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A Preemptive Death Penalty


During a discussion of abortion, one of my classmates -- a political progressive -- stated that abortion was needed in order to reduce crime. I was shocked. My classmate was most likely opposed to capital punishment and yet she was using reasoning similar to that of death-penalty proponents. Unfortunately this was not the only time I have heard this argument in my discussions with others on abortion. It is more prevalent than I would have expected. This is truly sad, because not only is this argument statistically false, it is morally wrong -- especially from an anti-death penalty perspective.

This claim that abortion reduces crime comes from the work of Stanford University law professor John Donohue and University of Chicago economics professor Steven J. Levitt, who together looked at the drop in crime during the period from the 1970s to the 1990s and claimed that this drop was due to legalized abortion. The crux of their argument is that "unwanted" children would be raised in more dysfunctional homes and thus be more likely to commit crimes as they grew older. The killing of these children through abortion prevented this. However, their argument was debunked in a study by John Lott, a senior research scientist with the University of Maryland Foundation, and Australian economist John Whitley. Contrary to the Donohue-Levitt theory that crime would drop among those born after Roe v. Wade because those people would be "wanted," Lott and Whitley found that the crime rate among the post-Roe generation was the last to drop. In fact, national murder rates among people in their late teens skyrocketed in the mid-1980s and early 1990s. This does not mean that abortion is increasing crime, because correlation does not equal causation, but it certainly suggests abortion is not reducing crime. [1]

Further, even if abortion did reduce crime, it does not change the scientific fact that our offspring are human beings, nor does it change the moral principle that it is wrong to initiate homicide against another human being. We would never accept this argument as a justification for killing unwanted infants; why accept it when the infants are younger? In fact, this argument goes against the basic moral principle that you should not be punished -- let alone be executed -- for a crime that you have not yet committed. In the last issue of Life Matters Journal, I talked about how I had worked with liberal groups such as the ACLU to abolish the death penalty in Illinois. I closed that article with the reminder that there was still another death penalty being carried out in hospitals and abortion clinics around my state. I now see that I was not merely being metaphorical in characterizing abortion as a "death penalty."

The moral problem behind the argument that abortion reduces crime should be especially blatant to death penalty opponents. This argument falls on the contradictory notion that we should kill people to stop killing people. That we'll just move all the violence to a different group of people, who we judge will grow up to be criminals. It is bizarre that leftists are arguing for essentially a preemptive death penalty. Because of the inconsistent Left/Right paradigm that we live under today, however, we have the awkward situation where liberal death penalty opponents use the principles they so despise to support killing little "future criminals." This is why we need the consistent life ethic in politics, so that we can truly abolish the death penalty, instead of just moving it to an earlier age group.


[1] Randal K. O’Bannon and Laura Antkowiak, “Abortion Link to Crime Decrease Debunked” <>

Disclaimer: The views presented in the Rehumanize Blog do not necessarily represent the views of all members, contributors, or donors. We exist to present a forum for discussion within the Consistent Life Ethic, to promote discourse and present an opportunity for peer review and dialogue.

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