- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 28, 2001

In its next issue, the Harvard University Quarterly Journal of Economics will publish one of the most controversial social propositions ever a study concluding that legalized abortion contributed overwhelmingly to a sharp drop in crime.
John J. Donahue III of Stanford and Steven D. Levitt of the University of Chicago co-authored the study, which they say conclusively links the Roe vs. Wade decision that legalized a woman's right to an abortion and a declining crime rate some 18 years later. Scholars in the field of criminology have reacted by praising the pair for focusing attention on abortion, a new element not previously studied in the field, while at the same time attacking them for wrong assumptions and shaky methodology.
The academic debate will surely rage on for years, as studies and counterstudies are issued and enterprising young professors tie their hopes for tenure to either proving or disproving such a link. But the real importance of this debate is not what happens in the universities it's which policies are adopted in the real world and how minds are changed in reaction to the debate.
The second issue is probably the most important one, though. While policies can have important real-life consequences, the attitudes of Americans toward abortion will have the greatest long-term effects. For example, in the days of Prohibition, the policy of this country was zero tolerance toward alcohol. But the minds of Americans were not changed to match the policy, and this inability to reach the core of the people led to the ultimate demise of Prohibition.
It would be tragic if Americans concluded from this study that abortion is not only an amorphous constitutional right but also a formula for a safer, more livable society. What this study cannot measure and, in fact, what we'll never know is all the benefits that society has lost because of abortion. For example, how many geniuses have been aborted, young prodigies who could have blessed the world with their scientific discoveries or artistic beauty?
This isn't just a speculative concern. The thesis of the Donahue-Levitt study is that "a difficult home environment leads to an increased risk of criminal activity. Increased abortion reduced unwantedness and therefore lowered criminal activity." Yet many of the most creative people of the 20th century and, indeed, of all time came from such "difficult home environments." So while abortion may have led to a drop in crime, one could argue much more persuasively that it just as likely led to a lamentable drop in creative benefits to society.
Consider John Lennon, perhaps the most influential musical figure of the last 100 years, whose home life was notoriously "difficult." Or the legendary Charlie Chaplin, who grew up in orphanages but is considered one of the all-time geniuses of film. Other greats who had troubled home environments were jazz master Louis Armstrong, playwright Eugene O'Neill, actress Audrey Hepburn and actor James Dean. Country singer Merle Haggard and comedian Tim Allen both spent time in jail for criminal acts, and both went on to prominence in the arts. The list could go on and on.
These people were all misfits who, under the reasoning of the Donahue-Levitt study, should have been aborted along with the rest of the potentially "criminal" element. Or consider former President Bill Clinton, who lost his father before he was born and lived in what was, in some instances, an abusive home life. While his mother was supportive, she could very easily have chosen not to bring the young future president into an uncertain and concededly difficult home environment.
Would the world be better off if these people and others like them hadn't lived in it? Of course not. Each of them has contributed uniquely to our culture, and our world is a more meaningful place because of their gifts. Yet these are some of the individuals who may have been swept up by an abortion policy that found its impetus in ridding the world of crime.
There is at least one reason to hope that the attitude of Americans toward abortion won't be infected by the implications of this study. Co-author Mr. Stephen Levitt believes that working on this research actually moved him further toward a pro-life position. He says one could conclude from the evidence that the answer isn't more abortions but better education and living conditions for the poor.
Most compassionate Americans would not need this study to reach such a conclusion. But it does suggest the alternative for anyone disturbed by the implications of the abortion/crime link. That is, rather than accepting a reality where unwanted children are disposed of before they possibly hurt anyone, we should create a reality where all children are wanted and cared for. That's the real solution for both the criminal problem and the abortion problem.

Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of the Rutherford Institute and editor of Gadfly Online.

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