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Legalized Abortion and Crime

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  • John J. Donohue
  • Steven D. Levitt

Abstract

Crime has fallen dramatically in the 1990s. While many explanations for this decline have been offered, each of them has difficulty explaining the timing, large magnitude, persistence, and widespread nature of the drop. In this paper we propose a new explanation for falling crime: the legalization of abortion roughly twenty years earlier. The empirical evidence we present is consistent with abortion playing an important role. First, the timing of the crime drop corresponds to the period in which the first cohorts affected by abortion are reaching the peak ages of criminal activity. Second, states that legalized abortion before the rest of the nation were the first to experience decreasing crime. Third, states with high abortion rates have seen a greater fall in crime since 1985. The estimated elasticity of crime with respect to abortion rates is roughly -.10. The abortion-related reduction in crime is predominantly attributable to a decrease in crime per capita among the young, rather than smaller cohort sizes. Declining crime rates could result from two mechanisms: selective abortion on the part of women most at risk to have children who would engage in criminal activity, and improved child rearing or environmental circumstances caused by better maternal, familial, or fetal circumstances. Extrapolating our estimates out of sample to a counterfactual in which there were no abortions, crime rates might be 10-20 percent higher than they currently are with abortion. If these estimates are correct, legalized abortion can explain about half of the recent fall in crime. All else equal, we predict that crime rates will continue to fall slowly for an additional 15-20 years as the full effects of legalized abortion are gradually felt.

Suggested Citation

  • John J. Donohue & Steven D. Levitt, 1999. "Legalized Abortion and Crime," JCPR Working Papers 104, Northwestern University/University of Chicago Joint Center for Poverty Research.
  • Handle: RePEc:wop:jopovw:104
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    Cited by:

    1. Steven D. Levitt, 2004. "Understanding Why Crime Fell in the 1990s: Four Factors that Explain the Decline and Six that Do Not," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 18(1), pages 163-190, Winter.
    2. Steven D. Levitt & Lance Lochner, 2001. "The Determinants of Juvenile Crime," NBER Chapters,in: Risky Behavior among Youths: An Economic Analysis, pages 327-374 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    3. Costas Meghir & Mårten Palme & Marieke Schnabel, 2011. "The effect of education policy on crime: an intergenerational perspective," IFS Working Papers W11/11, Institute for Fiscal Studies.
    4. John J. Donohue, III & Steven D. Levitt, 2004. "Further Evidence that Legalized Abortion Lowered Crime: A Reply to Joyce," Journal of Human Resources, University of Wisconsin Press, vol. 39(1).
    5. Alejandro Gaviria & Carlos Medina & Leonardo Morales & Jairo Núñez, 2010. "The Cost of Avoiding Crime: The Case of Bogotá," NBER Chapters,in: The Economics of Crime: Lessons for and from Latin America, pages 101-132 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    6. Nevin, Rick, 2007. "Understanding international crime trends: The legacy of preschool lead exposure," MPRA Paper 35338, University Library of Munich, Germany.
    7. Kuziemko, Ilyana & Levitt, Steven D., 2004. "An empirical analysis of imprisoning drug offenders," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 88(9-10), pages 2043-2066, August.
    8. Angela K. Dills & Jeffrey A. Miron & Garrett Summers, 2010. "What Do Economists Know about Crime?," NBER Chapters,in: The Economics of Crime: Lessons for and from Latin America, pages 269-302 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    9. João M. P. de Mello & Alexandre Schneider, 2010. "Assessing São Paulo's Large Drop in Homicides: The Role of Demography and Policy Interventions," NBER Chapters,in: The Economics of Crime: Lessons for and from Latin America, pages 207-235 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    10. Adam Ashcraft & Iván Fernández‐Val & Kevin Lang, 2013. "The Consequences of Teenage Childbearing: Consistent Estimates When Abortion Makes Miscarriage Non‐random," Economic Journal, Royal Economic Society, vol. 123, pages 875-905, September.
    11. Josh Angrist, 2000. "Consequences of Imbalanced Sex Ratios: Evidence from America's Second Generation," NBER Working Papers 8042, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    12. Mark Duggan, 2001. "More Guns, More Crime," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 109(5), pages 1086-1114, October.
    13. Roland G. Fryer & Paul S. Heaton & Steven D. Levitt & Kevin M. Murphy, 2005. "Measuring the Impact of Crack Cocaine," NBER Working Papers 11318, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.

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