Abortion and Crime, Revisited
The controversial theory linking Roe v. Wade to a massive crime drop is back in the spotlight as several states introduce abortion restrictions. Steve Levitt and John Donohue discuss their original research, the challenges to its legitimacy, and their updated analysis. Also: what this means for abortion policy, crime policy, and having intelligent conversations about contentious topics.
In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion in all 50 states in a case called Roe v. Wade. Lately, however, several states have been imposing new restrictions on abortion. An issue that appeared to be settled four-and-a-half decades ago is once again so raw that it’s become a prominent feature of the 2020 presidential race, with each Democratic candidate trying to outdo the next in their vigorous support of keeping abortion legal and accessible.
Meanwhile, some three decades ago, a totally different story was dominating media coverage and the political conversation: violent crime. The crime rate had begun to rise in the 1960s, continued on through the ’70s and ’80s, and by 1990, it seemed that everyone was scared, everywhere, all the time. Everyone — Democrats and Republicans alike — agreed that violent crime was out of hand, that the criminals were getting younger, and that the problem was only going to get worse.
But the problem didn’t get worse. In the early 1990s, violent crime began to fall — and then it fell and fell and fell some more. In many places today, violent crime is at historic lows. In New York City, for example, there were more than 2,200 homicides in 1990. In the last couple years, there have been fewer than 300 a year. But it’s not just New York: with a few exceptions, crime across the U.S. has plunged.
What led to this unprecedented, and wildly unexpected turnaround? Everyone had a theory: better policing, the reintroduction of capital punishment, a stronger economy, the demise of the crack epidemic. Meanwhile, a pair of academic researchers came up with another theory. It was…