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Abortion and Wantedness

December 8th, 2005 · 4 Comments

Steven Levitt responds to some critics of his “legal abortion lowers crime” thesis, drawing a comments reply from Steve Sailer, who’s been among the most vocal opponents of the hypothesis. I have nothing useful to contribute on the econometric dispute about the data, but I do want to take a stab at one of the questions Sailer raises: Given that there’s an intuitive plausibility to the thesis—abortion will tend to select out children whose mothers aren’t prepared to raise them well, which is to say, children more likely (on average) to end up committing crimes—why might it be wrong if it is wrong?

One partial answer is suggested by Promises I Can Keep, a study of poor single mothers in Philadelphia. What the authors point out is that women’s disposition to take efforts to either prevent or terminate unplanned pregnancies is going to be a function of the perceived opportunity costs of (young) motherhood. That is to say, women for whom a pregnancy at, say, 15, is seen as derailing plans for college or a remunerative career have a much stronger incentive to postpone childbearing by whatever means—even if, objectively, they might be relatively well situated to care for a child—than women without such prospects. So even if in some sense refraining from abortion tracks “wantedness” in the aggregate, it may not track very well the other conditions that make for effective childrearing.

Tags: Sociology



4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Wilson // Dec 9, 2005 at 2:03 pm

    I recall reading Mr. Sailer’s yelling in the comments section of that blog earlier, and I thought he was fairly vocal as to why he thought that Levitt’s hypothesis was wrong.

    He thinks that legal abortion effectively lowers the crime and stigma associated with unprotected sex, and therefore raises the number of children born into bad situations in this country.

    I thought this was his argument, which strikes me as odd for a few reasons; one being because it implies people are having more sex thanks to the promise that abortion will save them from having to raise children, but then don’t get an abortion anywhere.

    I don’t really know enough about this argument to weigh in with more sense than just to repeat what I thought I read somewhere.

  • 2 Glen // Dec 9, 2005 at 11:14 pm

    Julian — your argument indicates that legal abortions will lead to more abortions of non-future-criminals than abortions of future-criminals. But even so, as long as there are more abortions of future-criminals than there would have been without legal abortion, Levitt’s hypothesis would not require modification.

  • 3 Barry // Dec 12, 2005 at 9:03 pm

    It probably just comes down to Steve being a Bell Curvist racist, who sees abortion as striking at the core of the white race – excuse me, White Race. The actual arguments are irrelevant.

  • 4 J. Goard // Dec 21, 2005 at 2:39 am


    Your penultimate sentence strikes me as a massive understatement. Women without educational prospects or high standards of personal success have a massive positive incentive to become single mothers. It’s easy to underestimate the extent to which one can neglect children and still function in the lower-middle-class world. In my hometown, that extra check gives many young adults essentially endless spending money compared with their childless peers.