Saturday, December 11, 2004

anticrime or antiabortion? pick one

unintended consequence

The "Geniuses" issue of Esquire includes a profile of economics professor Steven Levitt, whose research suggests that if anti-choice advocates succeed in banning abortion they will be responsible for increasing the crime rate. Prof. Levitt investigated why organized crime fell in the 1990’s, instead of escalating and creating a new breed of “superpredators” as William Bennett and others were predicting. (If Mr. Bennett wagered on this prospect, he lost.) Levitt’s theory: one factor in the falling crime rate was the legalization of abortion in the 1970’s, which prevented the birth of a generation of criminals that would have come of age in the 90’s.

It’s a difficult case to prove, but the statistics are compelling. A few states had already legalized abortion around 1970, before Roe v. Wade made it legal for the entire country in 1973. The crime rate fell earlier for these states than for the nation as a whole, and by the same overall rate (30%) that the country followed later, according to Levitt’s research. Why would this be so? Unwanted children are more likely to be unloved, and social science research suggests that unloved children have more adjustment problems and are more likely to commit crimes. This raises some interesting questions:

1) How does the Religious Right plan to protect society from the crime wave coming 20 years from now if they succeeding in overturning Roe v. Wade?

2) How would racially-biased evangelical voters react if they knew that one consequence of their push to outlaw abortion would be a dramatic increase in the number of violent minorities on the streets of their cities and towns?

3) This one’s a cliché, but it’s true – why is it that some people’s “moral values” lead them to impose unwanted children on those least able to care for them, but don’t require them to support any social policies that would give assistance to those children once they’re born?

It seems the drive to prevent abortions does not always translate into compassion for the helpless – leading to the widely held suspicion that many abortion opponents are motivated by feelings about sex, rather than by a moral perception of the unborn as fully human. Wes Clark addressed this issue eloquently, as reported in Blogging of the President.

Esquire also profiles law professor Noah Feldman, who among other things writes on democracy and Islam. Feldman points out that by some estimates there are now as many Muslim Americans as Jewish Americans, with increasing numbers of Hindus and other religionists. He raises the perfectly valid question: how can America continue to call itself a "Judeo-Christian" nation as its religious composition changes? Are we now to be described as a “monotheistic” nation? If so, there will be those Hindus to contend with. And there are other questions Feldman doesn’t raise, but which are certainly implicit: Why should we identify ourselves as a nation with any form of belief at all? Isn’t that incompatible with our principle of freedom of religion? And is it possible to persuade voters in all 50 states that religious freedom is more important than putting the Ten Commandments on a stone in from the local courthouse? Our country was founded on the idea that whenever a state defines itself in religious terms, it eventually starts exerting control over the religious beliefs of its citizens. That's what brought the Puritans to New England.

Anda last question: it possible to persuade voters in all 50 states that religious freedom is more important than putting the Ten Commandments on a stone in from the local courthouse? Even I, the perennial optimist, have my doubts about that one.