Abortion and Selection

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Children who were 'born unwanted' prior to the legalization of abortion not only grew up in more disadvantaged households, but also grew up to be more disadvantaged as adults.

The legalization of abortion in the United States in the early 1970s represents one of the most important changes in American social policy in the twentieth century. In addition to its obvious implications for the likelihood of giving birth in the case of an unintended pregnancy, the social significance of this change is much broader. For example, the legalization of abortion may have altered the characteristics and achievement of entire groups of children. In particular, children's outcomes may have improved, on average, because they were more likely to be born into a household in which they were wanted. This phenomenon is referred to as "selection."

In Abortion and Selection (NBER Working Paper No. 12150), co-authors Elizabeth Oltmans Ananat, Jonathan Gruber, Phillip Levine, and Douglas Staiger examine whether there is evidence supporting selection resulting from abortion legalization by focusing on a broad array of characteristics of children born in the early 1970s. Those children are now in their thirties, so the authors examine a number of adult outcomes, including completed educational attainment, employment, poverty status, and criminal activity. Their data come from the 2000 Census.

To estimate the impact of changes in abortion access on the adult characteristics of children born in the early 1970s, the authors partially rely on differential timing in abortion legalization across states. Fewer children were born in states like California and New York that legalized abortion around 1970 relative to the remainder of the country, in which abortion was not legalized until 1973. Even after abortion was legalized nationwide, women in more liberal states were more likely to take advantage of its availability. In those states and years in which abortion was used at differentially higher rates, we should see improvements in the adult characteristics of children born if this selection effect were in operation.

In fact, the authors find consistent evidence of changes in the nature of groups born in the 1970s due to greater access to abortion. A child who would have been born if abortion were not available would have been 23 to 69 percent more likely to be a single parent, 73 to 194 percent more likely to receive welfare, and 12 to 31 percent less likely to graduate from college. The researchers also replicate the much-cited results from earlier studies that abortion access lowered crime rates years later. However, their analysis suggests that the crime reduction was not due to differential selection, but instead was primarily due to the fact that there were fewer teens around to commit crime in the years after abortion was made available.

Taken together with earlier research results, the authors' findings suggest that the improved living circumstances experienced by children born after the legalization of abortion had a lasting impact on their lifelong prospects. Children who were "born unwanted" prior to the legalization of abortion not only grew up in more disadvantaged households, but also grew up to be more disadvantaged as adults. This conclusion is in line with a broad literature documenting the intergenerational correlation in income and showing that adverse living circumstances as a child are associated with poorer outcomes as an adult.

-- Les Picker