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Legalized Abortion and Crime

  • John J. Donohue
  • Steven D. Levitt

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.

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Paper provided by Northwestern University/University of Chicago Joint Center for Poverty Research in its series JCPR Working Papers with number 104.

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Date of creation: 01 Oct 1999
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Handle: RePEc:wop:jopovw:104
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