Freakonomics Reflection 3: Chapters 4 & 5

I believe the issue discussed in chapter 4 “Where Have All the Criminals Gone?”, though controversial, is the most important topic tackled by the book thus far. This chapter discusses the causes (legitimate and supposed) of the crime drop of the 1990s.

The largest portion of the chapter was dedicated to proving that a source not cited by any major article (while other sources were cited 284 times) had a great effect on lowering crime. This source was the legalization of abortion. The legalization of abortion had a significant impact on reducing crime (though some consider abortion itself a crime). This was because much of the current crime, as well as the predicted surge in crime, could’ve be attributed to teens and young adults. However, in 1973 Roe v. Wade made abortion legal across the entire nation. As of that point women who had an unwanted pregnancy were no longer having unwanted children. The women most likely to have an abortion (often poor, single, and or in their teens) were the demographic that, as mothers, were more susceptible to having children that show criminal behavior. In other words, children that would be most likely to become criminals were no longer being born. Thus, the predicted surge in crime due to teen violence was actually a drop in crime due to unwanted children (that would be entering their teens in the 1990s) no longer being born. This cause-effect relationship was supported by many statistics, including states that legalized abortion before 1973 seeing drops in crime earlier as well as the abortion rate in states having a positive correlation with the size of the drop in crime in that state.

This information is important for two main reasons. The first is that it attributes the cause of the crime drop, whether one is for or against it, to its actual source. Attributing the drop in crime to one of the 7 most cited explanations (3 of which can be attributed some effect on crime while the other 4 cannot) may be more relieving than attributing it to abortion (especially if one is pro-life). However, this would be giving false credit. When facing future crime we should look to causes, such as increased number of police, that actually have an effect on crime (though making abortion legal again is not an option) rather than ones that do not. The second reason I believe this information is important is that it gives a (possibly additional depending on one’s views) benefit to abortion being legal. Though crime prevention is not a reason for abortion, it is nice to know that it is an unintended benefit since abortion is currently legal.

In this chapter the authors also pose a question that I remain conflicted about after reading it a day ago and will probably remain conflicted about indefinitely. The text states, “Now, for the sake of argument, let’s ask an outrageous question: what is the relative value of a fetus and a newborn? … For a person who is either resolutely pro-life or resolutely pro-choice, this is a simple calculation. The first, believing that life begins at conception would likely consider the value of a fetus versus the value of a newborn to be 1:1. The second person, believing that a woman’s right to an abortion trumps any other factor, would likely argue that no number of fetuses can equal even one newborn.” This is where the conflict lies for me. I fall in the middle of 100% pro-life and 100% pro-choice. I don’t believe abortion is murder but at the same time I believe a fetus does have a value over that of an unfertilized egg. In other words, the fertilization of an egg gives it more life than it previously had. This means that there is a theoretical ratio that equates the life of a newborn to that of a fetus in my mind. As this ratio is impossible to find, I will choose a ratio, 1:1000, for the sake of argument. If this were what I believed to be the most accurate ratio, given that there have been approximately 54 million abortions since 1973, there would be 54,000 lives lost due to abortion. Though I am okay with the legality of abortion, knowing that the added life that a fetus has over an unfertilized egg could theoretically add to that of the life of one if not many lives, leaves me conflicted.