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In abortion and crime stats, we see what we wish

The Baltimore Sun

If legalized abortion led to the drastic 1990s decline in crime, as some people think, will a decline in abortion lead to a crime surge?

That question came to mind as activists last week marked the 35th anniversary of Roe v. Wade.

Although the "pro-life" and "pro-choice" groups don't agree on much, both found something to celebrate in the big news of the day: U.S. abortion rates have fallen to a 30-year low.

The New York-based Guttmacher Institute, whose research is cited by both sides in the superheated abortion debate, reported that abortions fell to 1.2 million in 2005 from a peak of 1.6 million in 1990. That's a decline to 19.4 abortions per 1,000 women and girls of reproductive age in 2005, from 27.4 in 1990.

Both sides of the debate applauded the numbers, even as they argued over who should claim the most credit for the decline, which included abortions by pills as well as surgery.

Either way, the numbers served to vindicate Bill Clinton's centrist policy early in his presidency to make abortion "safe, legal and rare."

Whether his critics like what he did or not, the trend lines under his watch moved in a direction that can satisfy the largest number of people in this highly contentious issue.

But every silver lining has its cloud. Although abortion declined in the 1990s, crime dropped even faster. Some folks see a connection. The most controversial hypothesis as to why crime dropped in the 1990s attributes the decline to the emergence of legal abortions two decades earlier.

Preventing the birth of many unwanted babies meant fewer teens and young adults who would be most likely to commit crimes in the 1990s, according to the theory proposed by the economists Steven Levitt and John Donohue, and later popularized in Mr. Levitt's 2005 best-seller, Freakonomics.

Just before the Jan. 22 anniversary of Roe, Mr. Levitt took a new look at the numbers and mused in his New York Times blog on how the recent decline in abortions might predict future crime patterns.

The answer? It depends on why abortion rates are falling, he writes, "and I'm not sure we know the answer to that question."

Although I stand firmly on the pro-Roe side of the abortion debate, I have always been troubled by theorists who try to make too much of the decision's long-term benefits. Franklin E. Zimring, a criminologist at the University of California, Berkeley, reviewed the data and found: "The crime decline of the 1990s was a classic example of multiple causation, with none of the many contributing causes playing a dominant role."

American women already were reducing their birthrates a decade before Roe through birth control pills and other measures, Mr. Zimring points out in his book, The Great American Crime Decline. Also, Canada experienced a crime decline that paralleled the one in this country without a Roe v. Wade decision to go along with it.

That's what crime and abortions have in common: Everybody wants crime and abortions to decline and everyone claims credit when they do.

Yet the experts have done a better job of explaining crime and abortion trends than predicting them.

In the early 1990s, experts predicted that a new generation of young superpredators would make crime shoot through the roof. Instead, crime rates fell through the floor.

The noted social scholar James Q. Wilson of Pepperdine University, for example, predicted that the first decade of the new century would see "30,000 more young muggers, killers and thieves than we have now. Get ready." But a few years later, Mr. Wilson admitted to a New York Times reporter, "So far, it clearly hasn't happened," and that "this is a good indication of what little all of us know about criminology."

Recent surges in violent crime in cities such as Philadelphia and Los Angeles reflect the constantly changing, yet highly local, nature of such problems. In a world of rapidly changing science and social attitudes, the same is true of a sensitive and highly individualized issue such as abortion.

The best lesson for us to remember in dealing with the future is to remember what worked in the past. Then keep doing it.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears weekly in The Sun. His e-mail is cptime@aol.com.

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