional basis for the right to abortion based on the woman’s choice, but limited by a balancing test. The decision has led to the liberalization of abortion rights across the country. Research has demonstrated the link between legalization and subsequent crime drop, especially with regard to violent offenses. The legalization process happened at different timings in different states, which allowed to observe an earlier crime drop in those states where the abortion had been legalized sooner. The correlation was proven directly between the abortion rates and criminal statistics. Moreover, similar legalization processes in Canada and Australia helped to verify that the link is objective and not unique to the United States.

Thus, abortion became one of the most important factors of the decline in the crime rate. Unfortunately, the direct causality exists between higher numbers of underprivileged young male criminals as well as single teenage mothers on the one hand and the violent crime on the other hand. Although the abortion-crime link can be perceived as very provocative and worrisome, numbers cannot lie.

  • Levitt, S. & Dubner, S. (2005). Freakonomics. New York: William Morrow.