|Richard Dawkins (source)|
@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
I've read Dawkins' apology, Abortion & Down Syndrome: An Apology for Letting Slip the Dogs of Twitterwar and at some level I can agree with him. Although, even the title irritates me because it screams non-pology to me -- it implies he's not apologizing for anything other than causing a ruckus.
But then Twitter is no place for implications or nuance. It's definitely no place for expressing opinions about difficult and complex issues. Dawkins, as an accomplished author really should be aware of this and it leads me to think that he really doesn't understand that this is a complicated and highly emotional subject.
That’s what I would have said, if a woman were to ask my advice. As you might notice, it takes a lot more than 140 characters! I condensed it down to a tweet, and the result was understandably seen in some quarters as rather heartless and callous: “Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice.” Of course I regret using abbreviated phraseology which caused so much upset. I never wanted to “cry havoc”!That's an understatement! Here's what Dawkins would have said if he had more than 140 characters -- like in a blog or even a book!
“Obviously the choice would be yours. For what it’s worth, my own choice would be to abort the Down fetus and, assuming you want a baby at all, try again. Given a free choice of having an early abortion or deliberately bringing a Down child into the world, I think the moral and sensible choice would be to abort. And, indeed, that is what the great majority of women, in America and especially in Europe, actually do. I personally would go further and say that, if your morality is based, as mine is, on a desire to increase the sum of happiness and reduce suffering, the decision to deliberately give birth to a Down baby, when you have the choice to abort it early in the pregnancy, might actually be immoral from the point of view of the child’s own welfare. I agree that that personal opinion is contentious and needs to be argued further, possibly to be withdrawn. In any case, you would probably be condemning yourself as a mother (or yourselves as a couple) to a lifetime of caring for an adult with the needs of a child. Your child would probably have a short life expectancy but, if she did outlive you, you would have the worry of who would care for her after you are gone. No wonder most people choose abortion when offered the choice. Having said that, the choice would be entirely yours and I would never dream of trying to impose my views on you or anyone else.”I'll agree that most of it was in the delivery. Dawkins, who is falsely portrayed regularly by religious media as some kind of Pope of the Atheists speaking for countless mindless followers, should be aware that tweets like the above without proper qualification that 'for what it's worth, my own choice would be to abort' is absolutely essential for it not to come off as some sort moral decree from on high. This isn't Dawkins' fault, it's just a sad reality.
It is also true that the majority of people do, indeed, abort early to avoid having a child with Down's Syndrome. In fact, my wife and I were pressured quite a bit to get amniocentesis. The doctor informed us it would be so we could screen against Down's. However, we both had previously decided we would not abort to prevent against Down's. We did not see this as immoral like Dawkins does.
I personally would go further and say that, if your morality is based, as mine is, on a desire to increase the sum of happiness and reduce suffering, the decision to deliberately give birth to a Down baby, when you have the choice to abort it early in the pregnancy, might actually be immoral from the point of view of the child’s own welfare.I think this contains the very false assumption that children with Down's Syndrome automatically reduce the sum of happiness. Who's happiness? What sort of happiness?
Although more challenging -- and perhaps fraught with some more suffering -- parents of Downs syndrome children do find themselves happy. In the end, all of parenting contains sacrifice and suffering! I've read several articles by parents of Down children who simply do not understand what Dawkins is talking about and are not the slightest bit impressed with his judgement that their children do not contribute to human happiness. What is Dawkins saying here?
The children themselves are often happy as well. They are kids, after all. They are not in constant pain. As far as I can tell, they are not suffering.
In any case, you would probably be condemning yourself as a mother (or yourselves as a couple) to a lifetime of caring for an adult with the needs of a child. Your child would probably have a short life expectancy but, if she did outlive you, you would have the worry of who would care for her after you are gone. No wonder most people choose abortion when offered the choice.Yes. I think these are all important things to consider for couples. I agree that it is wrong to force this upon anyone and to do so would likely breed terrible resentment and frustration that would be counterproductive to both parent and child. I've seen this before with some parents of autistic children who have left some horrible comments on my blog about how they cannot stand their children. These are people who -- if the technology existed -- probably should have opted to abort early to reduce suffering.
That said, we know what Dawkins would do -- and I'm fine with that. And we know what other parents would do -- also fine. The problem was with Dawkins' delivery and his automatic assumption that Down Syndrome is a net negative -- a non-contribution to society. It sort of implies he means a drag on society. I'll go no further. I don't want to drag this downhill, but you can probably tell where this path can lead in the minds of some of his readers.
@InYourFaceNYer People on that spectrum have a great deal to contribute, Maybe even an enhanced ability in some respects. DS not enhanced.
— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) August 20, 2014
I don't know what he bases this on. Is it his own personal experience or something more? It is this absolute judgement which disturbs me the most. He is here comparing one broad spectrum of functionality with another and calling one a enhancement and another a negative.
It's undeniable that there are autistic people with a complex of delays and disabilities which can place them far below the functionality of many Down's people -- as far as society judges them and as far as their abilities to be self-sufficient and autonomous. I've also read articles about the great ability to carry on friendships and to express love possessed by many children with Downs Syndrome which could be judged by broader society as excelling the social skills of some autistic people. This is not black and white, and I think this tweet sums up Dawkins' seeming inabilities to see the greys and at least acknowledge them.
And yes, I have concerns about how my son will get on in the world and so does another father of an autistic child I've spoken with. There's just one thing. This is thinking very very far into a future we know nothing about. The quality of care depends very much on the society we will live in and our own circumstances. The future is unknown. Anything can happen.
I have no ill-will towards Dawkins. I think he's done a lot of excellent work and it was his book The God Delusion that finally gave me the resolve to call myself an atheist. Like me, he is a human being with ideas and feelings and a father. On this topic, we do not see eye-to-eye and that's okay -- he doesn't speak for all atheists all the time.