Abort, Retry, Fail
Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner's argument about abortion and crime is a lively read. But it's morally rotten to the core.
Economist Steven Levitt has been more cautious about presenting his conclusions after the publication of his new book, "Freakonomics," than he was the first time around, in 1999, when he began reporting the then-unpublished results of the study he and Stanford law professor John J. Donohue III conducted examining legalized abortion's impact on crime.
Back then, Levitt was more forthright about what we should take away from his study. He told the San Jose Mercury News that his study "reinforces the fact that allowing women to choose has a benefit to society." The reported benefit of these choices was a good chunk of the dramatic fall-off in crime in the latter half of the 1990s.
Levitt hasn't changed his basic finding but he has hedged a bit. He and "Freakonomics" co-author Stephen Dubner add a flood of context to blunt charges of racism, classism, and all the other isms that are likely to arise from such explosive subject matter.
For example, in the chapter dealing with abortion, they begin with a cute story about the role of non-aborted youth in the overthrow [and execution] of former Romanian strongman Nicolae Ceausescu. They allow that "even for someone who considers a fetus to be worth only one-hundredth of a human being, the trade-off between higher abortion and lower crime is, by an economist's reckoning, terribly inefficient."
And yet, here is the nut of what Levitt and his scribe have to say on the subject: "[W]hen the government gives a woman the opportunity to make her own decision about abortion, she generally does a good job of figuring out if she is in a good position to raise the baby well. If she decides she can't, she often chooses the abortion." And this sorting has led to more "wanted" children, fewer neglected, troubled kids and, thus fewer crimes.
There are a number of objections one could make here, but I will concentrate on the ethical dimension of this proposition. That is, suppose that economists and social scientists from other disciplines subject Levitt's conclusions to a battery of tests and find he has proved not only loose correlation but ironclad causation. In other words, suppose that more abortions do translate into lower incidence of crime, and go from there. Should that affect how we think about abortion?