Abortionomics: Shibboleth of Death

In a recent CSPAN “After Words” interview, criminologist Dr. Barry Latzer discussed his book, The Rise and Fall of Violent Crime in America, in which he examines trends between the 1960s and 1990s.  Dr. Latzer was asked about two theories regarding the drop in violent crime starting in 1994:  removal of lead from gasoline starting in the mid-70s, and the federal legalization of abortion in the infamous Roe v Wade decision in 1973.

The latter theory, offered by John Donohue and Steven Levitt in the May 2001 edition of The Quarterly Journal of Economics, purports to show that children who were aborted after 1973 would otherwise (if abortion had remained illegal in most states) have been born and grown up in disadvantaged circumstances in which they were poor and unwanted, and so more prone to violent crime.  Levitt repeated this claim in his famous book, Freakonomics, and subsequently has published multiple defenses against reasonable statistically based rebuttals.

To faithful Catholics the mere notion that killing babies can have a socially redeeming effect, is morally repugnant and pricks our sensibilities to the very core.  It should be noted that Levitt doesn’t take the position that the legalization of abortion is good per se because it reduces violent crime; he claims right in the Introduction to the 2001 paper to simply be doing the academic research related to human behavior.  I take him at his word in this regard.  Nevertheless, even if Levitt doesn’t leverage this supposed link to argue that abortion is thus a benefit to society, others will.  In fact, Levitt himself points to such a case in an introductory footnote in the paper:

“We are unaware of any scholarly article that has examined this effect. We have recently learned, however, that the former police chief of Minneapolis has written that abortion is ‘arguably the only effective crime-prevention device adopted in this nation since the late 1960s’ [Bouza 1990]. In his subsequent 1994 gubernatorial campaign, Bouza was attacked for this opinion [Short 1994]. Immediately after Bouza’s view was publicized just prior to the election, Bouza fell sharply in the polls.”


“Bouza” is former Minneapolis Chief of Police Anthony Bouza (1980-1989), who unsuccessfully ran to be Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor gubernatorial candidate in 1994, and who is decidedly pro-abortion.  In his far-flinging 1990 book about policing, Bouza writes:

“When the overclass need to get away they buy tickets to exotic havens.  When the underclass need to escape the awfulness of their condition they take the only trip they can afford:  drugs or booze.  Even abortion, arguably the only effective crime-prevention device adopted in this nation since the late 1960s, becomes an economic question…  It is something of a contemporary anomaly that antiabortion groups, usually allied to conservative law-and-order causes, have never been attracted by the argument that making abortion freely available to young poor women is an effective method of reducing the number of potential street criminals.”

Anthony Bouza, The Police Mystique:  An Insider’s Look at Cops, Crime, and the Criminal Justice System, 1990 Plenum Press, pp. 274-275


Two decades ago, a politician proposing that poor, mostly minority mothers should abort their babies to reduce “the number of potential street criminals” could kill even a DFL career.  A few years later a wunderkind academic could get away with it, with caveats.  But nowadays all bets are off, and this kind of reasoning should no longer surprise us.

The point here is, whether Levitt’s academic conclusions are sound or flawed, Catholics should be armed with the fundamental reasons why abortion is intrinsically morally evil without exception, independent of any apparent other good end.  Of course, when such logic is flawed, we need to understand this as well, in order to tamp down the enthusiastic abortionists who need little provocation to promote more violence against the unborn.

(Incidentally, Dr. Latzer rejects Levitt’s abortion theory, while admitting the data are “intriguing” and that the researchers themselves are able.  Nonetheless he simply asks how the same cohort (the post-Roe generation of children) could at once be responsible for an increase in crime, followed by a sharp decline of it, without regard to other important variables.  Instead, Latzer concludes that a sharp decline in cocaine use coincides with the beginning of the decline in crime in 1994.)

St. Joseph, pray for us!



For those wishing to follow some of the Levitt paper rebuttal and counter-rebuttal, here is a portion of the thread of it, more or less chronologically by publication date.

Original Levitt 2001 paper

Lott and Whitley 2001 rebuttal

Joyce 2004 rebuttal – available on JSTOR here (subscription service)

Levitt reply to 2004 Joyce

“Oops-onomics” (The Economist) 2005 article regarding Levitt’s premise

Foote and Goetz 2008 working paper rebuttal (revision of 2005 rebuttal)

Levitt 2006 correction and re-rebuttal to 2005 Foote and Goetz

Dills and Miron 2006 further comment on Levitt vs Foote/Goetz

Joyce 2009 working paper further rebuttal



  1. Timshel says:

    Is it even a stone’s-throw from this view of so-called crime prevention to sterilizing folks to keep the “undesirables” from breeding?

  2. Spaniard says:

    Nope it’s not.

    Been there, done that – eugenics, Margaret Sanger, Nazis….

    “The superficially sympathetic man flings a coin to the beggar; the more deeply sympathetic man builds an almshouse for him so that he need no longer beg; but perhaps the most radically sympathetic of all is the man who arranges that the beggar shall not be born.” Havelock Ellis, The Task of Social Hygiene, 1916


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.