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Abortion and crime

October 1st, 2005 · Posted by Skuds in Life · No Comments · Life

There was a story in today’s paper, which Elephunt has already commented on, that really grabbed my attention. At least the headline did, but then it turned out to be a bit of a non-story.

Apparently someone called William Bennet, who used to be in the Reagan administration but now has a radio show, said

“If you wanted to reduce crime, you could, if that were your sole purpose; you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down.”

and has been ‘disowned’ by George Bush.

Now I am not a big fan of republicans, but it seems to me that the man’s quote has been taken out of context. There are statistics which link the rise in abortions to a fall in crime about 18 years later, but whether there is a causal relationship is purely speculation, much of it prompted by the book Freakonomics, published earlier this year. The authors make a good case for there being a link, although they say they are not making any judgement on it, merely pointing out a relationship they discovered.

It looks to me like William Bennett is just quoting from this, and although he qualifies his statement several ways it was obviously too good a soundbite for the media to ignore.

Its an unfortunate fact that there are several topics which are almost untouchable without attracting all sorts of controversy, and abortion is probably the biggest one. Linking race to crime is another. Put them together and you have trouble.

Why unfortunate? Well it can prevent studies in some areas, making them no-go areas for academics, except for those who actively want notoriety and have brave funders.

In Freakonomics the proposition was that, when abortion was liberalised, those children who were statistically most likely to grow up to become criminals were not being born. Reading between the lines it is not because they were black, but because they (or rather their parents, often singular) were poor. In many parts of America, as elsewhere, this amounts to the same thing.

Perhaps we should be drawing the conclusion that allowing poverty to exist leads to crime and aim to reduce the number of people in poverty by reducing the poverty rather than reducing the number of people – it doesn’t sound like Mr Bennett was heading that way and his comments may have made it harder to use the abortion/crime statistics to reach that conclusion.

The danger, of course, is that some people, for whom reducing crime is their sole priority, might take the quote above at face value and decide it makes good policy.

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