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Crime & Abortion
December 4, 2005 6:34 AM   Subscribe

Economist Steven Levitt, author of Freakonomics, has long posited a controversial thesis that legalized abortion help reduced crime, by reducing unwanted children, prone to crime. However, a new paper argues that Levitt (& Donohue) made serious errors in their research. Properly analysed, abortion has no significant effect on crime. Levitt disagrees, of course.
posted by daksya (46 comments total)

 
Experts disagree, news at 11
posted by elpapacito at 6:38 AM on December 4, 2005


Mefite snarks. Callout imminent.
posted by daksya at 6:42 AM on December 4, 2005


Mefite patronizes. Callout imminent, let's defuse yet another flamewar.
posted by elpapacito at 6:46 AM on December 4, 2005


I haven't seen so much widespread blind anger over a book in a long time. I mean geez, you'd think it was "Mein Kampf" or something.

So on those recommendations I checked out "Freakonomics" and it is pretty good. I hope this cat keeps doing what he does; he asks questions that make people mad. It's a useful thing.
posted by First Post at 7:06 AM on December 4, 2005


Properly analysed, abortion has no significant effect on crime. Levitt disagrees, of course.

Of course it's bullshit now, but it might have been true 20 years ago. Unfortunately:

1. poor people commit most of the measured crime1

2. poor people generally beget poor people2

3. poor people pretty much no longer have access to abortion clinics. And a disproportionate number of poor people are religious fanatics who equate abortion with putting babies on spikes.3

4. the Future Bottom Feeders of America who will go on to commit street crime, B and E, and the drunken murders of their friends over disagreements about TV shows, are not getting aborted.

1- Yes, yes: Poor people are noble, and Sacco and Vanzetti, and what about all the white collar crime, man? Shut up.
2 - Yes, yes: Your uncle Ritchie dropped out of second grade, lives under a trailer and gets paid in buttons for the nightcrawlers he collects. But your grandparents were pretty much the Vanderbilts and a personal example proves that poverty is generally caused by downward social mobility. Shut up.
3 - Yes, yes: You and your neighbors are very reasonable in your religious devotion but you are against abortion because you believe the lyrics to Witney Houston songs or something. Shut up.

posted by Mayor Curley at 7:11 AM on December 4, 2005


Important to note: the new paper argues only that an error was made in one of the five bases of Levitt's abortion-crime argument. The other four are untouched.
posted by Slothrup at 7:11 AM on December 4, 2005


Isn't Levitt's argument basically a post hoc argument?
posted by eustacescrubb at 7:21 AM on December 4, 2005


Properly analysed, abortion has no significant effect on crime.

properly analysed, propriety has no significant effect on analysis.
posted by quonsar at 7:22 AM on December 4, 2005


The challenge is to distinguish the role of abortion from other potential influences on crime... [Foote and Goetz] offer the crack epidemic, which rose and receded at different times in different places...

This article is very confusing. I'll have to look through the paper, because I don't know what to make of this. Am I to assume that crack use rates are independent of abortion rates?
posted by dsword at 7:27 AM on December 4, 2005


Economists are used to creating post hoc arguments, because if you're trying to explain why things happen in a larger society, you can't set up real experiments. You're pretty much limited to seeing what happened before, what happened after, and attempting to link the two in a logical way.
posted by JohnnyB at 7:30 AM on December 4, 2005


I'm not economist and can barely pass at statistical analysis, and although I enjoyed Freakonomics, I thought the legal abortion=lower crime theory.

I completely agree with "nurturing parent" = "more likely to not to be a criminal" idea. If -- controlling for everything else -- your mom and/or dad gives a shit what you're doing out and why you're missing school, you'll most likely committing only white collar crimes. If your parents don't give a shit, you can be a little hoodlum.

I don't subscribe to the availability of legal abortion having much to do with that. Certainly, having an unplanned kid might mean he or she is un-nurtured later but it isn't a binary decision. You can be a great mom or dad if you find yourself with an unexpected kid. You can be a shitty parent if you've had to plan for the kid and spend money on going to a fertility clinic.

The sperm and egg do not consider the likelihood of the offspring growing up in nurturing environment. It is a fault of the intelligent designer.

Women who choose terminate their pregnancy may choose to do so because they believe the offspring will not be viable in its social environment. Or she just might not want a kid. It doesn't matter. It's her body and her choice.

Want to have a population of more nurtured children? Start with nurturing your children through education about where babies come from and contraception. You can't get an abortion if you don't get pregnant. And there are other forms of birth control than abstinence.

The current US policy of abstinence-only sex education, and re-abolishing abortion is clearly how not to do things. As a result, we have kids getting pregnant and turning to abortion as a form of way-post-coital birth control. If the religious right get its way and abortion is made illegal again, it will only mean that poorer people won't have access to abortions.

So we have a country full of parents that are too afraid to talk to their kids about sex. We have an element of the religious community that believes so much in life that it refuses to even discuss the benefits of birth control. We have an administration that considers the religious right its base.

I heard the other day that during 90s, the abortion rate fell and now it is back up to Reagan-era levels. I'm not going to get all freakonomics, but I don't think it was due to higher rates of abstinence. People were still having sex. However, the administration didn't tie its sex ed policy to abstinence only and used the "faith based" idea that if hope/pray about it, you're kids won't have sex.
posted by birdherder at 7:34 AM on December 4, 2005


In addition to not being an economist, I am also not a proofreader.
posted by birdherder at 7:36 AM on December 4, 2005


In any case, abortion does assure a conservative majority, since culturally, those who support it, over time, tend to have fewer future voters...
posted by ParisParamus at 7:41 AM on December 4, 2005


It's nice to know that at least one social force is directing us away from crime. Too bad every single other one is pushing us towards ever and ever more.
posted by dgaicun at 7:49 AM on December 4, 2005


In any case, abortion does assure a conservative majority, since culturally, those who support it, over time, tend to have fewer future voters...

Even without terminated pregnancies, educated people who consider how to provide for children before they have them are never going to match the fecundity of dirtballs.

The Lord says to go forth and multiply. And by that he meant "until there are twelve billion of you starving to deah in the dak."
posted by Mayor Curley at 7:56 AM on December 4, 2005


The article indicates not everyone is convinced anything has been rigorously proven one way or the other citing 'noise' (muddy data) and the lack of accounting for likely variety in hundreds of other factors.

However, some see 'suggestive evidence' in the original, this followup, and apparently in an upcoming study done in Romania where the reverse situation occurred (abortion was present, then outlawed). One might also suggest common sense would say abortion should result, at least temporarily, in a decrease in crime rates; if for no other reason than that the result would be less people competing for resources (or the reverse of course where suddenly there are more).

All agree no one is drawing conclusions about the moral aspects of abortion. They're just collecting and analyzing data.

We're left in any case with an interesting argument. Does the existence of an abortion-created reduced crime rate say something positive or negative? Does it say abortion is good because it increases the average quality of life for those who end up being born, or does it say abortion is bad because it represents a form of self-imposed eugenics, a way of improving the human gene pool, or in a more pernicious and specifically American sense, a way of 'keeping the blacks in line'?
posted by scheptech at 7:57 AM on December 4, 2005


abortion does assure a conservative majority, since culturally, those who support it, over time, tend to have fewer future voters...

This doesnt add up. It is possible to support the right to abortion and have a large family (of future voters).
posted by the cuban at 7:58 AM on December 4, 2005


Yeah, Foote and Goetz seem kind of silly after glancing at the paper. As a synopsis, Levitt and Donohue look at the relationship between abortion exposure and crime per age group, abortion exposure being the number of abortions per live births at the time the members of the group were fetuses (so, for 15 year olds in 1990, for example, the abortions/births for 1974).

Foote and Goetz claim that other factors, such as a surging crack epidemic, could explain the rise in crime. If you're poor and become addicted to crack, you'll commit crime to secure money to secure crack. More crack addicts=more crime.

It seems to me that if unwanted children are more likely to commit crime, they might also be more likely to use crack, and thus become addicted to it, and thus commit more crime to secure it. Thus, abortion could have a more non-linear causal relationship in decreasing crime rates that is immediately apparent.

It seems that Foote and Goetz, by considering other factors as entirely independent variables, have simply removed some non-linearities. Of course they'll notice a decreased effect!

Social "sciences." Pffff.
posted by dsword at 8:11 AM on December 4, 2005


I read Freakanomics, and generally agreed with Leavitt's theory. However, I think the more interesting question is one that was (from what I recall) never addressed in his book -

Why do people who obviously have no means to care for their children decide to have kids, and often decide to have lots of kids? Is it "K Strategy vs. R Strategy?" In less-industrialized, more agricultural-based countries, population growth will often increase (and decrease) rapidly in response to agricultural trends, but why do people "over-reproduce" in industrialized countries as well?
posted by afroblanca at 8:31 AM on December 4, 2005


(I know that K Strategy and R Strategy are typically applied when comparing different animal species. However, I think that one could make the case that the same strategies could be applied to different human populations as well)
posted by afroblanca at 8:34 AM on December 4, 2005


Levitt did a chapter about average speeds in the Tour de France. He tracked increases in speed over time. These he attributed to improvements in equipment and better training methods. Then he documented a big leap in performance, one that stood out from the progression he'd been observing. He attributed this one to performance enhacing drugs. Interesting reading.
posted by fixedgear at 9:05 AM on December 4, 2005


In any case, abortion does assure a conservative majority, since culturally, those who support it, over time, tend to have fewer future voters...
So which chromosome carries the gene for political leaning? I forget.
posted by darukaru at 9:07 AM on December 4, 2005


Don't feed the ParisParamus.
posted by papakwanz at 9:20 AM on December 4, 2005


So when did it become controversial that, for both genetic and cultural reasons, values and beliefs are probablistically transmitted down family line's?
posted by dgaicun at 9:26 AM on December 4, 2005


papakwanz, that argument has been advanced seriously. Interestingly, however, that hypothesis fails to account for the likelihood that an abortion ban leads to more single mothers, with less education, and hence more poverty. (In fact, the word "poverty" does not appear in the article at all.) The extent to which economic class, or parental party affiliation, affects voter party affiliation continues to be explored [pdf].

Certainly, there's an argument that population increases in "blue" states are slowed by the availability of abortion, although in all states migration is a much larger factor.
posted by dhartung at 10:14 AM on December 4, 2005


Perfect example of how close-minded Metafilter has become.

It's not genetic; it's more based on "attrition" or morbidity, or some other human "default setting." It's just like saying that homosexuality can't be hereditary. Well, actually it can be, but you don't pass it on...
posted by ParisParamus at 10:20 AM on December 4, 2005


Any possible benefit Republicans may accrue from the fertility of Democrats will more than enough be swamped by the Democratic party's demographic victory through immigration. It will be a pyrrhic victory because the actual class situation will be worse than ever as America transforms into another corrupt and grossly stratified Latin American pigmentocracy, but a political victory of sorts nonetheless.
posted by dgaicun at 10:31 AM on December 4, 2005


That "missing democrats" theory seems to rely on accurate self-reporting. As far as I know, abortion clinics don't ask for party affiliation.

Could it be that social pressures on conservative republicans lead them to hide their abortions more often than liberal democrats?
posted by eatitlive at 10:35 AM on December 4, 2005


why do people "over-reproduce"

Not to over-simplify, but it sometimes has to do with retirement planning. The more young'ins you have the greater your chances of somebody caring enough to help you out later. It's a kind of acceptance of general poverty and the expectation that their physical and emotional support will be of more benefit than whatever money you could have put away by not having them.
posted by scheptech at 11:39 AM on December 4, 2005


dsword: So you have a problem with the social sciences, but not the research being questioned? Or what? I don't get the pfffft. Either you think both these articles are full of shit, or you have a problem with just one, in which case . . . well, what is your issue, exactly? And of course mistakes are never made and fiddling around with numbers never happens in "hard" sciences.
posted by raysmj at 12:38 PM on December 4, 2005


I read Freakanomics, and generally agreed with Leavitt's theory. However, I think the more interesting question is one that was (from what I recall) never addressed in his book -

Why do people who obviously have no means to care for their children decide to have kids, and often decide to have lots of kids? Is it "K Strategy vs. R Strategy?" In less-industrialized, more agricultural-based countries, population growth will often increase (and decrease) rapidly in response to agricultural trends, but why do people "over-reproduce" in industrialized countries as well?
posted by afroblanca at 4:31 PM GMT on December 4 [!]


(I know that K Strategy and R Strategy are typically applied when comparing different animal species. However, I think that one could make the case that the same strategies could be applied to different human populations as well)
posted by afroblanca at 4:34 PM GMT on December 4 [!]


Nice to hear from someone who likes the arguments of the eugenicists. Who ever said this place was a liberal echo chamber? Which particular different population did you wish to label as reckless over breeders adopting a low investment shotgun scatter approach to reproduction?
posted by srboisvert at 12:45 PM on December 4, 2005


srboisvert: If you have the ability to make a well-reasoned argument, now would be as a good time to start as any.
posted by raysmj at 1:03 PM on December 4, 2005


"Any possible benefit Republicans may accrue from the fertility of Democrats will more than enough be swamped by the Democratic party's demographic victory through immigration."

I'm sorry, but this doesn't sound terribly persuasive. Legal immigrants, i.e., the ones who will, once naturalized, seem no more likely to be Democrats than Republicans. Illegal immigrants may seem more Democrat, but they can't vote.

Also, migration within in the US overwelmingly favors the Right; had it not, the South would not be as Republican as it is.
posted by ParisParamus at 2:14 PM on December 4, 2005


I'm sorry, but this doesn't sound terribly persuasive. Legal immigrants, i.e., the ones who will vote, once naturalized, seem no more likely to be Democrats than Republicans. Illegal immigrants may seem more Democrat, but they can't vote.
posted by ParisParamus at 2:18 PM on December 4, 2005


This may just show that you can manipulate the numbers however you wish. According to the article, statistics in New York were correlated with Roe v Wade. That'd be fine, except that abortion had been legal in New York for several years prior to R v W, so finding your correlations (or lack of them) doesn't mean much.
posted by DarbyMac at 3:01 PM on December 4, 2005


Nice to hear from someone who likes the arguments of the eugenicists. Who ever said this place was a liberal echo chamber?

Umm, not what I meant. Perhaps I should have stated my idea better.

What I'm saying is this -

Some people have lots of kids, and don't have many resources to put into raising them. Many of these kids are not successful.

Some people have few kids, and put lots of resources into raising them.

You see this tendency in nature - some animal species have lots of offspring that don't live long enough to mature, while others have few offspring that do.

I'm not saying that different population groups are different animals (I'm supposing that this is what you are referring to by "arguments of eugenicists"). I'm just pointing out a phenomenon in nature, and saying that something similar may happen among people. Obviously the mechanisms are different between human and animal populations, but the principal is the same - lots of offsping where few survive, vs. few offspring where most survive.

Which particular different population did you wish to label as reckless over breeders adopting a low investment shotgun scatter approach to reproduction?

First off, I wouldn't necessarily label an R-strategy (rapid population growth) as reckless. In the animal kingdom, it often makes sense. In fact, nearly all ENDANGERED species follow the K-strategy. Both strategies have served organisms well for millions of years.

Among human populations, rapid population growth (like the R-Strategy found in the animal kingdom) has it's place as well. In less-industrialized, agriculture-based societies, it's actually the most sensible reproduction strategy. And as scheptech has pointed out in this thread, it may even make sense among industrialized societies in that it provides a certain "retirement plan."

Also, in reference to your suggesting the idea of eugenics, I would like to point out that the tendency to have more children then you can support is found among nearly every ethnicity in every country in the world.

So, back to my original question - why do people have children that they can't support? If they are indeed following an "r-like" strategy, I would say that the problem is that these people don't have the resources to dedicate to following a "k-like" strategy. In other words, if they did have the proper resources, then possibly they would have less children. So really, my argument is far more "socialist" then it is "eugenicist."
posted by afroblanca at 3:08 PM on December 4, 2005


"Yes, yes: Your uncle Ritchie dropped out of second grade, lives under a trailer and gets paid in buttons for the nightcrawlers he collects." - Mayor Curley

I'll have you know my nephew enjoys my visits.
posted by Ritchie at 4:46 PM on December 4, 2005


rasymj: No, it was really just more of a throwaway comment expressing the arrogance of a student of the natural sciences. But I do have a problem in general with sloppiness in an analysis, particularly when the analysis is relevant to public policy.

Not that any of this matters anyway. I see little reason to care what abortion has to do, if anything, with the crime rate. To me, arguments against abortion boil down to, "Well, philosophers, scientists, hell everybody seems unable to agree on whether a fetus has the same rights as a person, and everybody does agree that a woman would have a right to an abortion absent this question. So let's take away women's rights." It's nonsense.

Not to mention that wealthy right wingers care little about crime caused by unwanted children. It can be easily and safely contained in poor neighborhoods.
posted by dsword at 5:29 PM on December 4, 2005


"Not to mention that wealthy right wingers care little about crime caused by unwanted children. It can be easily and safely contained in poor neighborhoods."

Are you arguing that infanticide is ok because it reduces the crime rate? Also, I'd like to see an income breakdown of Bush and Kerry voters; Republicans and Democratcs. How much richer are R voters than D voters?
posted by ParisParamus at 7:06 PM on December 4, 2005


ParisParamus - What constitutes an "infant" ? The Medieval Catholic Church thought the human soul entered the body as the developing foetus began to kick.....

Your accusation of "infanticide" (at what stage in pregnancy ? ) would tend to carry an endorsement of the infanticide of intelligent nonhuman - but "soulless" - mammals.....

Also, the sperm/egg meeting is not the only logical juncture for "conception".
posted by troutfishing at 8:33 PM on December 4, 2005


I was not equating all abortion with infanticide; just some of it; just finding the implication that abortion was legitimated by decreasing crime (even assuming that's true).
posted by ParisParamus at 8:40 PM on December 4, 2005


dsword: The argument as to why it might matter is expressed quite well in "Freakonomics" (I'm presuming by the co-author and not Levitt? I have no idea). It's summed up as, These women had abortions for rational reasons, mostly. They knew they would not care for the child that much, or could not give the child the care it deserved. The authors don't say whether they think abortion should be kept legal. But they do ask, Well, what to do with the children born to these mothers if it's outlawed again? What would people be willing to do to keep the crime rate down? I found the chapter interesting for placing the abortion debate within in a larger social context.
posted by raysmj at 8:47 PM on December 4, 2005


DarbyMac : this may just show that you can manipulate the numbers however you wish. According to the article, statistics in New York were correlated with Roe v Wade. That'd be fine, except that abortion had been legal in New York for several years prior to R v W, so finding your correlations (or lack of them) doesn't mean much.


Freakonomics found the crime decrease trend occurring earlier in New York by a number of years that paralleled the amount of time abortion had been legal in New York prior to Roe v. Wade. It's a manipulation of numbers but a rather illuminating one.
posted by I Foody at 10:51 PM on December 4, 2005


I'm sorry, but this doesn't sound terribly persuasive. Legal immigrants, i.e., the ones who will, once naturalized, seem no more likely to be Democrats than Republicans.

Except this is total nonsense. Regardless of what it "seems" to you the fact is that black, hispanic, Jewish, and Asian (and to a lesser extent Catholic) communities who have been American for 100+ years or longer do not share the Anglo-Saxon protestant Christian enthusiasm for the Republican party. Why would they? It is a party predicated on the narrow interests and (white/Christian/Southern) identity of its "base". Those groups are significantly less Republican, and there's no sign that that's changing with modern naturalized immigrants (e.g. South Asians - 90% Democrat).
posted by dgaicun at 6:58 AM on December 5, 2005


Don't feed the ParisParamus.
posted by papakwanz

papakwanz, that argument has been advanced seriously.
posted by dhartung
posted by papakwanz at 5:53 PM on December 5, 2005


"Are you arguing that infanticide is ok because it reduces the crime rate?"

I made no such comment. I don't see how you came to the conclusion that that is what I was saying.

"Also, I'd like to see an income breakdown of Bush and Kerry voters; Republicans and Democratcs. How much richer are R voters than D voters?"

My statement also had nothing to do with voters in general, but with wealthy (read: powerful, i.e., the people who actually control public policy) right-wingers.
posted by dsword at 8:29 PM on December 6, 2005


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