Legalisation of abortion and decline in crime

By Jori Korpershoek

In the 1970s and 80s New York was a dangerous, dodgy city. In the early 90s this suddenly started to change. Many claimed Mayor Giuliani's policies had done the trick. But then people noticed it was not just New York, it was in all of the United States that was becoming safer. Homicide and crime rates dropped dramatically. John J. Donohueand Steven D. Levitt agreed with Giuliani that a policy change lay at the heart of the decline. Just not a recent one; they pointed to the 1973 Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade, which had made safe abortions legal and accessible all over the country.

Structural determination is when there is a causal link between two events, but with a temporal separation between these events. How? Before 1973, it was especially underprivileged women who did not have access to safe abortions. So if a poor, single woman became pregnant at an unwanted time, she would have no choice but to have the baby. These are the same women who often lack a support network and access to government services. This obviously does not mean all children in poor families are destined to become criminals, but growing up in poverty or in a single parent household are very strong predictors of having a criminal future. When these women gained access to safe abortions, they could delay their pregnancy until a better time or opt out of having children at all.

From 1973 onward, many children that would have been raised in difficult circumstances were simply not born. In the early 90s, the first wave of children born after Roe v. Wade was starting to reach maturity. And for the first time since abortion became illegal in the 19th century, among them were not “the children of mothers who did not want to bring a child into the world.”