Nipping Felons in the Bud
David P. Mortimer on Abortion & Crime Reduction
In 1729, Jonathan Swift presented, in an anonymous pamphlet, a commonsense solution to the intractable problems of Irish hunger, poverty, crime, and the problem of unwanted children. In A Modest Proposal, he suggested that a fourth of the younger children be fattened and sold in the market for food. Every child—even the illegitimate—would be a wanted child, with all the value and advantage of a prized head of livestock. Crime would plummet. Hunger and overpopulation would end. The stagnant economy would prosper. Simply turn the problem into a profitable solution for the greater good.
The attitude to human life Swift satirized has now been given apparent scientific and economic support. The “unwanted” unborn are valued only for the effect they will have on society as a whole. The embryo or fetus may be harvested for his tissue or stem cells to benefit society or eliminated before birth if someday he may (only may) harm society.
A year ago, researchers John J. Donohue III and Steven D. Levitt came to the provocative conclusion that “[l]egalizing abortion in the early 1970s eliminated many of the potential criminals of the 1990s.” Their study, “The Impact of Legalized Abortion on Crime” was published in the May 2001 issue of Harvard’s prestigious Quarterly Journal of Economics.
According to the study’s authors, the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 legalizing abortion may be saving “on the order of $30 billion annually.” These academics are speaking America’s love language: cost savings to the taxpayer and greater safety for all.
Referred to as a “pariah theory” in a New York Times headline, the study argues that the disproportionate abortion rates among teenagers, unmarried women, and African Americans are directly linked to a tremendous drop in crime. These women, they argue, are more at risk of having children who would grow up to engage in criminal activity. With abortion eliminating these bad apples, fewer criminals are around 20 years later to steal BMWs, slash their tires, or sell crack to their owners.
The theory is based on a kind of statistical racial profiling: Children born to disadvantaged women have “poor life prospects,” tend to grow up in poverty, and are “resented” and “unwanted.” The authors contend that many of these children grow up fatherless, and tend not to be held, breastfed, rocked, or nurtured by their mothers. In short: Poor minority families are the seedbed of criminality. Therefore, higher abortion rates for this group have resulted in a huge windfall in reduced crime.
It will not be known for years whether or not the Harvard “pariah theory’s” methodology is valid. But if Donohue and Levitt are correct, America has unwittingly embarked upon a government-sanctioned eugenics project that dwarfs any ethnic cleansing in Eastern Europe. By dusting off the old eugenic correlation between growing up in poverty and criminal tendencies, these academics have brought scientific support to the legal holding of Roe v. Wade.
Worst of all, the “pariah theory” has all the benefits that once evaded the pseudoscientific and racist eugenics movement of the 1920s and 1930s. In Europe and America, the power of the state was used to prevent, segregate, sterilize, or eliminate “the unfit.” States enacted laws to “protect the class of socially inadequate citizens . . . from themselves” in an effort to “promote the welfare of society by mitigating race degeneracy and raising the average standard of intelligence.”
Since crime, insanity, idiocy, imbecility, and epilepsy were thought to be hereditary, these institutionalized people were, in the words of the Virginia Sterilization Act of 1924, “by the propagation of their kind a menace to society.” By contrast, the eugenics of today is based upon respectable science (and prestigious scientists), sounds like common sense, is not coercive, is blessed by the rule of law, and is enveloped in a theory of rights, choice, and freedom.
Other studies and counter-papers will continue to analyze crime data and evaluate the societal effect of 40 million “missing persons.” While this academic process proceeds, however, it is important to consider the “pariah theory’s” likely applications:
• new government-subsidized Planned Parenthood abortion clinics in poor neighborhoods;
• more permissive abortion laws at the expense of women’s health and their right to know the risks (physical and psychological) of having an abortion;
• better funding of Medicaid abortions (a $400 Medicaid abortion of a likely proto-criminal is a much cheaper one-time expense than the annual cost of over $20,000 to keep him in prison); and
• abortions for “high-risk” mothers in exchange for welfare benefits (some cities pay at-risk drug abusers to undergo sterilization, so why not offer abortion incentives to welfare recipients?).
Although incentives and coercion sound extreme, a May 2001 Zogby poll found that almost two-thirds of Americans favored legislating mandatory birth control for all welfare recipients. This attitude is not new in America, nor confined to the average person.
In 1927, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote the majority opinion in Buck v. Bell upholding the coercive sterilization of Carrie Buck, a ward of the state who was determined to be “feeble minded” (the vote was 8 to 1). “It is better for all the world,” he wrote, “if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.” Holmes reasoned that if the government can ask its “best” people to give up their lives for their country in war, it could ask those “least fit” to lay down their procreative powers for the greater benefit of society.
The natural applications of the “pariah theory” sound like economic—or is it ethnic?—cleansing. This has always been the trouble with using science and economics to justify euthanasia (better-off dead) or eugenics (better-off never born): The words meaning, purpose, goodness, importance, and truth are not in their lexicon. Lacking this vocabulary, neither science nor the market can be exclusive guides in public policy.
Like the proposals of the anonymous visionary in A Modest Proposal, their utilitarianism reduces human beings to livestock, and their empiricism results in reforms like the Nuremberg Laws.
David P. Mortimer is Legislative Program Coordinator of Americans United for Life. Donohue and Levitt’s article can be found at http://mitpress.mit.edu/journals/pdf/qjec_116_02_379_0.pdf.
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“Nipping Felons in the Bud” first appeared in the May 2002 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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