The Chicago Tribune reported yesterday an unpublished paper circulating among economists and criminologists which claims that by removing those who would have been most likely to commit crimes - the unwanted children of teenage, poor and minority women - abortion removed a potential criminal cadre. The right will see it as supporting abortion, which US conservatives oppose; the left will see it as essentially racist; and people across the political spectrum will regard the idea asa thinly veiled version of eugenics.
But the academics who produced the paper, Steven Levitt, a University of Chicago economist, and John Donohue III, a Stanford University Law School professor, are both reputable social scientists. They argue that abortion helps explain as much as half of the decline in crime between 1991 and 1997.
Abortion "provides a way for the would-be mothers of those kids who are going to lead really tough lives to avoid bringing them into the world. They're the ones who are most likely to have been unloved by their mothers, to have faced intense poverty, to have had tough lives," says Mr Levitt in Legalized Abortion and Crime.
He acknowledged "no one will like it", but said "I don't think it's our job as economists or scientists to withhold truth because some people are not going to like it. I just think it's important to understand the impact of social policies."
The authors note that thedrop in crime came roughly 20 years after the US Supreme Court decision which legalised abortion. The five states which legalised abortion beforehand saw earlier falls in crime, and places with high abortion rates saw large falls in crime.