In 2019 the Alabama Senate sent the internet into a spin, by announcing the signing of a bill that aimed to remove the possibility of safe, legal abortion for the women of Alabama. The announcement had women inside and outside of the state (and the US) protesting on the streets and spawned many an ugly argument between pro-life and pro-choice factions, online and off.
The bill progressed slowly through the court system, only to be quietly but firmly blocked by a federal judge who ruled it unconstitutional. This was unsurprising, but will no doubt not be the end of the matter, especially since Trump has appointed the staunchly pro-life Amy Conan Barrett to the Supreme Court.
Although the Alabama bill and other extreme restrictions on abortion have not become law, women’s reproductive rights are still under threat across the US. Lawmakers in many states are determined to move towards ‘protecting the sanctity of life’ (although only in ways that suit them), and there are so many distractions right now, that even those affected are finding their attention drawn elsewhere.
The Alabama bill, and other anti-abortion legislation, sprang back to my mind this week as I re-read an old book I pulled off my bookshelf on a whim: Freakonomics, by Steven D Levitt and Stephen Dubner.
One chapter, in particular, got me thinking again about the bill and the unintended consequences and tragedies that can arise when we put rich white men in control of the fertility of an entire country of diverse women.
One opinion expressed online in the wake of the Alabama bill (though not nearly as often or strongly as you would expect) was how ridiculous and incongruous it was that a state government that was claiming to care this strongly about the ‘sanctity of life’ was also still executing citizens on a regular basis.
The very fact that Alabama still has the death penalty has the somewhat inconvenient effect of making its lawmakers look like nefarious hypocrites when they proclaim their concern with the sanctity of all human life.
Whenever online comments strayed in that direction, the mostly Christian supporters of the abortion ban were quick to express outrage that someone was comparing the lives of ‘innocent babies’ with the lives of ‘dangerous criminals’. While someone would often point out that ‘Thou shalt not kill’ is pretty clearly meant to be applied without exceptions, the distinction was clear, and the argument seemed sound enough.
Sound enough, that is, until I re-read Freakonomics, and was hit with an ugly truth. The ‘innocent babies’ being saved today are potentially the ‘dangerous criminals’ of the future.
According to Levitt’s research, there’s considerable evidence that the babies born as a result of an abortion ban are statistically way more likely than the average baby to end up in the criminal justice system.
The most controversial chapter in a book that explores (according to the subtitle) ‘the hidden side of everything’ is titled ‘where did all the criminals go?’ and it digs deep into the causes of the sudden and drastic drop in crime that the US experienced in the early 1990s.
The drop took everyone by surprise, because crime had been rising for a long time, and predictions were that it would continue to get worse, with terrifying consequences. It didn’t. It began to drop.
Across every state and in every city, violent crime dropped. Petty theft dropped. Rape, assault, burglary, and homicide all dropped.
Many reasons were offered by the politicians and the press, some of which made sense, many of which didn’t. Increased policing (a reasonable assumption), the booming economy (which would affect financially motivated crimes, but not rapes and homicides), increased use of capital punishment (even though evidence suggests that has never been a great deterrent).
In Freakonomics Levitt digs deeper and finds another, more logical, and very discomforting reason for the drop in crime. Crime rates dropped across the US approximately one generation after a landmark case changed just one aspect of the lives of American women. Crime rates dropped one generation after Roe vs Wade made safe, legal abortion an option, for almost every woman.
In the wake of Roe vs Wade, unsurprisingly, many more women had abortions, and unlike the attempts at abortion that had always gone on, illegally, they were ‘successful’ in outcome (that is, they actually resulted in the termination of the pregnancy). As Levitt points out, abortion always had (and always will be) available to those with the financial resources and contacts to organise it.
But the typical woman who took advantage of Roe vs Wade was simply not that woman. As Levitt puts it:
“Very often she was unmarried or in her teens or poor, and sometimes all three.”
The ruling gave all women access to abortion: women living in poverty, unemployed and undereducated, women who were single and without family support, rape victims, addicts, women with mental health problems. Women who had a whole host of issues but who were smart enough to know, without a doubt, that they couldn’t provide an optimal environment for a child to grow up in.
If you know anything at all about the type of issues that correlate with criminal behaviour, you know what’s coming next.
Around the time the babies NOT born as a result of Roe vs Wade would have hit their late teens (the age at which those with criminal tendencies tend to hit their criminal prime) crime rates started to fall and continued to do so. The cohort of babies born after Roe vs Wade were arguably the most planned, wanted generation yet, and fewer of them grew up in the challenging, deprived circumstances that, statistically speaking, tend to land young people in the criminal justice system.
Levitt was able to further test his theory in a couple of interesting ways.
Five states had legalised abortion even before Roe vs Wade, and sure enough, the crime statistics for those states started to fall earlier than the rest of the nation. He also looked for a correlation between actual abortion rates and crime rates. Unsurprisingly, given the differences in culture, religious beliefs and income across different states, women in some areas took the legalised abortion option in higher numbers than others. Once again, there was a correlation. States where abortion rates were higher saw a more significant drop in crime rates. Levitt states:
“Since 1985, states with high abortion rates have experienced a roughly 30 percent drop in crime relative to low-abortion states.”
Levitt was, of course, highly criticised for exposing this uncomfortable and controversial link. Whether you’re pro-life or pro-choice, I’m willing to bet you’re far from OK with the prospect of abortion being used to weed out the worst criminal elements of society, before they are even born. It smacks of eugenics, and perhaps some terrifying dystopian future (as indeed does the proposal of a total ban on legal abortion).
If Levitt is right, and he is meticulous in his research, it’s hard to ignore the obvious chain of events going on here. The innocent babies and the dangerous criminals are not two separate cohorts. There is statistically likely to be a certain amount of overlap, especially given existing social issues, and the states where abortion laws are being tightened.
Let’s take a look at Alabama.
It is already not a great place to be born poor. It has inadequate healthcare, and suffers one of the highest infant mortality rates, as well as one of the highest child poverty rates, in the US. One doesn’t have to look too hard at the nuances of the Alabama abortion ban to realise it has nothing to do with the sanctity of life, and everything to do with punishing women (specifically it only applies to fertilised eggs in the womb of a woman, not to those created in fertility clinics, which can still be freely discarded if not needed).
But who are we really punishing when we force women to have babies they can’t care for, in a state where policymakers don’t invest in their welfare?
I happen to be pro-choice. I don’t support highly restrictive abortion laws. I support women making informed choices about their reproductive options, in a world where abortion is safe, legal and extremely rare, due to excellent education and a wide range of affordable contraceptive options.
If I were strongly and vehemently pro-life, however? Right now I’d be asking how the states who impose these abortion bans are going to take care of the innocent babies. I’d be calling for better healthcare facilities, better schools, welfare reforms, a safety net for the children who, through no fault of their own, are simply born to be vulnerable.
In spite of all the controversy that surrounded Levitt’s assertions, his attitude in the book is neither pro-life nor pro-choice. He simply reports the conclusions of his research, and points out that his work could just as easily be used to support a call for more resources for children living in poverty, and other conditions closely correlated with high crime rates, rather than seen as an endorsement of abortion. Levitt does however conclude the chapter with a vital point:
“When the government gives a woman the opportunity to make her own decision about abortion, she generally does a good job of figuring out if she is in a position to raise the baby well.”
In a world where state governments believe they should have the power to make that decision for her, it is surely more than reasonable to ask, how exactly are they planning to take responsibility for the innocent babies they save?