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In an appearance on Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor, right-wing pundit Ann Coulter accused University of Chicago professor Steven D. Levitt and Stanford University professor John J. Donohue III of "defending Roe v. Wade" in a 2001 paper arguing that the legalization of abortion in the United States ultimately caused crime to decline. But Levitt and Donohue made clear in the paper that their findings did not represent "an endorsement of abortion" -- a point Levitt also made in a 1999 Slate.com online discussion on the topic and in Freakonomics (William Morrow, May 2005), the book he co-wrote with Stephen J. Dubner. Coulter went on to state as fact that discredited American Enterprise Institute resident scholar John R. Lott Jr. debunked their original study, ignoring that Levitt has subsequently identified substantial methodological problems with Lott's criticism.
Coulter's claims came during a discussion of radio host Bill Bennett's recent comments linking crime rates and abortion by blacks. During the exchange with host Bill O'Reilly, she described Levitt and Donohue's findings as "a serious argument made by liberals" and argued that Bennett's mistake had been "quoting liberals." But in contrast with Coulter's characterization of the economists as politically motivated and "defending Roe v. Wade," they explicitly stated in the conclusion of the 2001 paper that their findings should not be construed as an argument for or against legalized abortion:
While falling crime rates are no doubt a positive development, our drawing a link between falling crime and legalized abortion should not be misinterpreted as either an endorsement of abortion or a call for intervention by the state in the fertility decisions of women. Furthermore, equivalent reductions in crime could in principle be obtained through alternatives for abortion, such as more effective birth control, or providing better environments for those children at greatest risk for future crime.
Levitt made a similar point during an online debate with right-wing columnist Steve Sailer in 1999 on Slate.com shortly after Levitt and Donohue published a preliminary version of their paper. On the first day of the discussion, Levitt clarified that the paper was concerned only with "identifying a relationship between social phenomena," not "endorsing such a relationship":
Our paper is a descriptive exercise attempting to explain why crime fell. While our paper highlights one benefit of allowing women to determine whether or not to bring pregnancies to term, we make no attempt to systematically analyze the many possible costs and benefits of legalized abortion. Consequently, we can make no judgment as to whether legalized abortion is good or bad. In no way does our paper endorse abortion as a form of birth control. In no way does our paper suggest that the government should restrict any woman's right to bear children. Although these are the most interesting issues for the media to discuss, our paper actually has very little to say on such topics.
I think the crux of the misinterpretation of our study is that critics of our work fail to see the distinction between identifying a relationship between social phenomena and endorsing such a relationship. When a scientist presents evidence that global warming is occurring, it does not mean that he or she favors global warming, but merely that the scientist believes such a phenomenon exists. That is precisely our position with respect to the link between abortion and crime: We are not arguing that such a relationship is good or bad, merely that it appears to exist.
More recently, in Freakonomics, Levitt and Dubner reprinted the original warning that the findings of the 2001 study should not be misinterpreted as "an endorsement of abortion" [p.115]. The authors further made clear that their intentions in highlighting the paper's conclusions were not to celebrate abortion as a crime-fighting tool:
To discover that abortion was one of the greatest crime-lowering factors in American history is, needless to say, jarring. It feels less Darwinian than Swiftian; it calls to mind a long ago dart attributed to G.K. Chesterton: when there aren't enough hats to go around, the problem isn't solved by lopping off some heads. The crime drop was, in the language of economists, an "unintended benefit" of legalized abortion. But one need not oppose abortion on moral or religious grounds to feel shaken by the notion of a private sadness being converted into a public good. [p. 141]
Also misleading is Coulter's subsequent claim that Lott proved Levitt and Donohue "were cooking the books" and that their original thesis "wasn't true." Coulter was referring to a 2001 paper written by Lott and economist John E. Whitley purporting to debunk Levitt and Donohue's conclusions. Lott and Whitley claimed that the abortion data used in the study was flawed. But in a May 2005 weblog entry, Levitt assailed Lott's paper as containing "inaccurate claims, errors and statistical mistakes." He then proceeded to assert that Lott's argument had itself been debunked, as well as contradicted by other economists who have taken issue with the original study:
Virtually nothing in this paper [by Lott and Whitley] is correct, and it is no coincidence that four years later it remains unpublished. In a letter to the editor at Wall Street Journal, Lott claims that our results are driven by the particular measure of abortions that we used in the first paper. I guess he never bothered to read our response to [researcher Ted] Joyce in which we show in Table 1 that the results are nearly identical when we use his preferred data source. It is understandable that he could make this argument five years ago, but why would he persist in making it in 2005 when it has been definitively shown to be false? (I'll let you put on your Freakonomics-thinking-hat and figure out the answer to that last question.) As Lott and Whitley are by now well aware, the statistical results they get in that paper are an artifact of some bizarre choices they made and any reasonable treatment of the data returns our initial results. (Even Ted Joyce, our critic, acknowledges that the basic patterns in the data we report are there, which Lott and Whitley were trying to challenge.)
Lott is notorious for his dishonest twisting of data to suit an ideological agenda, as Media Matters has previously noted. He has been caught using fraudulent data, claiming to have conducted a survey that many suspect never took place (and blaming the disappearance of data purportedly backing up the study on a hard-drive crash), and creating a false Internet identity ("Mary Rosh") to offer phony third-party defenses of his work.
From the October 5 edition of Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor:
O'REILLY: Would you agree with me that generalizing about any race in America, you shouldn't do it? Would you agree with that?
COULTER: I don't know in the abstract, but I think it's unfortunate that Bill Bennett said this. He's clearly not a racist. I can see why it hurt people's feelings. I mean, [Fox News political contributor] Juan Williams made a devastating case on that.
COULTER: The one sort of good thing about this is it finally brings light to something my newspaper, Human Events, and the National Right to Life Society has been screaming from the rooftops since it came out. These two economists came out with a study in 2001, seriously making this point, not as a thought experiment to shoot down, defending Roe v. Wade on the grounds that it reduced crime with a wink and a nod about what that meant. And by the way, economist John Lott, as well as another economist, then looked it over and said, you know, they were cooking the books. It wasn't even true. But yes, I think it's very dangerous to repeat the obscene things liberals say even just to shoot it down.
O'REILLY: Whoa, whoa, whoa. How did the liberals get in there?
COULTER: It was the liberal economist defending Roe v. Wade by saying -- this is this 2001 report -- from Professor Donahue at Stanford and Levitt at Chicago. This was a serious argument made by liberals.
O'RELLY: Bennett's mistake -- and you know, the tragedy of it is, as I pointed out --
COULTER: Was quoting liberals.
O'REILLY: No, his mistake was generalizing about race. You just simply can't do it in this country and survive, particularly if you're on the right. Now, Jesse Jackson can say "Hymietown" and survive, but Bennett can't make that kind of a generalization and survive. He just can't -- well, he'll survive. But the tragedy of it is the man does a lot of good personally, and so does his wife, to help African-Americans, much more so than most of his critics will ever do. But I got a letter today from a black American who said to me, you know, in this case what Bennett said negates all of his good works. And I just think that's so sad.
COULTER: Yes, I don't think that's true. I think it's unfortunate, but Bennett is a great man. He's certainly not a racist. And like I say, this is an argument that was made seriously by liberals in 2001. Why didn't it get all this attention then?
O'REILLY: It was a poverty argument, though. There wasn't a race argument. It was a poverty argument.
COULTER: Everybody knew what it was about.