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The Effect of Statutory Rape Laws on Teen Birth Rates

69 Pages Posted: 9 Jun 2013 Last revised: 14 Sep 2015

Michael Frakes

Duke University School of Law

Matthew C. Harding

Stanford University - Department of Economics

Date Written: June 6, 2013


Policymakers have often been explicit in expanding statutory rape laws to reduce teenage pregnancies and live births by teenage mothers, often with the goal of reducing associated welfare outlays. In this paper, we explore whether expansions in such laws are indeed associated with reductions in teen birth rates. In order to codify statutory-rape-law expansions, we use a national micro-level sample of sexual encounters to simulate the degree to which such encounters generally implicate the relevant laws. By codifying statutory-rape laws in terms of their potential reach into sexual encounters, as opposed to using crude binary treatment variables, this simulation approach facilitates the use of multi-state difference-in-difference designs in the face of highly heterogeneous legal structures. Our results suggest that live birth rates for teenage mothers fall by roughly 4.5 percent (or 0.1 percentage points) upon a 1 standard-deviation increase in the share of sexual activity among a given age group that triggers a felony for the elder party to the encounter. This response, however, is highly heterogeneous across ages and weakens notably in the case of the older teen years. Furthermore, we do not find strong results suggesting a further decline in birth rates upon increases in punishment severities.

Keywords: criminal law, deterrence, statutory rape, public health

JEL Classification: K14, K42, I18

Suggested Citation

Frakes, Michael and Harding, Matthew C., The Effect of Statutory Rape Laws on Teen Birth Rates (June 6, 2013). Cornell Legal Studies Research Paper No. 13-89. Available at SSRN: or

Michael Frakes (Contact Author)

Duke University School of Law ( email )

210 Science Drive
Box 90362
Durham, NC 27708
United States

Matthew C. Harding

Stanford University - Department of Economics ( email )

Landau Economics Building
579 Serra Mall
Stanford, CA 94305-6072
United States
650-723-4116 (Phone)

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