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Richard Dawkins: abort Down’s Syndrome foetuses because “it would be immoral to bring it into the world”

In the recent past while he was telling people who were raped how they should think about their rape, I tweeted a guide to Richard Dawkins’ PR habits.

It was retweeted quite a lot at the time, and in the last few hours it’s started getting shared again. Seemingly, I have invented for myself a Richard-Dawkins-saying-something-awful detector. He’s at it again:

Where abortion is judged the moral option for the would-be child, a kind of euthanasia in advance, it’s because birth will result in something worse: incurable, unbearable pain, say. That’s the easiest example ethically, and we can argue about what else might qualify, but the point is that whatever life the child stands to have must be worse than not being born.

Is Down’s Syndrome worse than not being born? Most people with it don’t appear to think so. At least, they don’t appear as a rule to wish they’d never been born. My guess is that Dawkins, who never seems to grasp the idea of subjectivity, is presuming again to speak for other people – in this case those with DS. Perhaps he sees it as a ‘birth defect’, as many of his generation seem to see a wide variety of conditions – but most of the time, as a friend pointed out, people with disabilities tend to think their lives are worth living. You run into eugenics pretty quickly when you decide who’s ‘defective’ and who isn’t without consulting them.

To the original context of his tweet, I do think termination due to foetal disability should be legally available – partly since there are prospective parents without the proper means to raise a disabled child, but mostly since I think abortion should always be available. I support the legality of sex-selective abortion, even as I think it’s horrifying; I support the legality of Down’s Syndrome abortions even as I think they’re often horrible, and certainly if framed as morally obligatory. I support the right of anyone to end their pregnancy who doesn’t want to give birth, even if the rationale is horrific, because I don’t believe in forcing people to against their will. (Urging women or anyone with a uterus to abort because of a Down’s diagnosis is itself, in any case, using disability to tell them what to do with their own bodies. It’s what Dawkins is doing and what doctors did to my mother, who at 42 was urged throughout her pregnancy to abort in case I had DS.)

All this is quite different from saying the existence of people with Down’s Syndrome – for which they are presumably quite grateful – is a terrible moral crime, or that living with it is worse than never being born.

I have, for the record, neither a disability nor a uterus, so am happier than usual to be contradicted anywhere by people who know things I don’t.

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Comments

  1. dshetty says

    Most people with it don’t appear to think so. At least, they don’t appear as a rule to wish they’d never been born
    I don’t think this is a valid argument against Dawkins (Its along the lines of a pro-lifer’s aren’t you happy you weren’t aborted?) – Dawkins is however missing what parents in the situation actually go through – and to claim that one decision is the more *ethical* one in a tweet is stupid.

  2. smrnda says

    I kind of wonder if Dawkins has ever had any contact with anyone with Down’s Syndrome; I’m kind of wondering, given his response, if he’s had any contact with people with disabilities, which I find surprising since we are rather prevalent in society.

  3. A Hermit says

    “Urging women or anyone with a uterus to abort because of a Down’s diagnosis is itself, in any case, using disability to tell them what to do with their own bodies.”

    That’s the heart of the matter right there.

  4. says

    So well put Alex – Thank you.

    I would like to repeat – the issue with Dawkins lack of ability to work though this without stepping in giant piles of excrement is NOT abortion but his de-contextualized treatment of a person with Down’s Syndrome and disability issues in general. This is not about abortion.

    There are plenty of people who think a life with ALS for instance would be a horror beyond ability to cope. But cope people do. Clearly – Stephen Hawking might have things different – but, as he only has the cards he was dealt – I am guessing he still thought his life was worth living… being particular to him and there for special to him (and everyone that loves him.) He’s a genius of course, so Dawkins has to concede his worth. But most of the people with or without ALS are average humans.

    This is not an argument to an absolute right to life – for ANY foetus. That absolute right doesn’t exist. But let’s consider that ablist people OFTEN deem the lives of people with disabilities “not worth living.” They do this while maintaining the status quo which is:

    A world fully built up to be inaccessible. ie. people with mobility issues are NOT disabled in a built environment that doesn’t exclude them by default. It’s a DESIGN issue.

    This is true of technology, software, work-life policy, family leave policy, the construction of the family as a private care facility where women tend to (children, elderly parents and adults with disabilities) in the absence of adequate public commitment to social integration and design accommodations to people who have disabilities… and the needs of their extended families and caretakers (should they use them.)

    YES…it can be hard, shitty awful dealing with ablists and a world designed completely BY them…but it’s the cherry on top of the shit Sunday when they say – globally, that our lives do no matter, are not “worth living” and they are not going to do anything to make that different, less hard or less shitty. Of course living with a disability is not ALL shitty all the time. But a great deal of the time – when it’s shitty – it’s because we live in a world constructed by atomised, individualist – ablists like Dawkins. I hope he is never brought down by dementia and in need of bodily care – but I imagine even then he will have his own reasons for living.

    This is not to say families MUST bring these pregnancies to term – it’s not a right to life argument…

    It’s a right to not be treated like shit once you get here argument.

    His puffery around being the Vulcan in the room notwithstanding…. He really needs to stick to his wheelhouse – biology.

    He’s an embarrassment at this point. And he hurts people.

  5. Ichthyic says

    Is Down’s Syndrome worse than not being born?

    it’s irrelevant.

    what’s relevant is that whatever Dawkins’ decision was on the subject, he decided that was the moral thing to do for… everyone.

    aside from the fact he will never, ever, have to make the decision for himself anyway.

  6. Ichthyic says

    “Urging women or anyone with a uterus to abort because of a Down’s diagnosis is itself, in any case, using disability to tell them what to do with their own bodies.”

    That’s the heart of the matter right there.

    it’s even simpler. It’s just another man, telling women what to do with their bodies, and make their choices for them.

    it’s beyond pathetic.

    I wish we could memory hole it, but it’s far too late for that. Can we get a petition together to submit to Twitter just to have Dawkins account permanently suspended?

  7. leni says

    aside from the fact he will never, ever, have to make the decision for himself anyway.

    Yep. But he sure knows enough about it to fire off the one-size-fits-all solution in a single tweet.

    If he had said Harlequin baby I’d probably have been there right with him. But he didn’t. He said that about fucking Down syndrome. Double asshole.

    Can we get a petition together to submit to Twitter just to have Dawkins account permanently suspended?

    You can get a petition for anything!

    But honestly, I think maybe someone just needs to hack his phone to endure his tweets never see the light of day. He could keep patting himself on the back for his quick, decisively assholish and arguably stupid tweets, and we could continue having respect for him. Win-win!

  8. Spatula el Vatnos says

    [quote]Is Down’s Syndrome worse than not being born? Most people with it don’t appear to think so. At least, they don’t appear as a rule to wish they’d never been born. My guess is that Dawkins, who never seems to grasp the idea of subjectivity, is presuming again to speak for other people – in this case those with DS. Perhaps he sees it as a ‘birth defect’, as many of his generation seem to see a wide variety of conditions – but most of the time, as a friend pointed out, people with disabilities tend to think their lives are worth living. You run into eugenics pretty quickly when you decide who’s ‘defective’ and who isn’t without consulting them.[/quote]

    Most people with it? What about most parents who’ve had to raise disabled kids? Most children who grew up with a severely mentally handicapped sibling? Do their feelings not matter? Once someone is born they have a will to survive, and it takes an awful lot to wrest that away from them. But I think if you examine the experiences of siblings of the severely mentally handicapped, you’ll find some pretty strong feelings. Very often they spend their childhood just looking after the other kid.

    I think that Dawkins had poor bedside manner, as usual, but his underlying opinion is understandable. 90% of pregnant mothers who find their fetus has Down’s syndrome choose to abort, so it’s a pretty common opinion. I think that it’s not merely how enjoyable someone’s life is but the range of opportunities they start out with. Why set someone up to be so limited in what their life can be when you have the option to make sure your kids start out with more?

    The people who think it IS a life worth living have just not been making a compelling enough argument for why the down’s syndrome fetus these parents are choosing to abort is a more deserving life than the next kid they’d have if they aborted and tried again. From the parent’s perspective they’re weighing the opportunities for their kids.

  9. says

    @Ichthyic (#5): When you’re saying imposing a life with DS on someone would be ‘immoral’, it is not irrelevant whether or not it’s worse than not being born.

    @Spatula (#8): Aborting a DS foetus because you’re not personally able/prepared to care for the child adequately ≠ calling life with Down’s worse than not being born/saying it’s immoral to give birth to someone with it on their behalf.

  10. Ichthyic says

    it is not irrelevant whether or not it’s worse than not being born.

    yes, it is.

    if I tell you it’s immoral to have an abortion, I tell you that it is immoral NOT to have an abortion, or I tell you it’s immoral not to have an abortion “if x condition exists”, then the point is… I’m using my own set of rationalizations, and calling that a morality, and thus concluding it’s “the right thing to do” for everyone.

    the point isn’t the circumstances, the point is Dawkins claiming his beliefs are the MORAL ones.

    clear now?

  11. Ichthyic says

    OTOH, if I said, “for me, I couldn’t justify personally raising a down syndrome child”

    or “for me, I can’t see myself aborting a DS fetus”

    that is not making a moral claim to the person who asked the question.

    there’s a big difference.

  12. carlie says

    The people who think it IS a life worth living have just not been making a compelling enough argument for why the down’s syndrome fetus these parents are choosing to abort is a more deserving life than the next kid they’d have if they aborted and tried again.

    Why is it less deserving?

  13. says

    Your Dawkins Cycle diagram lacks the most important part: Utterly misrepresenting the criticism, to make it look as if they’ve failed to grasp some obviously true point. The “put-upon comments lecturing critics” then defend this very point, while blithely ignoring the fact that no one is questioning it.

    Last time round, he was fervently defending the point that some things are worse than others, and that this can be stated without necessarily defending the less awful thing. The fact that this wasn’t being challenged didn’t seem to occur to him.

    This time round, he’s defending the point that women have the right to choose. Again, the fact that most of his critics believe in “her body, her choice” is completely ignored.

  14. Marianne Baker says

    I think you’re missing an important point there. That women can, do and should be able to choose abortion after DS screening if they choose. Supporting a disabled child is an option many people cannot commit to – or simply do not want to, and that’s a choice we must let people make for themselves. It’s not, at that point, about saying that DS isn’t a condition worth living with, but family planning is an important freedom we need to uphold.

    See this series of tweets, for example:
    https://twitter.com/ershinsays/status/502380129709219840 (and previous)

    His rant is ableist, because he suggests that supporting an individual with DS is somehow not at all acceptable, or that women should ALL and always choose abortion if they discover their foetus has the condition. That’s obviously a pile of crap, and that’s why people are annoyed.

  15. says

    Are you talking to me, Marianne? Because I’d point you to this part if so…

    I do think termination due to foetal disability should be legally available – partly since there are prospective parents without the proper means to raise a disabled child, but mostly since I think abortion should always be available.

  16. Maureen Brian says

    I have been taking your name in vain over on PZ’s “saying you should abort …” thread. Hope OK!

  17. MFHeadcase says

    Part of me thinks Dawkins’ problem is less not understanding subjectivity, but more having convinced himself that his opinion is objective, and that objectivity is automatically superior to subjectivity.

  18. Edward Gemmer says

    Man, did his tweet bring up some uncomfortable feelings. I’m pretty solidly pro-choice, but I didn’t like the idea that giving birth to a person with Down’s Syndrome is “immoral.” OTOH, on what grounds is any decision to abort “moral” or “immoral.” It leads to conclusions like what is presented here – abortion is fine, but any advice on abortion is wrong. That’s profoundly unsatisfying. Abortion should be legal, but it is wrong to talk about what circumstances abortion is proper?

  19. BrotherGilburt says

    “Is Down’s Syndrome worse than not being born?”

    How is not being born even remotely negative? Has a person ever regretted not being born? Having not been born, is a human being suffering in the slightest? No. If you haven’t been born yet, you, as a conscious human being do not exist yet.

    Don’t argue that Down’s syndrome is better than not being born, argue that it’s it doesn’t offset the positive aspects of life. Regardless, the decision is ultimately the parents. As far as I’m concerned, preventing a (potential) child from having to live with Downss syndrome, or any disorder/disease/disability that will likely negatively impact a human being’s life is not a bad thing. It harms no one and can potentially spare a human being from a life of indignity and suffering (in particular with diseases and disorder’s as terrifying as ALS and Huntington’s).

    Am I saying having a child with down’s syndrome is immoral? No, but neither is preventing a human from being born with or without a genetic disorder.

Trackbacks

  1. […] 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 […]

  2. […] Most of Dawkins’ critics aren’t even paid bloggers. That he can’t imagine atheists rebuking him without ulterior motives – that he doesn’t think a rational person could sincerely object to him – speaks to his greatest and best-established flaws: the man has an out-of-control ego and no grasp that there’s more than one point of view. […]

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