Freakonomics: a rogue economist explores the hidden side of everything has spent the last 17 weeks on the NY Times’ nonfiction best seller list. It has the country abuzz with, of all things, talk about economic studies. Full of conversation starters, the book is a serious attempt to apply and explain economic theories in relation to contemporary cultural phenomena such as cheating the IRS, real estate advertising and the hierarchy of drug gangs. What has some people boiling, however, is the 1999 study by the author, economist Steven D. Levitt, suggesting a causal relationship between the availability of abortion and the recent drop in violent crime. Levitt, who conducted the study in 1999 with John Donohue III, concludes that the availability of legalized and safe abortions after Roe v. Wade in the 1970’s has directly resulted in the decrease in violent crime since the 1990’s. Their findings support the hypothesis that keeping unwanted children from being born reduces the number of children who would later engage in criminal activity since those children are more likely to have been unwanted, born into poverty, and born to teenaged mothers.
That poverty, teenaged mothers and lack of other social resources are precursors to criminal activity is a widely accepted fact. That the availability of abortion mitigates this phenomenon is highly contentious. And the moral implications of this conclusion, if true, may be highly repugnant. After all, if we can just get rid of criminals by aborting them, it is a small step to claiming that we ought to get rid of them that way. If Roe v Wade is responsible for such a social phenomenon, then perhaps we are morally culpable as a society for creating a eugenics movement, albeit unintentionally. Or perhaps Roe v. Wade inadvertently institutionalized a racist and classist response to unwanted pregnancies that would have been better served by attending to social inequities. But you won’t find any of these ideas mentioned in public responses to Levitt’s study or book. Curiously, reaction has focused more on discrediting the research than on engaging the moral debate. It is, after all, easier to deny the facts than to argue intelligently and reflectively about how we should respond to such potentially significant conclusions.
Decide for yourself.
(thank you to one of our new guest bloggers, Kristen Nelson, a clinical ethicist at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago)