In case you missed it yesterday, Dawkins had his say on Twitter about the morality of aborting fetuses with Down syndrome. More accurately, he stated that it was immoral not to abort those fetuses.
@InYourFaceNYer Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice.
— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) August 20, 2014
Today, predictably, comes the apology, though as usual, it’s mostly a defense. I appreciate Dawkins’ concern that something he tweeted to one person is being shared widely. I’ve certainly had that happen to me, though if the response to my situation is anything to go by, he won’t find much sympathy among online atheists for that.
Still, Dawkins is who he is, and who he is requires that comments like this be addressed when they become widely known. In his writing, he’s positioned himself as someone who should be listened to on questions of philosophy (most usually theology), and the best-known philosophers in the atheist movement have largely allowed this to stand. He has an immense audience that trusts him to be authoritative on these matters. If he isn’t, enough noise has to be made for people to notice.
The central issue around Dawkins’ position is and should be whether Dawkins is correct about the morality/ethics of giving birth to a child with Down syndrome. This, in turn, requires that he be knowledgeable about the syndrome and accurate in his assumptions about what happens when one fetus is aborted and another conceived. Other people are addressing those concerns well; Alex, bioethicist Iain Brassington, and the Down’s Syndrome Association all challenge his premises. These challenges remains valid even for those premises as restated in the long form.
I don’t want to go there. I have and have had too many kids in my life with significant disabilities, some of them far worse than what is generally expected from Down syndrome. I will not engage in mental math full of arbitrary numbers to calculate the net worth of their lives.
However, as a person whose public response to Dawkins’ tweet yesterday was, “Yay, eugenics”, I do want to address one thing Dawkins said in his defense of his statement. He categorized me in his fourth group of “haters”:
Those who thought I was advocating a eugenic policy and who therefore compared me to Hitler. That never entered my head, nor should it have. Down Syndrome has almost zero heritability. That means that, although it is a congenital condition – a chromosomal abnormality that babies are born with – there is very little tendency for susceptibility to trisomy to be inherited genetically. If you were eugenically inclined, you’d be wasting your time screening for Down syndrome. You’d screen for genuinely heritable conditions where your screening would make a difference to future generations.
While I have no doubt some people compared him to Hitler, as this all happened on the internet, Dawkins hardly needs to reach for a genocidal dictator here. It’s ironic that he did so, given that he’s argued in the past that the two shouldn’t be conflated. By suggesting he is in favor of a policy that constitutes eugenics, one is at least as much comparing him to Francis Galton and Margaret Sanger. More so, given that the policy Dawkins proposed is informal rather than state mandated.
From there, Dawkins goes on to be entirely misleading about what eugenics is and was. He does this by confusing the means that suggested eugenics (selective breeding of humans) with its ends (shaping humanity and society by controlling who is born.
Excerpted text of sign:
Some people are born to be a burden on the rest. Every 15 seconds $100 of your money goes for the care of person with bad heredity such as the insane, feeble-minded, criminals and other defectives. Less of these: Every 48 seconds a person is born in the United States who will never grow up mentally beyond that stage of a normal 8 year old boy or girl. Every 50 seconds a person is committed to jail in the United States. Very few normal persons ever go to jail.
The eugenics movement was not simply a utopian movement urging humanity toward an idyllic future based on a perfected genome. It was also, in its growth and promotion, about weighing the costs to society of each birth in the here and now, much like Dawkins did yesterday.
It doesn’t get much more explicit than that. The ethics of aborting a fetus with Down syndrome is less complicated because people with Down syndrome do not contribute. “To society” is implicit, particularly as Dawkins explicitly notes today that children with Down syndrome do contribute to their parents’ emotional lives.
However, even if we take Dawkins at his word today that his concern is for the “child’s own welfare”, that still doesn’t make his pronouncement about the morality of the choice anything other than eugenics. G. K. Chesterton, in his book Eugenics and Other Evils, explicitly (albeit ornately) identifies that framing within the eugenics movement of the 20th century.
Now the Eugenic moral basis is this; that the baby for whom we are primarily and directly responsible is the babe unborn. That is, that we know (or may come to know) enough of certain inevitable tendencies in biology to consider the fruit of some contemplated union in that direct and clear light of conscience which we can now only fix on the other partner in that union. The one duty can conceivably be as definite as or more definite than the other. The baby that does not exist can be considered even before the wife who does.
And Down syndrome, however heritable, has long been a target of the eugenics movement. In fact, well past the point where eugenics fell out of fashion in the mainstream due to its association with Hitler’s genocidal practices, people with Down syndrome were continuing to be forcibly sterilized. They were refused operations that would prolong their lifespans. Some of them were refused basic care, like feeding.
We continue to identify advocacy intended to keep people with Down syndrome from being born as eugenics today, whether we are talking about a politician who advocates for compulsory abortion or medical professionals who urge patients toward abortion, directly or by providing misleading information. Stating that the moral decision when faced with a fetus with Down syndrome is abortion is another form of advocacy. It is eugenics.
The decision of an individual or a couple to terminate a pregnancy when they discover Down syndrome or another genetic or developmental condition is not eugenics. It is a personal decision, based on people’s assessments of their individual circumstances. It is not a one-size fits all prescription for the rest of the world.
Dawkins’ tweets yesterday were. Even his statement this morning made the claim that allowing a child with Down syndrome to be born increases the amount of suffering in the world (with the implication that a different pregnancy without Down syndrome would not) framed the matter in such a way that abortion was the only moral choice.
That framing, in addition to relying on facts not in evidence, is coercive. The lip service paid to choice doesn’t matter when only one choice is presented as right. That isn’t some dispassionate investigation of logic, even if any such investigation were in evidence. It is advocacy for the abortion of fetuses with Down syndrome.
Such advocacy is eugenics. If Dawkins is going to do this advocacy, he should adopt the name, just as he did when he presented eugenics as a positive choice instead of a negative one.