Richard Dawkins, atheist author, provocateur, scientist, you must by now be well aware of the furore over your comments yesterday.
‘Abort it and try again‘, was your advice because it is the ‘civilised’ thing to do as ‘they are foetuses, diagnosed before they have human feelings.’
As I watched the Twitter debate unfurl, you continued that you would not recommend abortion for individuals with Autism, say, as they ‘contribute’ to society, for they are ‘enhanced’, which, in your view those with Trisomy 21 are not. You even went so far as to say children with Down’s syndrome ‘suffer’.
Now hold your horses just one moment Mr Dawkins. I think perhaps you are confusing non-essentialist, humanist thinking with a loss of humanity here.
You are so very wrong on every single count above that it would be eye-rollingly laughable if it weren’t so hurtful and damaging. Adults with Down’s syndrome are reading your outdated and bigoted views. Yes, they read, and have opinions and feelings, just like you.
What you are actually saying by stating that we have a moral obligation to eradicate them as foetuses, is that they are worth less than the rest of us. So before you go any further, I suggest that you stop and listen to someone who actually lives the reality you claim to speak on with authority.
As I write this piece, my children are making pancakes in the kitchen with their Dad. (If it weren’t for you I would be relaxing with them.) They are squabbling over who gets the first one and I can hear them discussing whether they want sugar and lemon or maple syrup atop the treats. One is planning to make a loom band bracelet for a friend later, and the other has a puzzle set up on the table that she’s working on. Later we’ll be baking biscuits before the cousins descend for a fun-filled few days.
The snapshot shows that our household is like many up and down the land. And yes, one of our children has an extra chromosome. Yes, she has Down’s syndrome. It’s just a part of who she is, an important part, but it doesn’t define her, and it certainly doesn’t limit her. She absolutely does not ‘suffer’ from the condition, instead grabbing life with both hands, living every moment to its fullest, taking part in all the same activities as her elder sister.
Like you, before our youngest was born, I too believed in the fictitious model of learning disability that society has constructed throughout history. The words ‘Down’s syndrome’ struck fear into my Mummy-to-be heart as medical professionals talked of the need for screening and my calculated ‘risks’ of having a child with the condition. I had only outdated stereotypes, glimpses into the lives of strangers many years ago in my mind’s eye.
If, upon delivery of the ‘bad news’, amid sorries and sober faces, we were simply given the earliest available slot for a termination, as many parents are, we might well have joined the ranks of the 92% of those who find out who choose that route, thinking it the only option. Maybe it’s time we stopped to ask ourselves why so many unquestioningly follow that path.
If our trusted consultant told us that our baby would ‘suffer’, we too might have thought that abortion was an early form of euthanasia. What we wouldn’t have realised is that actually choice is being taken away from us all, the choice to decide whether to continue with a pregnancy or not, once given unbiased information. The choice not to opt for unnecessary screening in the first place. And for the record, thankfully we did not have an antenatal diagnosis and thus did not feel subjected to that kind of societal pressure. Increasingly many parents are rejecting screening at all, as the possibilities for those with Down’s syndrome become common knowledge. The 92% figure does not represent all pregnancies with Down’s syndrome therefore.
And here is where you make your biggest error Mr Dawkins, for this is not a religious/ atheist debate, this is not a clear cut stand off between pro-life and pro-abortion camps. This is about ordinary people making difficult ethical decisions based on the limited amount of knowledge they have at their disposal. Your comments only serve to further entrench the myths that surround Trisomy 21. You too have accepted and swallowed the lie, a lie that many of us work hard to replace with accurate narrative.
I can understand that you don’t know the realities of Down’s syndrome today, I understand that segregation was standard practice when you were growing up, and I truly pity the fact that you lack the enhanced extra dimension that our community benefits from by having children like my daughter at their core. But it is not too late for you to learn that inclusion is a two-way street.
Down’s syndrome is natural, it has occurred since time began and we are all different, we all need support at different times and have our ‘flaws’, that is part of humanity and what makes society rich, what makes life interesting.
Our daughter is now seven and she has taught us so very much. She is an ambassador, a teacher, she makes us appreciate the details of life, learn in different ways. She intuitively watches out for the emotional needs of her classmates, always there for those who are upset, or the ones with a bumped knee. She is funny and bright and feisty. You see Mr Dawkins, this is someone’s worth, this is what we put back. The only burden we have on our shoulders as parents is tackling the misinformed.
When she grows up I know she will follow in the footsteps of her role models, find a job, live independently, enjoy the company of friends, have a partner of her choosing, partake in hobbies, maybe learn to drive, take exams if she wants to go on to further education. Down’s syndrome is not a severe disability as was once thought when you were a lad, it is simply a mild to moderate developmental delay.
I do feel sorry for you. While you wade through a sea of negativity and tick off the number of followers you have upset today, I will be listening to the laughter of four children as we build a den in the garden, happy in the knowledge that when they reach your age they will be fluent in the language of difference and inclusion.
Please Mr Dawkins, don’t use your public platform and your Twitter megaphone to whip up controversy. I beg you to look a little deeper and realise the responsibility that you hold, that one with your influence should not take lightly. I’m not certain if these recent comments were carefully planned to upset and enrage or whether they were an error of judgment on your part but your lack of understanding is as great a disability as any, particularly in one who should be old and wiser enough to know better.
But thank you giving us the opportunity to show you just how much our friends and loved ones with Down’s syndrome enhance our lives. We wouldn’t change them for the world.
Photo by author.
Follow Hayley Goleniowska on Twitter: www.twitter.com/DownsSideUp