Caught in the Abortion Crossfire

Courtesy News Service

It was almost midnight on a Saturday in August when John Donohue first suspected that his yet-to-be published research was about to cause a furor. A student spending the summer in Hong Kong e-mailed him to say a newspaper there had picked up a Chicago Tribune article about Donohue's work. The story detailed how the Stanford law professor and his colleague, Steven Levitt of the University of Chicago, had found compelling evidence linking declining U.S. crime rates to the rise in abortion. Their thesis: after abortion was legalized 26 years ago, more unwanted pregnancies were terminated, meaning that some people likely to become criminals never were born. Although Donohue had been interviewed for the piece, he was surprised that a newspaper as far away as Hong Kong had picked it up.

By Monday morning, it was clear that Donohue -- a self-described "militant skeptic on all ideologies" -- had inadvertently stepped into the abortion-debate minefield. Calls poured in from CNN, NBC, the New York Times and the Washington Post. (All told, Donohue and Kevin Cool, who handles media requests for the Law School, fielded more than 100 inquiries.) Anti-abortion activists were outraged: "The idea that it's certain people you kill before they're born that reduces crime is horrific and smacks of eugenics," April Holley, spokeswoman for the National Right to Life Committee, told the San Jose Mercury News.

The research started with a simple question: why has crime dropped so dramatically in recent years? Donohue and Levitt considered various causes before stumbling onto abortion as a possibility. "We were struck by the sheer magnitude of the abortion numbers," Donohue recalls. "We thought that would likely have repercussions somewhere in the social system."

The professors gathered data, crunched the numbers -- and became convinced there was a link between crime rates and abortion. They wrote a draft of the paper and started sharing it with colleagues, hoping to gather feedback on the methodology before completing the final version. It was at a presentation before faculty at the University of Chicago that the reporter from the Tribune got wind of it.

Reaction has been mixed. Some of his colleagues praised the work. Richard Posner, chief judge of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, called it "striking, original, rigorous and persuasive -- although not conclusive." Other responses to the newspaper articles were "uninsightful and unhelpful," Donohue says, including a few pieces of hate mail.

Despite the outcry, he believes research on the impact of legalized abortion should continue: "The world would be a better place if kids who were born were wanted; steps can be taken to encourage that. That doesn't have to be abortion by any means," he says.

With the hubbub dying down, Donohue is retreating to his research. He doesn't plan to be back in the spotlight anytime soon. He's happy, in fact, to revert to the sort of attention he got from his second-most-controversial piece of research -- a paper he wrote comparing the cost of spending on preschools now with the cost of incarceration down the road: "I don't think anybody even called."