Several years ago while doing outreach with Justice For All[1] at the UCLA campus, several students raised the question of societal benefits from abortion. They referenced an interesting study written by economists John Donahue and Steven Levitt (Rewritten for lay audiences in Steven Levitt’s book Freakonomics). The argument mainly concerns how abortion impacted the crime rate, alleging that the legalization of abortion in 1973 with Roe v. Wade led to the decline of violent crime in the United States. The argument claims that because legal abortion decreased the number of unwanted children born to single mothers(whom Levitt and Donhue assumed were the most crime prone) the crime rate itself was brought back under control in the 17-25 years following Roe v. Wade. Criminology texts regularly refer to Donahue and Levitt’s argument.[2] As Levitt puts it in his lay book, “Legalized abortion led to less unwantedness; unwantedness leads to high crime; legalized abortion, therefore, led to less crime.”

The argument isn’t very well-known outside of criminologist and economist circles, but is occasionally raised by pro-choice activists as a danger that pro-life laws will bring to society. Leftist columnist Nicholas von Hoffman bluntly frames it this way:

“[f]ree, cheap abortion is a policy of social defense. To save ourselves from being murdered in our beds and raped on the streets, we should do everything possible to encourage pregnant women who don’t want the baby and will not take care of it to get rid of the thing before it turns into a monster…At their demonstrations, the anti-abortionists parade around with pictures of dead and dismembered fetuses. The pro-abortionists should meet these displays with some of their own: pictures of the victims of the unaborted-murder victims, rape victims, mutilation victims-pictures to remind us that the fight for abortion is but part of the larger struggle for safe homes and safe streets.” [3]

Such fearful hyperbole normally deserves little more than an eye roll. But given the resurgence of the abortion debate, there is a need for pro-life apologists to both understand the issue and be prepared to respond.

There are two problems to address with this argument: A moral one, and an empirical one.

The moral problem is obvious. It is wrong to intentionally kill innocent human beings to benefit others. The argument that abortion is needed for the betterment of society, like most arguments made for abortion, hinges on the assumption the unborn are not one of us, and may be disposed of. Pro-choice activists must do more than simply claim a societal benefit to killing the unborn. They must demonstrate the unborn are undeserving of the same basic protection from being unjustly killed as the rest of us.

To illustrate the moral problem, it’s a virtually undebatable fact that crime rates are directly related to the number of young men in society. There are a whole host of explanations offered for this trend, but for our purpose here let’s consider a thought experiment. Suppose that in addition to abortion, parents were allowed to kill their male children up to three years of age. Perhaps there has been a family breakup, or the parents divorced and neither wants the child any longer. If unwantedness is the best predictor of later criminal behavior, would it be acceptable to allow his parents to kill him? The answer is clearly no. Then why kill the unborn for the same reason? If it’s because the unborn are different from that young boy in some way then the pro-choice activist must establish the morally defining difference between the two. What is the unborn? It is the inevitable question at the heart of the abortion debate.

For that matter, why stop with voluntary abortion? If crime is so horrific, why not incentivize sex selection abortions for male babies? Or mandate sterilization for women in crime prone neighborhoods? Or allow the euthanizing of wayward teenage males(the most crime prone population) by Juvenile Justice professionals?

The very idea is ghastly, but it brings to light the moral principles at play. A desire to fight crime and make society better isn’t enough. Basic morality and respect for human dignity are the foundation on which we build a response to bad behavior that hurts innocent people. This goes for everyone, born and unborn.

Pro-lifers contend that justice demands the unborn be seen as an additional victim of moral crime, not merely as a means to the social ends of others. As Ramesh Ponnuru puts it,

“Whether it is morally permissible to eliminate unborn children is what the abortion debate is about. Anyone who thinks abortion should be tolerated as a way of reducing crime probably already favors tolerating abortion for other reasons. People who think that abortion should itself be a crime will not be swayed.”[4]

In addition to the moral problem, there is also a statistical problem with the abortion-crime argument. Multiple responses to the study have been raised. I will note several of them here.

First, as noted economist John Lott points out, legal abortion led to a counterproductive impact on the birth rate, namely, the birth of more out of wedlock children. Writes Lott,

“What actually happened when abortion was legalized will sound ironic, but no more so than the unintended consequences of many other changes in laws and regulations. Multiple studies have shown that the availability of legalized abortion increased the incidence of unprotected sex, which led to more unwanted pregnancies, which in turn boosted the number of unplanned births, even offsetting the reduction in unplanned births due to abortion. The net result: an increase in the number of single-parent families who couldn’t devote a lot of time to raising their children, an effect Levitt and Dubner ignored and one that more than offset what they focused on.”[5]

Less risk with regards to premarital sexual encounters (thanks to elective abortion) means more people having sex, including women who won’t have abortions. As Lott also notes, this means there are children conceived whom permissive abortion laws couldn’t impact. Lott argues legal abortion may have the opposite effect claimed by Donahue and Levitt by raising crime rates among the population.[6]

An additional problem with the argument is raised by John Lott and John Whitley. Looking at the demographics of age groups involved in criminal behavior poses a significant challenge to Levitt and Donahue’s thesis.[7] As Michael New writes,

“If their theory is correct, there should be a decrease in the number of crimes committed by young people. However, between 1976 and 1998, murder rates for the oldest age groups steadily decreased, while the murder rates for younger age cohorts — which eventually began to include people born after Roe — increased. Lott and Whitely also found that murder-rate trends among young people did not vary much between the states that legalized abortion early and the states where abortion became legal only after Roe.”[8]

This isn’t the only criticism of Levitt and Donahue on this point. Other studies have noted that the link isn’t as readily apparent as they have argued. Comparisons across countries are helpful here. For example, England legalized abortion several years before the United States did on a national level, but instead saw a crime increase after legalizing abortion. As researchers Leo Kahane, David Patton, and Robert Simmons point out following the 1967 Abortion Act in the UK, “If legislation of abortion reduces crime, we might expect that crime in England and Wales and in Scotland decreases relative to the other two areas from the mid-1980s onwards. In fact, if anything the graph suggests a relative increase in crime, at least at the start of the period, in the areas affected by abortion legislation.”[9]

Others make a similar case. The abortion crime link may not be as pronounced in some countries as in others.[10] Levitt and Dubner admit in Freakonomics that even if abortion is an effective way of reducing crime, it’s not an efficient one. It takes hundreds of abortions just to reduce the homicide rate by one victim.[11]

This last point raises an inevitable question. As pro-life criminologist Mike Adams puts it, we would never sacrifice hundreds of innocent human beings to save just one, but we may allow one to unintentionally die as a tragic side effect of saving hundreds.

Indeed, with the total number of abortions performed since Roe v. Wade approaching 70 million, the abortion-crime argument appears a weak justification for allowing legal abortion to persist. The argument only works if one starts with the assumption that the unborn are not one of us; they are not deserving full recognition of their basic human dignity. This assumption needs to be confronted, not hidden behind debates over societal benefits. Even if there is some societal benefit from abortion, it makes little difference if abortion itself is the intentional killing of innocent human beings. Nor is abortion the only means to address violent crime. Better policing and correctional policies, the introduction of technology to crime fighting, establishing healthier community relations, and even gun ownership and church ministries have all been offered as alternative methods of combating violent crime; methods that don’t require the intentional destruction of innocent human beings to accomplish their goals. [12]

Our basic moral principles must always precede and inform our social policy, not the other way around.

[1] Justice For All can be found at

[2] Siegel, Larry, Criminology: The Core, 7th Edition, 2018, pg. 44

[3] Von Hoffman, Nicholas, “Understand that Pro-Abortion is Pro-life, and Vice Versa”, quoted in Ponnuru, The Party of Death, pg. 65

[4] Ponnuru, Ramesh, The Party of Death, pg. 72

[5] Lott, John, “Beware of Populist Economics”, July 5, 2014,


[7] Ibid

[8] New, Michael, “More on the Abortion Cuts Crime Debate”, The National Review, May 21, 2019

[9] Kahane, L. H., Paton, D., & Simmons, R. (2008). The abortion-crime link: Evidence from england and wales. Economica, 75(297), 1-21. doi:10.1111/j.1468-0335.2007.00627.x

[10] For a survey of studies on the link in other countries, see the book Complications: Abortion’s Impact on Women, 2nd edition, pg. 70-75

[11] Levitt, Stephen and Dubner, Stephen, Freakonomics, pg. 142-144

[12] For example, see John Lott’s Freedomnomics, Byron Johnson’s More God, Less Crime, as well as John Paul Wright and Matt Delisi’s Conservative Criminology