On his radio talk show, former Reagan administration official Bill Bennett stated that “it’s true that if you wanted to reduce crime, you could–if that were your sole purpose, you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down. That would be an impossible, ridiculous, and morally reprehensible thing to do, but your crime rate would go down.” This statement by the former Education Secretary and drug czar was deeply offensive, insensitive, ignorant, and hurtful.
Bennett asserts that he was simply engaging in a “thought experiment about public policy.” Apparently, he was inspired by the book Freakanomics, in which Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner posit that legalized abortion has reduced crime rates. However, their argument was that aborted fetuses were likely to have been born into poverty and teenage-parent households. They did not advance Bennett’s race-based argument.
It is true that the lifetime chances of black men going to prison are 18.8 percent, while they are 10 percent for Hispanic men and 3.4 percent for white men.
However, Bennett’s proposition that “blacks cause crime” is extremely misleading and ugly. First, this formulation ignores the poverty rate. In 2004, three times as many blacks (24.7 percent) lived in poverty than whites. It is clear that poverty is related to crime. Second, it ignores sentencing disparities. A report issued by the National Council on Crime and Juvenile Justice found that when minority and white youth were charged with the same crimes, African American youth with no criminal history were six times more likely to be imprisoned than Caucasian youth with similar backgrounds. A case study in Baltimore found that black youth were 100 times more likely to be arrested for selling drugs than white youth, although drug usage among the two groups appeared to be approximately equal.
In his “thought experiment,” Bennett could have more logically used gender instead of race. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, males are 10 times as likely as women to be incarcerated. Therefore, “if your sole purpose” was to reduce crime, it would make much more sense to abort every male fetus instead of every black fetus. If the goal of Bennett’s “thought experiment” was to reduce crime, why didn’t he suggest aborting male fetuses? Apparently, when Bennett’s mind turned to crime, his thoughts turned to race. By singling out blacks, he was engaging in race baiting.
Bennett’s comment is not the first time that a prominent public official has suggested using abortion to reduce the size of the African American population. Margaret Singer, the founder of Planned Parenthood, advocated eugenics. She warned of “black peril” if educated people of Northern European descent did not increase their birth rate. Her motto: “More children from the fit, less from the unfit.” She believed that those who lived in the slums had an “animalistic nature,” and would therefore breed like rabbits and “soon overrun the boundaries of their slum or country, contaminating the better elements of society with diseases and inferior genes.” Her plan for abortion, birth control and sterilization among the “lesser races” would, she said, be the “salvation of American civilization.”
Critics allege that Planned Parenthood does promote abortion among America’s blacks. Studies indicate that almost two-thirds of Planned Parenthood abortion clinics are in neighborhoods with a disproportionately high black population.
Also, blacks have an exceptionally high abortion rate. While blacks constitute about 12 percent of the population, they account for 32 percent of abortions. For every five African American women who get pregnant, three have an abortion.
William Bennett’s statement linking abortion, race, and crime was provocative, foolish, and insensitive. Even a “thought experiment” can be racist.
Ted Rueter is an assistant professor of political science