It is mostly a matter of common sense. Abortion rates are highest among young, poor, single women, a disproportionate number of them minorities. Crime rates are highest among the 18- to 25-year-old sons of single, poor mothers, a disproportionate number of them minorities.
So why should we be surprised, shocked and outraged by the conclusion that increasing abortion rates, 20 years later, cause decreases in the crime rate?
Two respected scholars, Steven Levitt, a University of Chicago economist, and John Donohue III, a Stanford University law professor, conclude in their paper "Legalized Abortion and Crime" that legalized abortion may account for as much as half of the overall crime drop in the United States from 1991 to 1997.
Judge Richard Posner, chief judge of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago, called it "a striking, original, rigorous and persuasive _ although not conclusive _ demonstration of the commonsensical point that unwanted children are quite likely not to turn out to be the best citizens." His reaction is calmer than most.
The paper, which has yet to be published, has been denounced by anti-abortion leaders as "bizarre," while pro-choice activists have refused all comment whatsoever. It is the talk of the talk shows, finally giving Hillary some competition. The authors have been forced to defend their right as scholars to report what they learn, even if everyone finds it politically incorrect.
Yet there is much to be learned not only from the results but also from our reaction to them.
Charges of racism are already being leveled. In our society, it has become racist to point out correlations between race and anti-social behavior, or low test scores, or school failure, even when those correlations are true.
In America today, 40 percent of all African-American men between 18 and 25 are in prison, on parole or on probation; the number is even higher in many major cities. That is not because of any causal connection between race and crime. Being black doesn't cause one to commit crime. If 40 percent of all white men between 18 and 25 were enmeshed in the criminal justice system, society would launch a strike against drug use, a factor that also correlates with crime.
Instead of confronting this reality, we politely accept that reality gives rise to a form of racism of its own. It is racist to treat any individual black man as a presumptive criminal, no matter what the statistics.
Studies in Eastern European countries and in Scandinavia, where government approval is required for abortions, have consistently found, as Posner suggests, that children born because their mothers' requests for abortion were denied are substantially more likely to be involved in crime and have poorer life prospects, even when researchers control for such factors as income, age, education and health of the mother. The crime rate even decreases when those women who had previously delayed having children (by resorting to abortion) subsequently increased their childbearing," Donohue and Levitt wrote. "This suggests that it is not simply who has the abortion that leads to the lower crime rate . . . but the ability of the woman to choose better timing for child-rearing that lowers criminality."
That abortion is, from society's point of view, a cost-effective alternative to pregnancy and childbearing has never been in doubt. But the real argument is about individual freedom and privacy _ an argument that a woman has a right to a decision. Professors Levitt and Donohue's study provides one more basis for respecting that choice: Women, it turns out, not fathers, know best.
+ Susan Estrich is a syndicated columnist and a law professor at the University of Southern California. +