The Economics of Abortion

Abortion is a hot-button issue. To people of the pro-life side of the debate, abortion is nothing less than the legally condoned murder of innocent babies. To people on the pro-choice side, the opponents of abortion want to enslave women by claiming literal ownership of their bodies. There are people in the middle of the road, but how can they be? Either the pro-lifers or the pro-choicers are right — you can’t have it both ways.

Ultimately, the issue comes down to whether or not an unborn baby (i.e., a fetus) is an individual with rights. If he/she is, then abortion should be criminalized. If he/she is not, then it should be a completely unregulated procedure.

That’s the moral side of abortion. But what about the economic, or utilitarian side? The authors of Freakonomics made the case that abortion was a societal good in that it led to a drop in crime rates. But did it really? Here’s a contrary view:

Students of economics know that people make decisions based on incentives. If something costs more, then people are less likely to do it. The illegality of abortion, whether right or wrong, made the “cost” of sex higher than it is today. When abortion was illegal, women could still theoretically get an abortion if they really wanted one, but they faced criminal penalties and greater expense, not to mention the comparative difficulty of procuring the service. The nation-wide lift on America’s forty-five state abortion ban “lowered the cost” of sex for women, and for men — who had previously been expected to marry a woman should she become pregnant. Roe v. Wade specifically lowered the “cost” of unprotected sex in the pre-AIDS era, undoubtedly contributing to the explosion of STD rates.

Now when something becomes cheaper, people do more of it. Making no moral judgment on the behavior, the fact is that Roe v. Wade did lead to a a massive increase in casual sex. This put tremendous pressure on girls to have sex — after all, they could always have an abortion if they got pregnant, right? And if they decided to keep their baby — as many did — then the man in question could wash his hands of the situation: “it was her choice — she could have had an abortion!”

This Austrian analysis of “human action” is supported by statistics and is the subject of a chapter in John Lott’s Freedomnomics , an answer to Freakonomics . Out-of-wedlock birth rates soared from 5 percent pre-Roe to 16 percent in 1989. Amongst African Americans, the rate went from 35 percent to over 60 percent. And these children from single-parent homes were much more likely to engage in violent crime later on.

The idea that legalized abortion led to the births of fewer unwanted children, and that this led to a drop in crime makes intuitive sense. However, upon deeper inspection, it just isn’t true.