In his mindbending 1998 novel, Making History, Stephen Fry imagines using time travel to prevent the birth of Hitler. The novel's premise presents a tempting thought: no Hitler, no Holocaust, no World War II. Why not sacrifice one baby to save so many?
Now think again: If you could do so, would you use time travel to prevent the birth of Columbine killers Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris? Or perhaps amuck Atlanta day trader Mark Barton?
Two economists claim such action has already been taken. They say America's choice to abort 8.1 million babies in the 1970s is the reason for about half of the much-touted 1990s decline in the crime rate. Infants who would have been born then to mothers who were poor or minorities would now be at the prime age and have just the right social profile to be committing crimes.
The researchers also found that the states that introduced legal abortions before Roe v. Wade experienced the decline in crime rates sooner. And those states that had the highest rates of abortion in the early seventies had the biggest dips in their crime rates in the nineties.
Does this mean that widespread abortion (about one-quarter of all pregnancies now end this way) benefits society? The researchers, who claim to be apolitical, estimate the economic benefit to society of abortion-reduced crime at about $30 billion annually. And after claiming they have no policy agenda, the researchers say their study shows the wisdom of allowing women to choose when they will bear children.
"This is not an argument for abortion per se," one of the researchers told the Chicago Tribune. "This is an argument for women not being forced to have children they don't want to have." If that is not code language for abortion on demand, we don't know what it is.
Not only pro-life leaders, but also abortion-rights advocates have criticized this study. One reason for this may be fear of an attitudinal shift. As long as abortion is seen as a tragic necessity, abortion-rights advocates can capture the bewildered middle of the voting population. If they begin to promote abortion as a social good (as some fetal-tissue researchers have done), they will lose the support of that broad middle, which has an abiding and deep sense of abortion's tragic dimension.
This study, which has not yet been through the peer-review process that leads to academic publication, raises more questions than it answers. The most fundamental question is whether there are indeed fewer criminals now. Lower crime rates, Charles Murray argues in an monograph for the American Enterprise Institute, are the result of higher incarceration rates, not fewer felons.
But if, as the researchers claim, it is "unwanted" children who are destined for criminality, abortion is not the only solution. Indeed, the challenge is to make them wanted: wanted by adoptive parents, wanted by church communities that support women and help them feel good about their experience in childbearing and childrearing. As Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen says in this issue's discussion of homosexuality (see p. 55), "single-parent or unusual families always seem to work best if they attach themselves to a church."
"We have to get our own act together, in terms of supplying resources," says Van Leeuwen, calling the "social parenting" that churches can engage in "symbolic of what it means to be part of the body of Christ."
In Stephen Fry's novel, the hero forestalls the conception of Adolf Hitler—and the world faces even greater totalitarianism and a larger-scale Holocaust. Abortion may or may not present society with an annual rebate check for $30 billion. But this large-scale experiment in fetal execution has no doubt deprived us of humanitarians as well as criminals, and has brought us to the brink of regarding people for their calculated impact on society rather than their worth as God's "precious jewels."
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