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FORTY YEARS AFTER/ Abortion Promises Unfulfilled

Forty years after Roe v. Wade, the promise that legal abortion would guarantee fewer out-of-wedlock births, less child abuse, and lower crime rates remains unfulfilled. By MICHAEL NEW

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In the 1960s and 1970s, abortion advocates used a variety of arguments to advance their cause. Some emphasized women’s liberty and autonomy. Others tried to persuade people that easy access to abortion would benefit society as a whole. Consider just two representative quotations:

A policy that makes contraception and abortion freely available will greatly reduce the number of unwanted children, and thereby curb the tragic rise of child abuse in our country.” (NARAL, 1978)

The impact of the abortion revolution may be too vast to assess immediately. It should usher in an era when every child will be wanted, loved, and properly cared for.” (NARAL co-founder Larry Lader, 1974)

Legal abortion, advocates argued, would result in fewer out-of-wedlock births and less child abuse, and would ensure that every child was wanted. Over time, these arguments lost credibility because neither out-of-wedlock births nor child abuse was decreasing.

In the early 2000s, academics Steven Levitt (University of Chicago) and John Donohue (Yale University) published a study in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, titled “The Impact of Legalized Abortion on Crime,” claiming that legal abortion unexpectedly lowered crime rates in many American cities during the 1990s. Groups supporting abortion rights generally distanced themselves from this argument, fearing its eugenic implications. Though the findings have received some widespread credibility because of Levitt’s popular book Freakonomics, they have been much criticized by other academics.

In this essay I show that easy access to abortion during the past forty years has not benefited society as a whole. Legal abortion has not reduced out-of-wedlock births, child abuse, or crime rates.

Abortion and Out-of-Wedlock Births

After the Roe v. Wade decision, the out-of-wedlock birthrate continued to rise, even though the number of abortions increased substantially. At first glance, this seems somewhat surprising. When abortion became legal, a sexually active woman who did not want to bear children had the option of terminating her pregnancy.

But legal abortion dramatically changed social and sexual mores. When abortion became easily available as a back-up option, women as well as men became less careful about using contraceptives and more likely to engage in pre- and extra-marital sex. This increase in sex outside marriage further weakened social taboos regarding sex before marriage—resulting in even more sexual activity. Men who impregnated women faced considerably less social pressure to marry.

Indeed, Donohue has observed that after Roe v. Wade, conceptions increased by 30 percent. Of course, a higher percentage of these conceptions were aborted. However, the increase in the incidence of abortion failed to offset this increase in conceptions. As such, the out-of-wedlock birthrate continued to climb.