March 15, 2017    6 minute read

The Global Gag Rule: Will US Abortion Policies Increase Crime Rates?

The Mexico City Policy    March 15, 2017    6 minute read

The Global Gag Rule: Will US Abortion Policies Increase Crime Rates?

Trump’s recent policies have been numerous and drastic, as many agree whether they are for or against these policy changes, and as would be expected given his plentiful 141 policy positions laid out during his White House bid. The Mexico City policy, or the ‘global gag rule’ as critics call it, is one of the many recent policy changes that have come under fire. The question remains, however: who will this policy affect and to what extent?

What is the Mexico City Policy?

The Mexico City policy was first introduced by Reagan in 1984. It stops federal money reaching international groups which either perform or provide information on abortions. The policy requires NGOs receiving federal funds to “neither perform nor actively promote abortion as a method of family planning in other nations”. Trump’s order has gone further than previous administrations by extending the ban to all global health assistance.

Who Will the Global Gag Rule Affect?

The ban will affect the NGOs (non-governmental organisations) who are providing global health assistance, parenthood planning in particular, and receiving large funding from the US government. These NGOs work predominantly in countries where access to health facilities and funds is limited, such as those in Africa. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) fear women’s lives will be particularly endangered as a result of the ban, as unsafe abortions currently account for 13% of maternal mortality cases and are expected to rise without U.S. funding to more than 660,000 abortions and over 10,000 maternal deaths from 2017 to 2020. Beyond the women’s health agenda, however, there is also evidence that suggests a drop in abortion rates in developing countries, arising from the ban, may result in an increase of crime in this areas.

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) fear women’s lives will be particularly endangered as a result of the ban, as unsafe abortions currently account for 13% of maternal mortality cases – and are expected to rise without US funding, to more than 660,000 unsafe abortions and over 10,000 maternal deaths from 2017 to 2020. Beyond the women’s health agenda, however, there is also evidence that suggests a drop in abortion rates in developing countries, arising from the ban, may result in an increase of crime in this areas.

The Donohue-Levitt Hypothesis

The impact of legalised abortion on crime was most notably evaluated by John J Donohue III and Steven D Levitt. Their logic is as follows: “Unwanted children have an increased risk of growing up to be criminals, and legalised abortion reduces the number of unwanted children. Consequently, legalised abortion lowers crime in the future.”

The gradual movement towards legalised abortion in the US, notably centred around Roe versus Wade (1973), supports this hypothesis, with the states that allowed legalised abortion earlier also experiencing crime reductions earlier. Moreover, states that provided greater access to abortions, and therefore higher abortion rates, experienced reduced crime rates in subsequent years. Results from other countries, such as Canada, Australia, and Romania, also support this hypothesis.

Screenshot 2017-02-07 16.42.09

Source: Donohue, J & Levitt, S (2001)

*Early legalising states (legalising abortion in late 1969 or 1970) are Alaska, California, Hawaii, New York, and Washington. Abortion became legal in the remaining states in 1973 after Roe versus Wade.

There has been considerable debate around this hypothesis, with many counterarguments made that alternate variables may have caused the decline of crime. One example is known as ‘the Crack hypothesis’. Many of the key assumptions underlying these counterarguments did not hold, however, and therefore did not undermine the abortion hypothesis.

Today, however, equivalent reductions in crime can be obtained through alternative measures such as effective birth control or the existence of better environments for children at greatest risk for future crime. This reduces the influence of the abortion hypothesis in the US today, but may still be valid in nations where alternative birth control measures are less widely available and used.

Abortion and Crime in Africa

As Africa is one of the regions that will be most prominently affected by the recently re-enforced Mexico City policy, it is worth analysing the effect current abortion rates have on its crime rate today so as to assess whether the Donohue-Levitt hypothesis holds, notwithstanding the cultural differences between Africa and the US, and to what extent the ban may affect future crime levels.

The data below was collected from Numbeo and Guttmacher in order to create the following table:

This can then be compiled into a linear comparison between the abortion index and the crime index, as well as between the abortion index and safety index:

As can be seen, this data set suggests that a country’s abortion index in Africa currently has neither an impact upon its crime rates nor its safety index. There is no obvious correlation between the variables in each case.

However, in 2008, Levitt reviewed what declining abortion rates may mean to the future of crime in America. He posited that this declining abortion rate may be due to factors (concerning neither a monetary nor a social price) that would not lead to rising crime rates – for example, better access to birth control. This example is a possible factor that may have affected the above results as preventative measures for AIDS, like birth control, have become more widespread in Africa.

Complex Relationships

Therefore, the relationship between abortion and crime may well hold in African countries today, though not to the same extent seen in the Donohue-Levitt study due to the growing intensity of other related variables, like access to birth control. Moreover, the large number of variables that must be considered in evaluating crime rates (eg type of crime) may have hindered the collection of representative data points. Further data points should be collected in Africa and considered in light of the Donohue-Levitt hypothesis.

As Trump continues his presidency and global gag rule, policymakers and other actors will have to remain vigilant in order to prevent his reduction of global aid assistance from leading to rising crime rates in Africa. Other countries may need to step forward to match the funding lost to achieve this aim.

 

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