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When Richard Dawkins tweeted his opinion that children with Down’s Syndrome should be aborted in the womb, the reactions – or “feeding frenzy” to use the Professor’s own description – ranged from abject fury to cheerful defiance.

The most gracious response that I’ve seen is an open letter from JD Flynn, the adoptive parent of two children with Down’s. You can read it all at First Things, but here are a few extracts.

Flynn begins by thanking Dawkins for drawing attention to some under-appreciated facts:

“…in the United States and Europe, most children conceived with Down syndrome are aborted. You’re right. Some experts put the number as high as 90 percent. Others suggest that only 65 percent, or 70 percent, or 80 percent of children with Down syndrome are aborted… You have a platform, Dr. Dawkins, an audience, and in some real way I’m very grateful that you drew attention to the pre-natal eradication of people with Down syndrome.”

Then comes the key point of disagreement:

“But you made your point about the ubiquity of Down syndrome abortion in order to defend a terrible assertion. You suggested on Twitter, Dr. Dawkins, a moral imperative to abort children conceived with Down Syndrome. You said that if a woman had the choice to abort such a child, and she failed to so, she would have acted immorally.”

Dawkins has made it clear that he believes that this is not something that women should be made to do, but rather what they ought to do. Yet while Dawkins is making a ‘pro-choice’ argument, it does contain a further element – as JD Flynn notes:

“This week, you moved from presenting abortion as a morally neutral act to asserting that the abortion of some people—genetically disabled people—is a moral good. A moral imperative, in fact.”

Flynn goes on to challenge the moral basis for the Dawkins argument (which is a utilitarian one – to reduce the sum of human suffering):

“I have two children with Down syndrome. They’re adopted. Their birth-parents faced the choice to abort them, and didn’t. Instead the children came to live with us. They’re delightful children. They’re beautiful. They’re happy. One is a cancer survivor, twice-over. I found that in the hospital, as she underwent chemotherapy and we suffered through agony and exhaustion, our daughter Pia was more focused on befriending nurses and stealing stethoscopes. They suffer, my children, but in the context of irrepressible joy.”

Flynn extends a dinner invitation to Dawkins so that he can see for himself:

“…I wonder, if you played games with them, or shared a joke with them, whether you’d find some worth in their existence.”

Dawkins does not question their right to exist now that they’ve been born – or to quote the man himself:

“I would never dream of saying to any person, ‘You should have been aborted before you were born.’ But that reluctance is fully compatible with a belief that, at a time before a fetus becomes a ‘person’, the decision to abort can be a moral one.”

Still, even for those who do accept that the unborn child is a non-person, Dawkins’ position is a problematic one. If we assume that certain types of individual would most likely add to the sum of human suffering – and, on that basis, we have a moral imperative to stop them from being born, then where do we stop?

Before long, we might have the ability to test for all kinds of genetic traits. So, how many congenital disabilities would we put on the kill list – some of them or all of them? And what about other potentially detectable conditions – a predisposition to depression for instance? Mental illness certainly adds to the sum of human suffering, but in relentlessly enforcing a standard of psychological normality what would we be losing?

And what about other characteristics that can’t be described as medical conditions of any kind, but which might be associated with lower levels of happiness compared to the norm – for instance, membership of a minority defined by, say, ethnicity, sexual orientation, degree of physical attractiveness or IQ level?

Of course, in those cases one could immediately argue that most or all of any unhappiness experienced is caused by the prejudices of an unwelcoming society. Then again, many disabled people might say the same.

40 comments for: Dawkins, Down’s Syndrome and the ethics of abortion

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