A friend of mine introduced me to the Freakonomics podcast that you can download from iTunes.  Two Steve’s (Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt) put together a book called Freakonomics.  They seek to uncover “the hidden side of everything.”  Netflix has the Freakonomics movie, and you can watch it here (if you have a streaming Netflix account.)  The movie discusses several topic: potty training, cheating teachers, bizarre baby names, self-dealing Realtors, crack-selling mama’s boys, sumo wrestling, and many other topics.

If you watch the movie, at about the 50 minute mark is a segment titled “It’s Not Always a Wonderful Life.”  The crime rate in the late 1980’s was growing.  Crack cocaine was an epidemic, fueling the crime rate; conventional wisdom said that crime would continue to increase.Yet a funny thing happened in the early 1990s: the crime rate dropped.

Many theories came out to explain why the crime rate dropped.  Levitt’s data showed that Community Policing strategies didn’t make any difference.  The following items explained a little more than half of the drop in crime:

  • harsher sentences: 30%
  • decrease in crack cocaine use and associated violence:  15%
  • gun control, better economy, and more police officers: 10%

This still leaves about 45% of the decrease in crime unexplained.  Levitt had an unusual explanation: abortion.

In 1966, Romania outlawed abortion in order to create massive population growth.  The birth rate of the country doubled, as did unwanted children and associated crime.  On the other hand, in 1973 the Supreme Court legalized abortion in the U.S. after the Rowe vs Wade decision.  20 years after Rowe vs. Wade would have been the early 1990’s.  Levitt believes that these unwanted children weren’t born, lowering the crime rate here in the U.S.  He views the U.S. and Romania as a natural experiment to show the effect of abortion on crime rates.

As further evidence in support of his theory, he gives the following pieces of data.

  • 5 states (NY, CA, HI, AK, and WA) legalized abortion 3 years before Rowe vs Wade.  Their crime rates dropped 3 years before the other states.
  • After Rowe vs. Wade, states that made it easier to get abortions had better improvement in crime rates than states with hard to get abortions.

Levitt views this as an “unintended consequence” of abortion, and says his study doesn’t have a position on whether abortion should be legal or not, but he does think this should be part of the discussion.  What do you think of Levitt’s theory?