The Effects of Legalized Abortion on U.S. Crime Rates

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On December 13th, 1971, the United States Supreme Court was set to hand down a decision regarding the case of Roe v. Wade, which would settle once and for all whether it was a woman’s legal right to an abortion, in the case of unwanted pregnancy (Roe v. Wade). The case pitted a single, pregnant woman against the state of Texas, which, at the time, had in place laws the criminalized abortion. The pregnant woman sued, and the Supreme Court would ultimately rule in her favor, abolishing legislation that would criminalize abortion across the United States. More than 40 years later, the fight to recriminalize abortion by religious conservatives has led to increased activism on both sides of the debate, leading private and government institutions alike to conduct studies on the efficacy of legalized abortion in any respect. Today, the abortion rate in the United States is just under 15 abortions per 1,000 women aged 15-44 ("Reproductive Health Data and Statistics”). As such, based upon the statistics provided by many reputable, wholly unbiased sources, it is reasonable to infer, at this time, that the legalization and increased availability of both abortions and contraceptive services following the decisions made in Roe v. Wade are directly responsible for a significant statistical increase in crime rates across the United States. This essay will detail how teen pregnancies result in a perpetuation of the poverty cycle, how the resultant perpetuation of said cycle is complicit in increased crime rates and the positive correlation between increased abortion rates and decreased crime rates.

One of the main factors to discuss when assessing the positive correlation between teen pregnancy rates, abortion rates and crime rates is the effect of teenage pregnancy on the poverty cycle: Primarily, the relationship between pregnant teens, and their likelihood of entering and/or ever possibly recovering from said cycle. According to a report published by the Alan Guttmacher Institute (“Readings on Teenagers and Sex Education 1997-2003,”), levels of sexual activity among teenagers in developed countries was largely similar (p. 26), but teenagers in the United States were far more likely to develop and unintended pregnancy. The consequences of this are well detailed in an op-ed in the New York Times by Isabel V. Sawhill (“The Disadvantages Start at Conception,”), a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-director of the Center on Children and Families. The editorial piece states that “Half of all children born to women under the age of 30 are born outside of marriage, and 70 percent of all pregnancies to single women in this age group are unplanned.” According to Sawhill, these children, born from generally less than favorable economic circumstances to begin with, will enter school far less prepared than their better cared for counterparts. As they progress through the educational system, they tend to fall further behind, have a far higher instance of entering the criminal justice system as juveniles and even have a far higher likelihood of becoming teenage parents themselves, perpetuating a vicious cycle of poverty and unintended teenage pregnancies. Evidence of this cycle has been well documented, and can be traced as far back as 1972, when the Center for Research on Population and Security published a report by their Rockefeller Commission, entitled “Population and the American Future: The Report of the Commission on Population Growth and the American Future” (Chapter 11: Human Reproduction). The report states that children of teenage or unplanned pregnancies “…turned out to have been registered more often with psychiatric services, engaged in more antisocial and criminal behavior, and have been more dependent on public assistance.”

Having established that the children of a generally economically unstable demographic, such as teenagers, are more likely to engage in criminal activity in adulthood, the next factor to be assessed in determining the efficacy of legalized abortion on crime rates is the relationship between legalized abortion and teenage pregnancies. According to yet another study by the Alan Guttmacher Institute ("Differences in Teenage Pregnancy”), teen pregnancy rates in the United States were 53 per 1,000 individuals in the mid 1990’s. Additionally, statistics provided by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy (“Teen Birth Rates in the United States 1940-2008”), detail the precipitous drop in teen pregnancy rates over the latter half of the 20th century (from a peak of 96.3 per 1,000 individuals in 1957 to a low of 40.5 per 1,000 individuals in 2005). This data coincides with a drop in modern crime rates relative to reported levels in 1973, with a 60% reduction in property crime and a 40% reduction in violent crime. These statistics are detailed in a paper written for the Quarterly Journal of Economics, “The Impact of Legalized Abortion on Crime” (Levitt and Donohue).

One year prior to Roe v. Wade, the levels of teenage and unplanned pregnancy were 68.3 per 1,000 individuals. In the year 2000, those levels had dropped to 47.7 per 1,000 individuals. Consequently, the crime rates experienced in the year 2000 saw an average 50% reduction in property and violent crimes when compared to crime rates reported in the early 1970’s (Levitt, Donohue fig. III). As such, in accordance with the data available, the reduction in teenage and unwanted pregnancies, through the use of legalized abortion and the increased availability of contraceptive services correlates with a 50% reduction in violent and property crimes over the past 40 years.

Works Cited

Donohue III, John J., and Steven D. Levitt. "The Impact of Legalized Abortion on Crime." The Quarterly Journal of Economics CXVI.2 (2001): n. pag. The University of Chicago. Web. 1 Dec. 2013.

Derroch, Jacqueline E., Susheela Singh, and Jennifer J. Frost. "Differences in Teenage Pregnancy Rates Among Five Developed Countries: The Roles of Sexual Activity and Contraceptive Use."Differences in Teenage Pregnancy Rates Among Five Developed Countries: The Roles of Sexual Activity and Contraceptive Use. Version Volume 33, Number 6. The Alan Guttmacher Institute, n.d. Web. 30 Nov. 2013. <http://sparky.guttmacher.org/pubs/journals/3324401.html>

"Chapter 11: Human Reproduction." Rockefeller Commission on Population and the American Future. The Center for Research on Population and Security, 27 Mar. 1972. Web. 1 Dec. 2013. <http://www.population-security.org/rockefeller/011_human_reproduction.htm>.

"Readings on Teenagers and Sex Education 1997-2003." The Alan Guttmacher Institute. Program on Reproductive Health and Rights of the Open Society Institute, n.d. Web. 1 Dec. 2013. <http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/compilations/2004/06/30/readings04-1.pdf#page=293>.

"Reproductive Health Data and Statistics." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 27 Nov. 2013. Web. 1 Dec. 2013. <http://www.cdc.gov/reproductivehealth/data_stats/#Abortion>.

"Roe v. Wade." Roe v. Wade. N.p., 13 Dec. 1971. Web. 30 Nov. 2013. <http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/historics/USSC_CR_0410_0113_ZS.html>

Sawhill, Isabel V.. "The Disadvantages Start at Conception." Room for Debate. The New York Times, 22 July 2013. Web. 1 Dec. 2013. <http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2012/01/08/is-the-us-still-a-land-of-opportunity/unplanned-pregnancies-perpetuate-a-cycle-of-poverty>.

"Teen Birth Rates in the United States, 1940-2008." The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 Dec. 2013. <http://www.thenationalcampaign.org/resources/pdf/TBR_1940-2006.pdf>.