A hidden cause of Baltimore's population loss: abortion

Population increase is a natural sign of political health. By that measure, Baltimore has been sick a long time. Six straight decades of depopulation have reduced the city by a third. Seeking not only to halt this bad case of "the dreaded shrinks" but reverse it, the mayor has set the modest goal of increasing the city's population by 22,000 people in 10 years.

The "experts" assert that immigration is the key to a population rebound. Today's demographers might do well to consult the granddaddy of demographic prognostication: the 18th century French political philosopher Montesquieu. In his Persian Letters, Montesquieu reflects on the fate of the great cities of Constantinople and Isfahan: "People, attracted for a thousand reasons, ought to flock to them from every direction. Yet they are decaying internally and would long since have perished, had not their sovereigns in almost every century caused entire new nations to enter and repopulate them." Reliance on immigration can stave off collapse but does not remedy the fundamental causes of decline.


In the near term, it seems sensible to do whatever can be done to attract immigrants. New citizens from diverse lands can be a source of cultural vibrancy and economic growth. We don't want Baltimore to petrify into a city of rich whites and poor blacks, with middle-class members of both races fleeing at their earliest opportunity. However, without attention to the triggers of depopulation, those immigrants might soon repeat the flight pattern of their predecessors, or be numerically insufficient to counteract the prevailing ethos.

It is this matter of ethos that is crucial, according to Montesquieu. He argues that "the chief cause [of depopulation] is to be found in a change of customs." Not surprisingly, the customs he focuses on are those most entwined with human procreation and childrearing — above all, the status of the institution of marriage (although he doesn't neglect another closely related matter: the spirit of commerce and industry). In his examination of factors that can undermine the fruitfulness and health of populations, he singles out "the cruel habit the women [of some locales] have of aborting themselves, so that their pregnancy will not make them disagreeable to their men."


The decline of marriage, particularly among African-Americans, is all too familiar. Not as well-known is that Maryland has a very high abortion rate (third highest among the states in 2005, the year that the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene stopped collecting abortion statistics). The breakdown by jurisdiction reveals that Baltimore City is driving those deadly numbers, and also that the abortion rate among African-American women is at least triple the white rate.

Even for those in favor of legal abortion, the situation should be dismaying. And it certainly represents what Montesquieu termed "a change of customs." For comparison: In 1970, Baltimore City abortion rates for single white and black women stood at 7.43 and 10 respectively (the abortion rate is the number of abortions per 1,000 women ages 15-44), with the married women's rates half that. By 2005, the Baltimore rate was 86.2. The National Abortion Rights Action League, which cites that figure, did not provide the African-American rate, but it would be substantially higher.

Lest one think that poverty accounts for this shift, the poverty rate in Baltimore has remained relatively fixed at around 20 percent for decades. The marriage dearth and the abortion deluge among all races are not attributable to material causes as much as moral causes: young women's loss of respect for themselves as the bearers of new life and their resulting willingness to treat abortion as a method of contraception.

I think it's fair to say that a true Baltimore rebirth — one that could be sustained from generation to generation — should look within as well as without. For a model of commitment to life, we might start with the great speech given by Mama to her feckless son in Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 play "A Raisin in the Sun": "I'm waiting to hear how you be your father's son. Be the man he was. ... Your wife say she going to destroy your child. And I'm waiting to hear you talk like him and say we a people who give children life, not who destroys them."

Diana Schaub is professor of political science at Loyola University Maryland and a member of the Hoover Institution's Task Force on the Virtues of a Free Society. Her email is