The 2004 book Freakonomics1 explored unusual conclusions about various subjects based on economic principles. Easily the most controversial conclusion of the book was that an unintended consequence of legalizing abortion was a crime drop 15–20 years later, just when the cohorts born at the time of legalization were reaching their years of peak criminality. In other words, the book purported that the availability of abortion to women meant that would-be criminals were never born.
With the recent reversal of Roe v. Wade, some have made a grim prediction: now that abortion access is going to be restricted in several states, there will be higher crime rates in 15–20 years, reversing the unintended consequence of Roe. Should we expect this to happen? If so, are pro-lifers wrong to oppose abortion?
For those who don’t have easy access to the book, the argument for a link between abortion and crime rates was summarized in a video.2 “The legalization of abortion in the 1970s was one of the primary reasons why crime fell in the 1990s, because a generation of potentially unwanted children were never born.” Unwanted children are statistically more likely to behave in antisocial—including criminal—ways; therefore, fewer unwanted children means less crime. Specifically, almost half of the crime drop in the 1990s was attributed to Roe v. Wade. The proponents of this idea claim that it is not racist or classist since it didn’t focus on people of a certain race or class, only mothers who chose to get abortions. Many of these same women went on to have children they did not abort—wanted children. In fact, because women who have an abortion go on to have children at the same rate as women who do not abort, the video states that abortion “does not prevent birth, but delays it.” The claim is that this turns an unwanted birth to a young mother into a wanted birth by a more prepared mother, which has positive societal consequences.
Let’s take the argument at face value as if everything it claims is true—that abortion in the 1970s directly contributed to a fall in crime during the 1990s and to a lower crime rate from the 1990s until today. Let’s apply this idea to a hypothetical case. Let’s say that in 1973, Eric is conceived. If Eric were to be born and grow up, he would contribute to the crime statistics in the 1990s by a string of petty thefts, drug possession, and vandalism—eventually ending up spending several years in jail for more serious offenses. However, Eric never gets the chance to do anything because his mother takes advantage of the newly enshrined right to abortion and kills him in the womb. She goes on to have her second son Aaron five years later, who is the first in his family to graduate from college and then law school. Is the world better off for “trading” Eric for Aaron?
First of all, note that none of Eric’s potential crimes are capital crimes. In fact, many of the same people who advocated for his mother’s right to kill him in the womb are often against the death penalty for those who commit murder! Also, keep in mind that many people who commit crime turn their lives around and become instrumental in helping younger people not follow their path. Perhaps Eric, had he had the chance to live, would have been a productive citizen in his later life and a mentor to young men. But even if we could tell with 100% certainty that Eric’s life would have no measurable positive impact on the world, it would still be wrong to kill him in the womb.
And what about Aaron? Nothing about his successful life required his older brother’s death. The video is wrong to portray the abortion of one child and the live birth of a second as “trading” a less favorable birth for a more favorable one. Both Eric and Aaron are image-bearers of God and have value from the moment of fertilization.
Thus far, the example of Eric and Aaron has accepted the premise the Freakonomics video presents—that Roe lowered crime. Even if that were true, it is ghoulish to promote a society that is more lawful because of a mountain of dead babies. But even many pro-abortion advocates note serious problems with the argument.
Some argue that the key isn’t fewer unwanted births but fewer teen births. Girls who wait until they grow up to become mothers are more capable parents, more likely to be married, and so on.3 Teen pregnancies are lower than any other time in recent history, at only 15.4 births per 1,000 girls aged 15–19, compared to the 1991 high of 61.8 births per 1,000. Additionally, most of those births are to 18- and 19-year-old women, meaning that younger teen pregnancies are relatively uncommon. Everyone should be able to celebrate the fact that young girls are becoming pregnant less often and preventing young teen pregnancies results in fewer undesired births without killing an unborn baby. Studies suggest that the reason for this decline is a combination of teens having less sex (which we would encourage as consistent with biblical teaching) and more effective contraceptive use (which, if it prevents fertilization, does not kill a child; but if it prevents a very early embryo from implanting, is a form of abortion).4
Another element that affects a child’s probability of antisocial behavior is whether the child’s father is present. For example, 75% of youth in substance abuse rehab centers and 85% of imprisoned youth come from fatherless homes.5
Both of these findings show that the biblical teaching around marriage and sexuality is good for children.
Both of these findings show that the biblical teaching around marriage and sexuality is good for children—and following biblical teaching would lower the crime rate far more effectively than abortion ever could! So not only is the Freakonomics abortion argument ghoulish and morbid, it’s not even valid.
Those who would advocate for access to abortion based on the Freakonomics interpretation of abortion and crime statistics are ultimately utilitarian. They claim that the reduction in crime is sufficient reason to keep abortion access as easy as possible. But they are selective, because most would reject other means of lowering the crime rate by disregarding human rights—such as expanding the death penalty to include property crimes. The real issue is that the unborn children are seen as non-persons.
Overturning Roe is a massive victory, but there is more work to be done. For instance, abortion access in “liberal” states is essentially unchanged. But more than that, we must spread the idea that the unborn child is fully human and has the same rights as any other person until abortion becomes as unthinkable in our society as slavery is.