NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH
NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH

Abortion Legalization Reduces Adolescent Substance Abuse

"Teenagers whose mothers had access to legalized abortion at the time of their pregnancies had significantly lower rates of substance abuse, especially of illegal narcotics."

Abortion policy is one of the most contentious issues in the United States. Although several studies have shown a correlation between the legalization of abortion and an increase in the number of abortions, there have been contradictory results on which groups take advantage of the availability of abortions and how abortion legalization affects various groups.

Furthermore, few studies have examined the impact of abortion availability on later life outcomes among the general population of children. Yet there are two main reasons why abortion legalization might affect such later life outcomes as substance abuse and crime. First, if disadvantaged women use abortion as a way to control the number of offspring they have, this might improve the life circumstances of the average child born to them after abortion legalization, particularly in terms of susceptibility as teenagers to negative influences. Second, more abortions following legalization might lower the number of youth at risk to engage in criminal behavior.

In Abortion Legalization and Adolescent Substance Abuse (NBER Working Paper No. 9193), authors Kerwin Kofi Charles and Melvin Stephens, Jr. find that for teenagers whose mothers had access to legalized abortion at the time of their pregnancies had significantly lower rates of substance abuse, especially of illegal narcotics. That reduction was attributable solely to availability to legal abortion and not to any coincident decrease in births in states which had legalized abortion prior to 1973.

The authors use data available from several generations of 12th graders from the Monitoring the Future Survey. They classify these adolescents by whether they were born in one of the states that legalized abortion prior to nationwide legalization in 1973. Teens born in states where abortion was legal at the time of their birth were significantly less likely to use controlled substances - marijuana, all illicit substances, and illicit substances excluding marijuana -- than teens born in other states. In addition, there were no differences in substance use among teens after nationwide legalization of abortion in 1973. The authors make clear that their results do not address the philosophical, moral, economic or other issues related to abortion legalization.

-- Les Picker


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