by Raj Persaud and Adrian Furnham
Donald Trump is reported to be facing the deepest crisis in his election campaign, after his comment that women should be punished for having an abortion.
The supposed ‘gaffe’ has reportedly produced a fierce backlash from both those on the left and also the right in politics. Yet perhaps Donald Trump’s position may have inadvertently revealed a deeper problem with the abortion debate, in his possibly unplanned link between abortion and crime. His comment highlighted a psychological tendency for those on the right to be instinctively tough on crime or rule breaking.
But this predisposition may now be in conflict with how the political spectrum aligns itself on the abortion debate, given the latest research.
Generally those on the right tend to be anti-abortion, or ‘pro-life’ while those on the left tend to be more ‘pro-choice’.
Yet new research suggests that if political conservatives want to be consistently tough on crime, they should lean more to being 'pro-choice', as there is new evidence that a more lenient policy towards abortion has a significant impact on lowering crime rates in decades to come.
This dramatic and controversial theory was popularised by the best-selling book ‘Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything’, by economist Steven Levitt and journalist Stephen Dubner.
The basic contention was that allowing women to terminate more unwanted pregnancies reduced the number of unwanted children in the population, and this was a group who grew into prime candidates for committing more crime as they got older.
Research evidence has been presented – primarily from the USA - that in places where abortion is more available, the crime rates go down later, just when those so-called unwanted children would be joining the criminal fraternity, so changes to laws on abortion are followed by corresponding alterations in crime rates.
Now a more recent study, using for the first time European data, finds support of this dramatic theory, that if you want to lower crime rates in your society, one key strategy is to be more liberal on terminations.
This newer study is entitled ‘Abortion and crime: Cross-country evidence from Europe’ by Economists at University of Strasbourg and the University of Grenoble in France.
The research by Abel Francois, Raul Magni-Berton, and Laurent Weill, using a sample of 16 Western European countries, especially the share of aborted adults, defined as the accumulation of aborted children in the past that would have become adults, finding that abortion rates have a significant and negative impact on crime rates, specifically, homicide and theft.
The study, published in the academic journal ‘International Review of Law and Economics’, found that, on average across Europe, an increase of 1% in the accumulation of abortions leads to a decrease of 0.18% in theft and 0.3% in the homicide rate.
This cross-country investigation across Europe, allowed an exploitation of the different dates of abortion legalization in Europe. Comparing when abortion was legalised allows, the authors of this newer study argue, to directly answer this basic question: does legalizing abortion reduce crime?
The authors point out that legalizing abortion is supposed to lead to lower future crime rates in two ways. First, it reduces the fertility rate, reducing the proportion of young males in the population, the group who are generally overrepresented among criminals.
But secondly, it changes the profile of the juvenile population, because, theoretically, mothers abort when they feel that they are unable to raise children under favourable conditions.
A previous study did find adolescents born in the five states in North America with early legalization of abortion were less likely to use illegal drugs than adolescents born in other states.
Abel Francois, Raul Magni-Berton, and Laurent Weill point out that it is this second theory which is particularly espoused by the authors of ‘Freakonomics’, who express the idea as follows: “Unwantedness leads to high crime; abortion leads to less unwantedness; abortion leads to less crime.”
While the effects of abortion rates on crime have been extensively debated by economists, the controversy has focused on single-country specific studies, with most research focusing on the US setting.
This issue is clarified, these researchers contend, in their newer study by providing a cross-country analysis of the relationship between abortion and crime based on a sample of 16 Western European countries.
Abel Francois, Raul Magni-Berton, and Laurent Weill point out that before their current research, previous investigations have provided evidence supporting the theory that abortion rates impact on deviant behavior. One study investigated a more immediate effect of the legalization of abortion by examining homicides of young children in the US. Legalization of abortion in 1973 was associated with a reduction of the number of children homicide victims less than 5 years old.
However the theory has also attracted criticism, for example some have argued that most legal abortions in the early 1970s would have only replaced illegal abortions. Legalizing abortion doesn’t, according to this argument, change the amount of actual terminations, it just alters the officially recorded statistics.
Another criticism is that the reported association between abortion and crime is in fact the result of other changes in society, for example, crack cocaine use. The period of debate coincides with a massive epidemic of crack cocaine in the US, which had increased crime rates.
Yet another complicating factor in the controversy is how the law surround abortion operates in different countries and in contrasting epochs.
In the case of a limited right to abort, people with adverse health conditions or those who live under extremely difficult socioeconomic conditions are the only ones allowed to abort, and thus the selection process of who gets ‘taken out’ of the population via abortion, is decided by law or society.
However, when abortion is upon request, the authors of this new study point out selection becomes decided by mothers themselves, who might be assumed to know better than anyone else under which conditions they are best able to raise a child.
This link between a mother’s pregnancy intentions and a child’s future delinquency has already been shown in previous research.
This factor may explain another key finding from this study which is that broadly speaking, it is the volume of abortion that reduces the theft rate, while it is more the existence of abortion that decreases the homicide rate.
In other words, abortion has different effects on contrasting criminal activities.
The very latest research even suggests that abortion has different consequences depending on what age you are as woman when it happens.
In a study entitled, ‘Crime, Teenage Abortion, and Unwantedness’, Gary Shoesmith, Professor of Economics at Wake Forest University in the USA, argues that it is teenage motherhood which is the major maternal crime factor, as opposed to unwanted pregnancy overall.
His study, published in the academic journal, ‘Crime and Delinquency’, points out that teenage abortions accounted for more than 30% of U.S. abortions in the 1970s, but only 16% to 18% since 2001, which suggests the previous research finding a link between higher abortion rates and lower crime rates could be getting outdated.
Shoesmith contends the link between crime and abortion is strongest when using data from states with distinctly high and low teenage abortion concentrations and that therefore the issue of crime and abortion rests, in fact, on teenage abortion.
Professor Gary Shoesmith argues that a more useful line of inquiry is to explore alternative ways to reduce teen pregnancy, therefore the sociological and psychological factors that influence teenage behaviour become vital.
Shoesmith comments that his study is not meant to encourage teenage abortion and that fortunately, teenage pregnancies in the US are declining faster than teenage abortions. He points out that the most recent decline in teenage births is linked almost exclusively to improved contraceptive use.
Even more controversially, therefore, for the right of politics, this data might suggest the biggest impact on future crime would be to specifically facilitate teenage contraception, or failing that, teenage abortions?
While doubtless the debate will continue to rage on, does all of this research raise some troubling questions for those on the right of the political spectrum?
In particular, those who want to be tough on abortion, yet remain hard-hitting on crime, like Donald Trump seems to want to be?
Raj Persaud and Peter Bruggen are joint podcast editors for the Royal College of Psychiatrists and also now have a free app on iTunes and Google Play store entitled ‘Raj Persaud in conversation’, which includes a lot of free information on the latest research findings in mental health, plus interviews with top experts from around the world.
Download it for free from these links:
Dr Raj Persaud's new novel 'Can't Get You Out Of My Head' on the narcissism of stalking and obsessive love is released in support of UK National Stalking Awareness Week April 18th, all proceeds from sales donated to the Suzy Lamplugh Trust the UK's anti-stalking personal safety charity.