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Looking beyond the obvious

The flap of a butterfly’s wings in Central Park could ultimately cause an earthquake in China. So say the proponents of chaos theory, who use the “butterfly effect” to describe how small and apparently insignificant incidents can set in motion a chain of events with far-reaching consequences.So what butterfly flapped its wings, and when did it flap them to cause the drastic drop in violent crime (murder, robbery and assault) across the United States? Major crime in the U.S. has been declining steadily since 1994. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics National Crime Victimization Survey, from 2000 to 2001 the violent crime rate declined 10 percent, reaching the lowest level in the survey’s history. “Something terrific is going on,” says Andrew Karmen, a prominent criminologist at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “If only we knew what was causing it.”Some academic observers argue that the decreasing crime rate is a complex phenomenon caused in part by demographics, economics, and consolidation and retrenchment in the drug trade. Others attribute gun control and clever police strategies as the reason for the astounding decrease in violent crime. Law enforcement officials will credit smarter policing, ranging from campaigns against “quality of life” offenses in big cities across the country -public drinking and aggressive panhandling, which can lead to violent crimes – to a focus on the worst felons. They also tell us the computerized crime analysis system called Compstat allows them track where crime is spiking, which in turn allows them to respond quickly.But dramatic effects often have very distant and subtle causes, and there may be merit to the theory proffered by academic Steven Leavitt, an economics professor at the University of Chicago, and his partner John Donahue, who claim to have identified “the butterfly” behind this national phenomenon.In the early 1990s, violent crime was companion to all of us. We could hardly read a daily paper or listen to the evening news without fearing for our well-being; but that began changing in the mid-’90s and has continued until today.So what could have caused the teenage murder rate to drop by 50 percent between 1995 and 2000 instead of climbing 15 percent a year as it had during the previous decade? Why did the number of murders in New York, our largest city, drop from 2,245 in 1990 to 596 in 2003?Leavitt and Donahue postulate that the butterfly’s name was McCorvey, Norma McCorvey to be exact, and the date her wings began flapping was Jan. 22, 1973. If that name sounds familiar, it should, because Norma McCorvey was a poor, uneducated, unskilled, alcoholic, drug-using 21-year-old woman who was pregnant for the third time and wanted an abortion, which was illegal in Texas at the time. Norma McCovey became the lead plaintiff in the case against Henry Wade, the Dallas County district attorney, in what was to become Roe v. Wade.So what social “air currents” did Norma McCorvey disturb? To begin with, not all children are born equal. Some are born into adverse situations, and study after study has shown the children raised in adverse environments are far more likely to become criminals than children born into more desirable backgrounds.The basic contention is that the women who are most likely to have abortions are young, poor, uneducated and unmarried; and since children from those situations are more likely to become criminals than children from more desirable backgrounds, the logical extrapolation is that fewer potential criminals are being born subsequent to Roe v. Wade. In a policy brief released just four months ago by the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy, 19 studies concluded that children from non-intact or single-parent homes had a higher rate of crime and delinquency. In reviewing those studies, US News & World Report stated, “Neighborhoods with lots of out-of-wedlock births have lots of crime. More ominously, the more single-parent families there were in a neighborhood, the more crime there was among two-parent kids living around them.” Also according to US News & World Report these studies were controlled for race, gender, age, educational level of parents and income. Statistics bearing out this phenomenon are not limited to the United States, where coincidentally, the states with the highest abortion rates have also experienced the greatest decline in violent crime. The same trend holds true in Eastern Europe and in Scandinavia. A similar link between crime rate and abortion has also been born out in Australia and Canada as well.Shortly after Leavitt and Donahue published their “abortion paper,” The New York Times Magazine wrote, “These findings should not be interpreted as either an endorsement for abortion or a call for intervention by the state in the fertility decisions by women.” Nevertheless, this theory will be hotly debated and is sure to cause a high degree of discordance among pro-life and pro-choice constituencies. Whether Steven Leavitt and John Donahue are correct in their hypothesis is subject to debate. But the notion that dramatic effects “sometimes have distant and sometimes subtle causes” is worthy of examination in many aspects of our lives.Butch Mazzuca, a local Realtor and ski instructor, writes a weekly column for the Daily. He can be reached at bmazz68@earthlink.net Vail, Colorado


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