Are Abortions Good For Society?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

This reader thinks so:

Whenever I hear anti-abortion rhetoric that centers upon the idea that abortion is selfish and denies a potential human life, as one of your readers believes, I think about my aunt and her daughter. My cousin became pregnant when she was in high school. She became pregnant again, twice out of wedlock. I don’t know what, or if, she currently works, but she didn’t graduate high school and her prospects have never been good; she mostly leeches off her mother.

My cousin’s oldest son impregnated a girl while he was in high school, and dropped out of college—despite having an athletic scholarship—after suffering some kind of breakdown. The other two children have struggled with mental illness as well. Last I had heard the oldest son didn’t have a job and blames my aunt for his breakdown, despite the fact she effectively raised all three of her daughter’s children while struggling to remain employed in low-paying jobs and never did anything but support his interests and efforts. She has expressed to my mother that she wishes she had just had an abortion, because her life, despite all her effort, has been a string of tragedies.

As much as we’d like to believe otherwise, babies are not guaranteed to grow up to be good people. They are not guaranteed to make life better for others, or to be happy, or to do anything positive whatsoever. Many people, despite receiving love and care from their parents, will make society worse.

My aunt’s case is anecdotal, yes, but it is impossible for me to view it as anything other than evidence that an abortion is often the least costly option in terms of impact to society and simple human life. How much poverty, how much crime, how much misery would be eliminated if some people had simply never existed? To raise a child is a gamble, and if a woman does not, for whatever reason, wish to upend her life on that chance, it can only be to our benefit as a culture.

I can’t help but think of the famous hypothesis in Freakonomics about how Roe v. Wade contributed to a steep reduction of crime a generation later:

John Donohue and Steven Levitt point to the fact that males aged 18 to 24 are most likely to commit crimes. Data indicates that crime in the United States started to decline in 1992. Donohue and Levitt suggest that the absence of unwanted children, following legalization in 1973, led to a reduction in crime 18 years later, starting in 1992 and dropping sharply in 1995. These would have been the peak crime-committing years of the unborn children.

The authors argue that states that had abortion legalized earlier should have the earliest reductions in crime. Donohue and Levitt's study indicates that this indeed has happened: Alaska, California, Hawaii, New York, Oregon and Washington experienced steeper drops in crime, and had legalized abortion before Roe v. Wade. Further, states with a high abortion rate have experienced a greater reduction in crime, when corrected for factors like average income. Finally, studies in Canada and Australia claim to have established a correlation between legalized abortion and overall crime reduction.

To counter the reader above or tackle the topic in general, drop me an email. This next reader pushes back on our previous one:

I think people frame this issue all wrong. A reader wrote, “Surely ‘but getting an abortion allowed me to continue living as I pleased’ must rank somewhat low on the scale of moral arguments.” Prior to viability outside the womb (a moving target to be sure), women shouldn’t NEED a moral argument to have an abortion. They are not required by law or morality to ever bear children. It is society that needs a moral argument for denying women bodily autonomy and forcing them to bear children they don’t want and/or can’t have for whatever reason.

When you frame it like that, I think it becomes pretty clear that the current compromise we have with Roe v. Wade makes sense. In what situation is it moral to make a woman give birth against her will?

People will argue that if women don’t want to be pregnant, they should either abstain from sex or use birth control. I can tell you that both of these “methods” fail pretty regularly despite everyone’s best intentions. In those scenarios, do people find it “moral” to have an abortion? Is it suddenly ok if you can prove you were actively avoiding pregnancy?  And if you WEREN’T actively avoiding pregnancy, does it make sense to treat pregnancy like a punishment?

Everyone has the right to determine if, when and how they become parents, and the moral arguments in support of that are numerous.  Isn’t “wanting to have an established career in order to give my future child the best possible life” a moral argument? Isn’t “not wanting my future child to have an abusive parent” a moral argument?

I’m so tired of this debate. Oh, and to state my bona fides (as we all apparently must do to have any authority to speak on these topics): I have had an abortion, I have a beautiful baby boy, and I’m adopted, so I think I have my bases covered.

More of your personal stories of confronting abortion coming soon.