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Abortion refers to the voluntary termination of a pregnancy, resulting in the death of the fetus or embryo. Abortions performed prior to the third trimester are legal in the United States, although the issue has polarized mainstream political parties. Almost all state Democratic Party platforms support abortion while almost all state Republican Party platforms oppose it.

Pro-choice groups believe that a woman should have access to whatever health care she needs and that she should have control over her own body. Pro-life groups believe that the embryo or fetus is "alive" and thus abortion is tantamount to murder. Finally, there is the issue of state intervention: to what degree should the state have a say in a pregnancy?

Cited in American Prospect, the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) asserts that women's reproductive rights are more restricted now than at the time of Roe in 1973. There are two questions at the forefront of the debate: should "partial birth" abortions ("intact dilation and extraction") be legal and should first trimester abortions remain legal?

The most controversial issue is the so-called "partial birth" abortion, a rare procedure. Beginning in the mid-90s, Republicans in the U.S. House of Representative and U.S. Senate introduced legislation to ban "partial birth" abortions. In late 2003, Congress passed and President George W. Bush signed the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act (HR 760, S 3).

This federal legislation was drafted after the Supreme Court ruled Nebraska's "partial birth" abortion law unconstitutional because it did not allow a doctor to use the procedure even if it were the best method to preserve the health (life) of the mother. Congress attempted to circumvent this ruling by declaring that the procedure is never medically necessary.

Challenges were filed in California, Nebraska, and New York. On June 2, 2004, U.S. District Court Judge Phyllis Hamilton (San Francisco) struck down the federal statute on three grounds: it places an undue burden on a woman seeking a second trimester abortion, the language is unconstitutionally vague, and the law does not have the required exception for procedures that preserve a woman's health.

Action has moved to the statehouse, where 16 bills were enacted between January and May 2005; this is more than passed during calendar 2004, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive-rights policy organization.

Abortion has existed in almost every society and was legal under Roman law, which also condoned infantcide. Today, almost two-thirds of the women in the world may obtain a legal abortion.

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When America was founded, abortion was legal. Laws prohibiting abortion were introduced in the mid-1800s, and, by 1900, most had been outlawed. Outlawing abortion did nothting to prevent pregnancy, and some estimates put the number of annual illegal abortions from 200,000 to 1.2 million in the 50s and 60s.

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States began liberalizing abortion laws in the 1960s, reflecting changed societal mores and, perhaps, the number of illegal abortions. Then in 1965, the Supreme Court introduced the idea of a "right to privacy" in Griswold v. Connecticut as it struck down laws that banned the sale of condoms to married people.

Abortion was legalized in 1973 when the U.S.Supreme Court ruled in Roe v. Wade that during the first trimester, a woman has the right to decide what happens to her body. This landmark decision rested on the "right to privacy" which was introduced in 1965. In addition, the Court ruled that the state could intervene in the second trimester and could ban abortions in the third trimester. However, a central issue, which the Court declined to address, is whether human life begins at conception, at birth, or at some point in between.

In 1992, in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the Court overturned Roe's trimester approach and introduced the concept of viability. Today, approximately 90% of all abortions occur in the first 12 weeks.

In the 1980s and 1990s, anti-abortion activism -- spurred on by opposition from Roman Catholics and conservative Christian groups -- turned from legal challenges to the streets. The organization Operation Rescue organized blockades and protests around abortion clinics. Many of these techniques were prohibited by the 1994 Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act.

The effect on crime of legalized abortion is the subject of controversy, arising from the theory that legal abortion reduces crime. Proponents of the theory generally argue that "unwanted children" are more likely to become criminals and that an inverse correlation is observed between the availability of abortion and subsequent crime. In particular, it is argued that the legalization of abortion in the United States, largely due to the Supreme Court's decision in Roe v. Wade, has reduced crime in recent years. Opponents generally dispute these statistics, and point to negative effects of abortion on society.

The 1972 Rockefeller Commission on Population and the American Future is one of the better known early versions of this claim, but it was surely not the first. (1) The Commission cited research purporting that the children of women denied an abortion "turned out to have been registered more often with psychiatric services, engaged in more antisocial and criminal behavior, and have been more dependent on public assistance." A study by Hans Forssman and Inga Thuwe was cited by the Rockefeller Commission and is probably the first serious empirical research on this topic. They studied the children of 188 women who were denied abortions from 1939 to 1941 at the hospital in Gothenburg, Sweden. They compared these "unwanted" children to another group - the next children born after each of the unwanted children at the hospital. The "unwanted" children were more likely to grow up in adverse conditions, such as having divorced parents or being raised in foster homes and were more likely to become delinquents and engaged in crime.

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Hypothesis:

The legalisation of abortion reduced US crime. But there may be a relationship between abortion rates and crime rates, and this column introduces a new hypothesis to guide research on the social impact of abortion.

The hypothesis that the legalisation of abortion contributed to a dramatic fall in crime rates in the United States, originally proposed by John Donohue and Steven Levitt in an article in 2001 and popularized by Levitt's best selling book Freakonomics, has been the subject of close scrutiny by other academics. Until now, this scrutiny has focussed on issues of measurement and statistical specification, and there have been few serious attempts to test the Donohue and Levitt (henceforward D&L) hypothesis in countries other than the United States. In recent research, we analyse the impact of abortion on crime in England and Wales to attempt to rectify this gap in the evidence.1 Examining this question in the context of the UK is important for a number of reasons, not least of which is that, in contrast to the US, in the UK, abortions are subject to mandatory reporting and, as a result, data on (legal) abortions are complete and of high quality.

The first port of call in our analysis was to examine whether the timing of changes in crime in England & Wales was consistent with abortion having an impact. Figure 1 compares trends in two key crime categories in the UK and the US. The vertical lines on the figure indicate the point at which we can observe a decrease in at least one of the crime series. For the US (as noted by D&L), crime starts to fall about 18 years after the legalisation of abortion, consistent with abortion being a causal influence. In contrast, property crime in England and Wales starts to fall about 23 years after the first full year of abortion (1969), too late to be consistent with a causal effect. Violent crime does not decrease at all over the period.

Several reasons might explain the different trends in crime in the two countries. One possibility is that abortion legalisation reduced crime in the US but not the UK. Alternatively, legalisation may actually have reduced UK crime, but other factors have swamped the time series relationship. Finally, legalisation may not have reduced crime in either country and the timing of the US crime fall is down to other factors.

A natural way of distinguishing these explanations is to examine whether crime fell more (or increased less) amongst those young enough to have been affected by abortion legalisation compared to those born before the legislation. Figure 2 shows the pattern of conviction rates for those aged 10-15, 16-20 and 21 plus in England and Wales. The trends are not supportive of a link between abortion and crime. Rates for the 10-15 age group decrease but only from 1985, probably too late to have been caused by abortion legalisation. Further the plots for the 16-20 and 21 plus categories show no downward trend and appear to move up and down together. For abortion legalisation to have an affect, we would predict that one plot would follow the other downwards. As authors commenting on D&L's results have noted, a striking feature of the data from the US is that crime rates in the 1990s fell not only amongst younger age groups who would have been affected legalisation in 1973, but also amongst older age groups who could not have been affected by the change. (2)

Source: Kahane, Paton and Simmons (2008)

Given all this, it seems highly unlikely that the legalisation of abortion can, as D&L hypothesised, explain the dramatic drop in crime observed in the US in the 1990s. However, we cannot necessarily conclude from this that abortion has no impact on crime. It is quite plausible that, even if legalizing abortion does not reduce subsequent crime rates, marginal changes in abortion rates after legalisation may still lead to marginal changes in crime rates. In our analysis of England and Wales, we report panel regressions of recorded crime in different police force areas in which abortion rates appear to be negatively correlated with crime rates. D&L report a similar result using US state-level data.

Some recent work has cast doubt on the direction and statistical significance of D&L's estimates of the marginal impact of abortion rates on crime rates. (3) Similarly, the estimated impact of abortion for England and Wales is extremely sensitive to both the specification of the statistical model and the choice of crime dataset. These caveats notwithstanding, it is interesting to speculate why abortion and crime rates may be negatively related even if the legalisation of abortion itself does not reduce crime.

A potential explanation of this apparent conundrum arises from considering what actually happened to children who would not have been born had abortion been legal at the time of their conception. Some such children would have been brought up in adverse circumstances (either by the birth parent or by being taken into the care of the state) and may consequently have been at a higher risk of committing crime. On the other hand, other children conceived in similarly adverse circumstances would have been given up for adoption and then brought up in relatively stable and affluent circumstances. Put another way, prior to the legalisation of abortion, unwanted babies did not necessarily become unwanted children. If the main impact of abortion legalisation was to reduce the number of infant adoptions, we should scarcely expect the legalisation to reduce subsequent crime.

Figure 3 illustrates trends in rates of infant adoptions and children taken into state care in England and Wales between 1960 and 1980.

The rate of children in care barely changes after abortion legalisation in 1968, whilst there appears to be a dramatic effect on adoptions. The rate of infants under five who had been adopted at birth decreased from 16 per thousand in the mid-1960s to about 5 per thousand just 10 years later. Rather than just reducing the number of unwanted children, abortion legalisation appears to have reduced the number of unwanted infants who would have ended up (through adoption) being wanted children.

 

What about the impact of marginal changes in abortion rates after legalisation occurred? It seems that the legalisation of abortion contributed to a structural shift in society from a situation in which it was normal to put "unwanted" infants up for adoption to one in which adoption was actively discouraged. Once this structural change occurred, it is plausible that, say, a subsequent marginal tightening of the abortion law will have two effects. Children conceived in adverse circumstances are (marginally) more likely to be born rather than aborted but are then more likely to be brought up in those same adverse consequences rather than being put up for adoption. If true, we will observe a negative link between abortion rates and subsequent crime rates.

Although speculative, this hypothesis is consistent with observed trends in adoptions and with the analyses of the abortion-crime link in both the US and the UK. The hypothesis suggests a natural way forward for researchers interested in the social impact of abortion.

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