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“In 1989, crime was just about at its peak in the United States. In the previous fifteen years, violent crime had risen 80%.... When the crime began falling in early 1990s, it did so with such speed and suddenness that it surprised everybody…. But the evidence was irrefutable: the long and brutal spike in crime was moving in the opposite direction, and it wouldn’t stop until the crime rate had fallen back to the levels of forty years earlier.”


The quote above is the beginning of an analysis of an unexpected decrease in crime that began in the 1990s, in an analysis by Steven D. Levitt. Police, criminologists, politicians and economists who had not foreseen the decrease in crime now tried to explain it.

“Where did all the criminals go?”

Using the 10 largest news outlets, the most popular theorized causes of the decrease were (as assessed by the number of citations they received):

  • Innovative policing strategies;
  • Increased reliance on prisons;
  • Changes in crack and other drug markets;
  • Aging of the population;
  • Tougher gun control laws;
  • Strong economy;
  • Increased number of police;
  • All other explanations (death penalty, concealed weapons laws, buy back programs for guns, etc).

Taken together, these causes could not explain the dramatic decrease in all violent crimes across the United States.

The single largest contributor to the decrease in violent crime did not even make the list: abortion.

Roe v. Wade became the law of the land in the US in 1973. Abortion became widely available and affordable. Quickly, more than a million abortions were performed each year. In 1990, the first large cohort of children who were not born due to abortion would have been entering their late teens. The absence of hundreds of thousands of “unwanted” teenagers resulted in a decrease in crime. Crime continued decreasing over the next few years.

Three correlations that indicate the causality of Roe v. Wade are worth noting (there are more).

First, there were five states that had legalized abortion for at least two years before Roe v. Wade. These were New York, California, Hawaii, Washington and Alaska. The crime rates in these states began to decrease earlier than the rest of the nation and correlated with the time that abortion was legalized.

In addition, the rate of decrease in crime correlated with the rate of abortions. That is to say, states with the highest abortion rates had the largest decreases in crime. This was only true after legalization of abortion. Before that, there was no correlation.

And, “In states with high abortion rates, the entire decline in crime was among the post-Roe cohort, as opposed to older criminals.”

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The effect of abortion on crime is an example of an unintended consequence. Not all unintended consequences are bad.

Among other things, this data indicates that women’s choices concerning abortion are not random. Put another way, when a woman chooses an abortion, “she generally does a good job of figuring out if she is in a position to raise the baby well.”


This should not be surprising. The conditions that women are avoiding with abortion are often the same conditions that make it difficult to raise a healthy, productive child: single mother, young age, poverty, lack of education, etc.

The quotes and more analysis can be found in “Freakonomics” by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner (2005) HarperCollins.

Chauncey Bowers

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