Richard Dawkins, abortion, disability, and human suffering

Most of the people who pay attention to Richard Dawkins probably remember exactly which tweetstorm I’m referring to, but, for anyone who doesn’t, here’s the quick version:

Some years back, when a woman made a passing comment in a Twitter discussion that she didn’t know what she’d do if she found she was pregnant with a fetus with Down’s syndrome, Dawkins responded with the bald statement “Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice.” Faced with a storm of outrage in response, he followed this up with a ‘sorry if you were offended’ post in which he explained that his beliefs on the matter were based on his ‘desire to increase the sum of happiness and reduce suffering’ and that thus giving birth to a baby with Down’s Syndrome rather than having an abortion ‘might actually be immoral from the point of view of the child’s own welfare’.

This was, as I say, several years ago, but was brought up again a few weeks ago in a radio interview in which the host (after stating that he himself had a child with Down’s Syndrome) asked him about this view. (Hemant Mehta on the Friendly Atheist blog at Patheos has a transcript of this part of the interview, for anyone who wants to check out what Dawkins said without listening to the whole thing.) Dawkins has dialled it back at least somewhat; if he learned nothing else from the previous brouhaha, he does at least seem to have learned the practical wisdom of trying to avoid getting too inflammatory on the subject. However, from what he says here, it’s clear he still holds the general view of thinking that it’s advisable – the exact phrase he used was ‘wise and sensible’ – to abort a fetus diagnosed with a disability rather than continue the pregnancy.

In case anyone reading this isn’t clear on why people have objected so vehemently to this viewpoint: To reach this belief, it’s necessary to be working from the assumption that disability is likely to impact a person’s life so adversely that it will prevent them from ever having as good a quality of life as a non-disabled person. This is an inaccurate and horribly ablist belief that, in itself, impacts adversely on the lives of disabled people by contributing to myths about disability and by sending an unfortunate message about which lives are or aren’t worth living. I have every sympathy for anyone who’s felt the need to choose abortion for themselves when faced with this situation – we live in a society where support for disabled people and their carers is sadly lacking – but treating abortion as some sort of advisable optimum solution to a diagnosis of fetal Down’s Syndrome or other disabilities is reprehensibly ablist.

That’s the obvious reason, and the one that reactions focused on at the time this happened. However, when Mehta’s post brought this up in my mind again, I realised there was also a second problem with Dawkins’ approach that got somewhat obscured by the extent to which he’d offended everyone with the first problem. I thought it was worth mentioning now: Dawkin’s formulation of ‘abortion advisable here because that’ll reduce suffering’ also completely ignores the experience of the person who would have to go through with the abortion.

Now, there is a huge range of possible reactions to having had an abortion, and I do not wish anyone to misread this post as some kind of claim about the supposed miseries of abortion; there are plenty of people out there whose main reaction post-abortion was ‘Thank goodness for that’. However, that isn’t really representative of the experience of people who have abortions for a diagnosis of fetal disability. Abortions for fetal disability are usually on pregnancies that were otherwise wanted. On top of that, they are, on the whole, carried out later in pregnancy than the average abortion; most abortions are done in the first trimester, but, because of the need to reach particular gestational stages before tests for disability can be performed, most abortions for disability are done in the second trimester, and on rare occasions even in the third. This makes them significantly harder both physically and emotionally.

The result of these factors is that abortions carried out for disability are typically, overall, some of the most difficult and distressing abortion experiences; in short, they cause suffering. Now, obviously, there are many times when people faced with this choice decide abortion is going to cause less suffering than continuing the pregnancy, and that is a choice that I believe should remain available for any individual in this situation. But ‘aborting a disabled fetus causes less suffering than continuing the pregnancy’ is absolutely not a blanket one-size-fits-all rule, because there are so many times when the reverse is true.

What all this means is that when Dawkins assumed abortion was the more moral choice because it would reduce levels of human suffering, he was not only making offensively ablist assumptions about disability equating to suffering; he was also showing utter disregard for the suffering that this would cause for pregnant people in this situation. It’s not that he actually wants them to suffer; he doesn’t. It’s that, when he weighs up what he believes to be the different degrees of suffering, it doesn’t even occur to him to include the feelings of the pregnant person in there. That factor simply isn’t on his radar.

Dawkins is, in fact, providing a sterling example of the Dunning-Kruger effect; the effect of having so little knowledge about a situation or issue that you don’t actually recognise your ignorance. He’s saying what seems right and reasonable to him, because he genuinely does not realise that disabilities such as Down’s don’t have the degree of negative impact on life that he’s picturing, or that abortion for disability is as hard to go through as it is. But, unfortunately, he hasn’t realised that when you don’t know much about an issue, it’s a good idea to avoid making categorical pronouncements about it, and also a good idea to listen to people who know more about it if they’re trying to set you right. And he hasn’t realised the importance of listening to people about their own lives and experiences. Which is a terrible shame, because that certainly is a wise, sensible, and moral thing to do.



  1. K says

    Speaking as someone with a family member who is profoundly disabled, I say it is up to the pregnant person to decide whether or not to bring a disabled child into the world. Dr. Sarah, you live and work in a place with adequate, non-bankrupting medical care and in a society where it’s not vital that every adult in the family work at least one job just to provide food and shelter.

    Not every DS person is like the “inspiring” ones seen on tv, who act, write poetry, and can live on their own. Some have the mental function of an 8-month old and multiple serious health problems (dental, vision, hearing, palate, heart, lungs) that provide no decent quality of life but do bankrupt the family from medical bills and guarantee any other children in the family are neglected due to the time and attention from the overworked parents.

    This is why it should be a decision made by the pregnant person what to do with a disabled fetus.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    … he hasn’t realised that when you don’t know much about an issue, it’s a good idea to avoid making categorical pronouncements about it, and also a good idea to listen to people who know more about it if they’re trying to set you right.

    Oh, Dawkins does realize this about creationists – he just hasn’t figured out it applies to any category which includes himself.

  3. Dr Sarah says

    @K: Agree completely. Even though my country has the advantages you named, support for both the disabled and their carers is often still a long way off what it should be. Giving birth to a disabled child can be the equivalent to signing up as a lifetime as a carer, and that’s a big enough job to take on that I think it always needs to be the choice of the person concerned. And then there are some disabilities that really are just inherently awful to cope with; some are fatal, some mean continuous pain.

    It’s a subject complicated hugely by profoundly ablist views in society, which mean that a lot of pregnant people getting a diagnosis of disability are influenced by the same kind of negative stereotyping Dawkins shows, and/or are pressured by other people who feel that way. But I’d rather work on that by working on ablism, rather than by strictures on abortion.

  4. Dr Sarah says

    @Pierce R. Butler: Good point, and that’s a sad thing. A real lack of self-awareness there.

  5. Matthew Currie says

    I would add that the Dawkins approach requires a very biased view of whose happiness counts. Long ago I worked for an organization that cared for persons then called “mentally handicapped adults,” which included a number of people with Down’s syndrome. Of course this handicap has many levels of severity, and to qualify for residence at that place required a certain level of competence (basic abilities such as dressing and the like, and a certain level of self-awareness, community, etc.). And without a doubt, the people in this place were privileged: they had considerable support, not only from families in most cases, but from the State of New York.

    But at least in that group one would have had to count the happiness level as very high indeed. Persons with Down’s syndrome tend to be, not only unusually nice, but quite happy. Most of the Down’s people there were glad and proud to have a productive place in a community that recognized their abilities and inabilities, and it would be a warped sensibility indeed to characterize them as anything but happy. Who has the right to judge what quality of life counts and what does not?

    If you’re going to be utilitarian about overall happiness, you should probably be promoting Down’s not aborting it.

  6. Katydid says

    @Matthew; so, you were involved with a community that was very high-functioning and had their needs catered to, and you were–what–shocked to find they were happy?

    How about a grown DS adult with the mental age of a toddler, with multiple medical problems that cause significant problems breathing, seeing, hearing, eating? Medical problems that need frequent surgeries, with hospital stays with strangers and they can’t possibly grasp why they’re with strangers and they scream nonstop for days on end?

    Who has the right to judge the quality of life for those plunged into physical and emotional poverty trying to meet the never-ending needs of caring for someone in that condition and the agony of watching helplessly as they suffer for decades?

    Bottom line, it should be up to the person who is pregnant to decide for themselves how their body should be used. There is only one person affected in an abortion; the pregnant person. Fetuses are insentient.

  7. Matthew Currie says

    I was not at all shocked to find them happy. I am shocked at the suggestion by some that they are not, or that it somehow does not count. And peripherally, at the suggestion that their interaction with family and the rest of the world cannot be positive.

    I am quite willing to acknowledge that this situation can vary enormously and that the choice should be made carefully by those whose lives are impacted. But it would appear that Dawkins is not talking about this gradation, but simply suggesting that a handicap is a disqualification for living, on the basis of what seems to me an arbitrary definition of “quality of life.”

    It is to this last bit that I object: that he seems, at least, to suggest that a life led without his presumed level of intellectual distinction or cultural importance has insufficient quality, and that we are all better off if such persons do not exist.

    It is indeed, I think, up to a pregnant person to decide, whether on issues of the fetus’s future quality of life, or other factors that are none of our business, what to do. I agree that a fetus is not sentient, and that choice should be in the hands of the parent. Perhaps I’m mistaken here, but it seems to me that Dawkins was not talking about what should be allowed but what should be done. And that, I think, is none of his business either.

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