Linking Abortion to Crime Reduction in Rio

Eesha Pandit

Legalizing abortion might decrease crime, Sergio Cabral, the governor of Rio de Janiero, stated last week. His claim rests on a contested link between the reasons a woman seeks an abortion and the factors that facilitate criminal behavior.

Last week, the governor of Rio made a controversial statement. Sergio Cabral, governor of Rio de Janeiro, claimed that legalizing abortion might help reduce violence in the city, the Kaiser Network reported.

Drawing on the argument made in 2001 by economist Steven Levitt and journalist Stephen Dubner of "Freakonomics" fame, which links a decline in criminal violence in the 1990's U.S. to the legalization of abortion in 1973, Cabral made a case for legalizing abortion. Current law bans abortions, except in the case of rape or to save the life of a pregnant woman. Cabral noted that abortion is accessible to wealthy women, who are able to pay for illegal services. It is low-income women, who often live in areas rife with crime, that are left without any recourse if they need to end a pregnancy.

The governor continued on to claim that in affluent areas of Rio de Janeiro, the number of children per woman is similar to that of Sweden, whereas the number of children per woman in impoverished areas of the city is similar to that of Zambia or Gabon. "That's a factory for producing marginal people," Cabral said to the EFE News Service, again linking abortion accessibility to a decrease in crime, per the "Freakonomics" theory.

The Levitt-Dubner theory goes like this: the major decline in urban violent crime rates have happened approximately eighteen years after the 1973 passage of Roe v. Wade. In states where abortion was legalized earlier, these declines happened earlier. The reduction in the rate of violent crime, according to this analysis, affected the generation of people born after the legalization of abortion. Levitt and Dubner explain this analysis by assessing the reasons that people have abortions: poverty, living in an environment where it is undesirable to raise a child, economic concerns, etc. Now here's the leap: an unwanted child has a greater chance of becoming a criminal. And, Levit and Dubner believe, those unwanted children live in environments that facilitate criminal and violent behavior. Therefore, by legalizing abortion the US a large number of unwanted children, likely to become criminals, were never born, and the crime rate fell.

Appreciate our work?

Rewire is a non-profit independent media publication. Your tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.


This theory has been debated and argued from all angles for several years now. Steven Levitt explained the theory further in 2004. For a pithy summary on the main debates and rebuttals, see here. Despite admitting to a couple of mistakes, the authors maintain the relevance of their theory. I don't want to get involved in the causation vs. correlation debate, or sucked into statistical economic analysis. Those debates are better left to economists.

Instead, from the reproductive justice perspective, this theory troubles me for a few reasons, none of which I found on the blogs or in the rebuttals. Given that the argument has resurfaced, this time in Brazilian politics, now might be just the time to mention them.

Steven Levitt has repeatedly asserted that the theory did not aim to have racial implications, especially in response to the outrageous comments made by William Bennett. Cabral, however, implicitly made this issue into a racial one by offering a demographic comparison between Sweden and Zambia/ Gabon in relation to what is going on in Rio. When you talk about poverty and inaccessibility of abortions, are women and families of color merely the relevant demographic because they are disproportionately poor and unable to access abortions, especially if illegal? Not exactly. In addition to being the demographic most affected if abortion is illegal, poor women of color have also suffered from sterilization abuse. They are also most frequently negatively affected by the foster care system. In other words, for poor women of color, the right to have and keep their children is as significant as the right not to. The question on my mind, is one that's missing from the debate as yet: how do these factors affect whether their children become criminals or not? Do they? Are the children of poor women of color who want their kids also more likely to become criminals? It is that last question that I'm sure the supporters of the theory would be uncomfortable making, because of its obvious racist implications. Namely, if women of color who want their kids raise criminals, and women of color who don't want their kids raise criminals then real culprit is not the lack of access to abortion, but the woman of color herself. Somehow, I don't think that's where the theory intended to lead us.

In addition, over 60% of women who have abortions have already had one or more child. The Levitt-Dubner analysis links the propensity to become a criminal with the factors that make women decide they want abortions. On their account, the reasons that women want abortions, like poverty and other environmental factors, are the reasons that people become criminals. According to the most recent Guttmacher report on women in the US:

On average, women give four reasons for choosing abortion. Three-fourths of women cite concern for or responsibility to other individuals; three-fourths say they cannot afford a child; three-fourths say that having a baby would interfere with work, school or the ability to care for dependents; and half say they do not want to be a single parent or are having problems with their husband or partner.

If 60% of these women already have children, are those children more likely to be criminals as well, given that they are being raised in a similar environment that the "unwanted child" would be raised in? Do these reasons, cited most by women who want abortions, line up with the reasons given by Levitt and Donahue? If not, what are the implications for their theory?

Ultimately, in raising these questions I aim to get at one element of this analysis that irks me. The analysis focuses on social factors that result in crime and links it with the social factors that result in women wanting abortions. These factors are not arbitrarily linked. In reality, the fulcrum on which the theory rests is the woman and her life. Poor women, women of color, and women who don't have access to reproductive rights do not live in a vacuum. They live in our communities, and they live in all regions of our countries. Cabral is using this theory to draw attention to the reasons that women need abortions, and the fact that those conditions also foster violence and despair. This is certainly an important claim, and one that needs closer investigation. However, by grounding the need for legal abortion in such a theory, Cabral is obscuring the most important factor of all — the woman. They need access to safe and legal abortions as well as the entire range of reproductive and sexual rights not simply so that they don't raise criminals, but so that they can have control over their bodies; so that their communities are secure, and so that they and their families might enjoy a life without coercion.

Load More

We report on health, rights, and justice. Now, more than ever, we need your support to fight for our independent reporting.

Thank you for reading Rewire!