A controversial thesis from a pair of respected academics claims to have solved the enduring riddle of this decade's fast-falling US crime rates - and it's sparking fresh debate on two of the biggest social issues of our day.
The thesis: The sharp rise in the number of abortions in the 1970s eliminated many of the would-be criminals of the 1990s. It's an idea that's being called everything from intriguing to preposterous to racially insensitive.
The paper explaining the theory hasn't even been published yet - and thus hasn't withstood the rigors of academic scrutiny. But it's already highlighting anew some of the not-so-pleasant facts on both sides of the abortion debate. And, if it's ever found credible, it could dramatically change conventional wisdom on crime policy.
"The trouble is that no one has really come up with a telling explanation for the drop in crime," says Harvard University professor Orlando Patterson. "And there may be some big unexplained factors at work here" - such as abortion. But, he says, this new theory may turn out to be "just another item thrown into the stew of explanations."
According to the two academics - John Donohue III, a professor at Stanford University's Law School in California, and Steven Levitt, an economist at the University of Chicago - abortion has had a huge effect. They say it may be responsible for as much as half of the overall crime-rate drop from 1991 to 1997.
Their rationale is this: After the US Supreme Court's 1973 decision legalizing abortion, the number of abortions exploded. This reduced the number of "unwanted" children, particularly those who would have lived in less-than-ideal homes filled with poverty, neglect, or abuse.
THE authors, citing other studies, say such children are more likely to turn to crime. And those kids would have hit their prime crime-committing years - ages 18 to 24 - in the early 1990s. But since they weren't born, the authors argue, crime came down.
They note, too, that the five states that legalized abortion before 1973 - Alaska, California, Hawaii, New York, Washington - all saw crime rates drop before the rest of the country did (see chart).
And they observe that places with high abortion rates in the 1970s saw greater drops in crime in the 1990s - even after many other factors are accounted for.
Their methods - and the implications of their conclusions - have already drawn sharp criticism. He hasn't read the paper, but criminologist James Alan Fox at Northeastern University in Boston says the theory is implausible. "There may be a correlation" between the rise of abortions and the drop in crime, he says, "but that doesn't mean there's a cause."
As for implications: "What bothers me is the notion that somehow you can write off all these children," says Rita Simon, a public-affairs professor at American University in Washington, who supports abortion rights. "Suppose there's an Einstein among those children. It seems to be cheapening human life."
The authors know their thesis is incendiary and say they don't mean it to be used as an endorsement for abortion rights. "In no sense do our results condone the wanton use of abortion as a method of birth control," says Mr. Levitt.
In a sense, it helps and hurts both sides in the debate. It criticizes abortion opponents by concluding that "unwanted children aren't just bad for women, they're bad for society," says David Garrow, a historian at Emory University in Atlanta. And opponents must deal with the fact that their goals may create more unwanted births. Abortion-rights supporters add that it highlights the need for women to be able to choose the timing of their pregnancies. Levitt agrees: "A woman who gives birth at 15 ... is more likely to be a better mother 10 years later."
Yet also "lurking in the forefront of the underbrush," says Mr. Garrow, is the fact that abortion is used more by poor and minority women. Blacks are three times as likely as whites to have abortions.
"Within black America there is a quite rational sensitivity - and an irrational paranoia - about any sort of population control aimed at reducing black numbers," he says. It's something, he says, "pro-choice people have always been supersensitive to."
In terms of the crime drop, the authors say one of their main motivations is to recognize things that actually contributed to it - as opposed to people or programs that falsely claim credit. This, they say, will help society avoid spending big money on questionable ideas.
Indeed, if their theory is proved credible, it could force a rethinking of community policing, prison-building policy, and more. "Mayor [Rudolph] Giuliani [of New York] is pounding himself on the chest for the crime drop," says Mr. Donohue. If he's responsible, his ideas should be copied, "but if not, let's not look in that direction."
Yet criminologists say myriad factors are involved - from the stabilization of crack-cocaine markets to the hot economy creating more jobs for at-risk people to changing demographics. But because all the theories are speculative for now, that means any new theory - including this one - will likely be added to the "stew of explanations."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society