Choice is minimised

Iain Brassington comments on Dawkins’s Twitter adventure today at the Journal of Medical Ethics blog (which is a subset of the BMJ blog).

Look, I know that Twitter really isn’t the place for nuanced debate.  But, by that token, everyone else should realise that as well – especially intellectual superstars. So how, then, to explain Richard Dawkins’ spectacular foot-in-mouth moment earlier today?

Well, one leg of that explanation would be that actually Dawkins appears not to realize that. I honestly don’t know why, because 1. I know that people very close to him have told him it, and 2. it seems so blindingly obvious once you’ve been using Twitter for awhile, as he has. (Not to mention 3. doing so has blown up in his face about ten times now, and the last time was just three weeks ago.)

But another leg of it would be, I think, that he doesn’t realize it in the moment, and then when it all goes pear-shaped he gets irritated instead of getting quiet. SIWOTI, basically.

So why doesn’t he realize it in the moment? I really don’t know. I would think the problem with today’s would just jump right out at you, while you were typing. I don’t know why such things don’t jump out at him.

I do know a few people like that though – people who just say startlingly rude things to other people, apparently without any idea that they’re saying something rude. On the other hand none of them are famous best-selling Oxford professors.

Brassington quotes the infamous tweet.

Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice.

Oh, crikey. He actually said it. I don’t want to raise the spectre of The Paper Of Which We Do Not Speak, or even to delve into questions of procreative beneficence; what’s important about this is a deeply stupid thing to say in its own right. After all, you can think what you like about the permissibility of abortion, but I don’t think that anyone is really suggesting that a woman who is pregnant ought to abort. The most defenders of abortion would want to say is that it’s permissible to abort.   Procreative beneficence says that you ought to select against “disabled” embryos if only one can be implanted and one is going to be implanted; but it doesn’t say that you ought to terminate a once-begun pregnancy. Nor should it: to make that kind of statement is indefensible for more or less the same reason as a statement to the effect that a woman isn’t allowed to have an abortion – to wit, there’s light years between a right to abort and a duty to abort.  The former is about a woman’s ability to choose what kind of pregnancy she has, and what kind of child she’s willing to gestate; the latter is… well, it’s the opposite of that.  Choice is minimised.

A little dialogue ensued on Twitter:

Dr. Steve Cooke ‏@SteveCooke 2h
@IBrasso @OpheliaBenson it’s easy to forget (more so because Dawkins also forgets) that Dawkins is a scientist not an ethicist.

Synthetic Future(s) ‏@SynFutures 2h
@SteveCooke @IBrasso @OpheliaBenson Is it?!



  1. Athywren says

    I give up.
    “Immoral to bring it into the world”
    I can just about see that being a valid statement if we’re talking about a case where it’s going to live for a few hours after birth before dying a needlessly, horribly painful death, but because it’s diagnosed with Down’s syndrome? Fucking hell.
    Fuck off. Fuck the fucking fuck off, Dawkins. By what objective means have you determined that living with or supporting someone with Down’s syndrome is so intolerable that it is a moral duty to abort them as soon as you discover their status?

  2. says

    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.

  3. screechymonkey says

    I think the problem is that Dawkins doesn’t think there is a “nuanced debate” to be had about the things he’s saying, so Twitter should do just fine.

    I’m sure he’d cheerfully agree that you can’t have an academic discussion about the fine points of (insert some technical biological issue) on Twitter. But “saying X is worse than Y is not an endorsement of Y”? Well, that’s just pure indisputable logic! Anyone who has any issue with what he said needs to “go away and learn how to think,” preferably by getting their pesky emotions out of the way!

    It’s hubris. Not only does he think he’s right about these things, he thinks he’s so obviously and indisputably right that he doesn’t need nuance, and anyone who takes issue with his pronouncements is just being difficult for the sake of it.

    I also get the sense that he sees this as the next step in his personal — dare I say it–evolution.

    First he was a biologist. Then his talents were recognized and he became a professor for the Public Understanding Of Science — not just biology, but all science! Next, religion is fair game for scientific inquiry, so a new chapter in his career began.

    And now, I think he sees himself as the Brave Teller of Hard Truths. Having shown that the emperors of religion have no clothes, in his mind, he’s now in the process of “debunking” (the wrong kind of) feminism and social justice, and moving on to pronounce on moral issues generally. Any push-back he gets can be safely dismissed as the sour grapes of those whose sacred cows have been gored by the bold Knight of Oxford.

  4. John Morales says

    It’s problematic to phrase opinion as fact.
    I think it’s problematic to phrase opinion as fact.

    Both the above are my opinion, but one makes it explicit.

    (Though it is a fact that it’s my opinion)

  5. John Morales says


    screechymonkey @5 provided an excellent example of how to minimise the opportunity for uncharitable reading, as well as the impetus for my previous comment.

  6. screechymonkey says

    Did Hitchens have a Twitter account? I know it wasn’t as big a thing then as it’s become in the last year or two, but it was around.

  7. says

    Well, one leg of that explanation would be that actually Dawkins appears not to realize that. I honestly don’t know why…

    I really think he DOES realize it, and has, in fact, made a conscious choice to use Twitter precisely because its limitations serve his purposes. Twitter is a perfect medium for spouting lies, insults and ignorance; and a really lousy medium for a cogent rebuttal of the aforementioned lies, insults and ignorance; which makes it the best place for liars and morons to get the last word.

    You know how they say a lie can go all around the world while the truth is still lacing up its boots? Twitter amplifies this disparity.

  8. A Hermit says

    it’s easy to forget (more so because Dawkins also forgets) that Dawkins is a scientist not an ethicist.

    I would have said it was blindingly obvious…

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