It’s a wonderful life thanks to college, not abortion

Published 5:20 pm Tuesday, December 18, 2018

One of the greatest Christmas cinematic treasures is the film “It’s a Wonderful Life,” showing the audience the often untold value each life has, and its impact on other lives. It’s also featured in a film connecting abortion to lower crime rates. But there may be a better explanation, as well as a happier one, for those declines in violent activity, as my students found out.

Chapter 4 of the best-selling book Freakonomics by University of Chicago economist Steven D. Levitt and New York Times reporter Stephen J. Dubner is titled “Where have all of the criminals gone?” Their well-known documentary of the same name features clips from the film “It’s a Wonderful Life,” where a desperate George Bailey “wishes he had never been born.”

One of the more controversial arguments the authors make is that the crime rate was spiking, and most pundits expected it to rise. Instead, the crime rate began its deep descent in the mid-1990s. Some credited the 1994 Crime Bill, while others chalked it up to tougher police tactics like those advocated by New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. But Levitt and Dubner have another explanation: abortion.

Starting in 1973, with Roe v. Wade, many babies that would have been born in adverse circumstances were never born, according to the authors. That’s the major reason the crime rate dropped — an overabundance of kids weren’t around to be unemployed. They contrast this tale with the story of communist Romanian Dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, who made abortion illegal in the mid-1960s. Unlike the relatively peaceful East European anti-communist revolutions, the overpopulated Romanian country’s revolt against him was bloody and brutal, costing him his life.

But couldn’t there be a better explanation? My American experience students researched this and found that the fertility rate (births per 1,000 women ages 15-44) dropped dramatically from 118 in the mid-1950s to 65 in the mid-1970, with almost all of the decline before 1973.  It’s  little change since then, and is 63 today.

But something has changed: college attendance. In 1940, only 5.5 percent of men and 3.8 percent of women finished college.  Those numbers doubled in the 1960s, and those 1960s numbers more than doubled again by the 1990s. Today, more than one-third of all men, and all women have completed a four-year college in the U.S.A., which helps explains why that crime rate still remains low. Those who claimed the crime rate plunge was the good 1990s economy still can’t explain why the crime rate fell during the Great Recession.

The story is simple. It’s not that women are having all kinds of abortions. It’s that men and women are waiting until later to start their families, when they are more prepared to have kids of their own, rather than when they are kids themselves, as evidenced by the dramatic fall in teen pregnancy over the last two decades for all races. Additional evidence that college graduates tend to make decent life choices reinforces those arguments.

So this Christmas season, we have something to rejoice. In addition to people being able to take advantage of educational and resulting economic opportunities, this is leading to a safer environment for Americans.

John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Georgia.  He can be reached at His Twitter account is JohnTures2.  His students Miguel Bailey, Kaine Baker, Amy Channell, Kiera Eubanks, Jonathan Evans, Taylor Hamm, Tiffany Jackson, Chandler Kasprowicz, Savannah Laney, Ace Moncrief, Dustey Reeves, Tora Sledge-Freeman and Dawson Weaver conducted the research.