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Crime-Abortion Link Isn't a Racist Attack

Study: The new findings are a call to improve social conditions for minorities and the poor, not a justification for eugenics.

August 23, 1999|R. RICHARD BANKS | R. Richard Banks is an assistant professor of law at Stanford Law School. E-mail:

The negative reaction of many civil rights advocates to a recent study regarding the effect of abortion on crime rates is understandable, yet unwarranted.

The study by two professors, John J. Donohue III of Stanford University Law School and Steven D. Levitt of the University of Chicago, concludes that as much as half of the precipitous decline in crime rates since the early 1990s is traceable to the legalization of abortion two decades earlier. Crime declined in the 1990s, the study contends, because disadvantaged women in the 1970s, disproportionately black and Latino, had abortions. Had these children been born, they would have been at high risk for criminal activity, both because they were "unwanted" and because disadvantaged minorities commit a disproportionate number of violent crimes.

When Donohue, my colleague, first told me about his findings, I, as a black American, was skeptical, troubled even. Yet another veiled expression of the sentiment, I thought, that America might be better off because some of us weren't born. There is good reason to look with suspicion on any "scientific" finding that could be interpreted as "evidence" that yes, indeed, black Americans are inferior.

One could view this as the latest in a long line of pseudo-scientific claims of black degeneracy, whose proponents invariably insist they lack any trace of racial bias, and are simply hard-nosed scientific investigators in single-minded pursuit of the truth, however uncomfortable or unpopular that truth may be. Yet, the Donohue-Levitt study differs in at least three significant ways from the sort of pernicious analyses of race that any sound-thinking person should unequivocally condemn.

* This study does not purport to explain, much less justify, racial inequality. Rather, it emphasizes one of the consequences of inequality: increased risk of criminality.

* This study embraces neither genetic nor cultural explanations for the increased likelihood of criminal activity among the unwanted children who would have been born to low-income black and Latino women. The study doesn't rely, implicitly or explicitly, on any intimation that blacks and Latinos are somehow naturally inclined toward criminality.

Rather, the explanation is purely environmental, a matter of social circumstances and processes that would affect rates of criminal activity among members of any group. A variety of studies from other countries has found that unwanted children who are born because their mother's request for an abortion was denied are especially prone to anti-social activity, presumably due to their increased risk of abuse and neglect. The broader circumstances into which many of the these children would have been born also rendered them vulnerable to criminal activity.

* The eugenics outcomes which, one might fear, this study could provide justification are entirely contrary to current trends in American social policy and public opinion, and are therefore unlikely. Far from being promoted, abortion is a basic health care service to which many minority women must struggle for access.

In recent years, the Supreme Court has curtailed the constitutional right to abortion in subtle but significant ways. And limited government funding for abortion encourages poor women to carry pregnancies to term.

The central message of this study is that we all benefit when childbearing decisions are made by women rather than by the government. According to Donohue and Levitt, the crime rate decreased not simply because women had fewer children, but because abortion made disadvantaged women better able to time their childbearing. Another implication of this provocative study is the need to improve the social conditions of disadvantaged racial minorities, so that children raised in such environments are not at such high risk for criminal activity.

One wonders whether a substantial segment of American society will overlook the nuances in Donohue's and Levitt's argument and misread this important research as another indictment of disadvantaged blacks and Latinos. If that conclusion is drawn, it will disprove an assumption implicit in their meticulous research: that evidence matters.

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