Richard Dawkins created a firestorm last week when he responded to one of his regular followers on Twitter who said she didn’t know what she would do if she found out she was pregnant with a child who had Down Syndrome.
Pro-life people as well as parents of Down Syndrome (DS) children were outraged and social media blew up as a result of this tweet:
When Dawkins realized that others could see that tweet he sent some more tweets trying to clarify his views:
There’s a profound moral difference between “This fetus should now be aborted” and “This person should have been aborted years ago.” — Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) August 20, 2014
A woman whom I know & like said she’d be uncertain what to do if pregnant with Downs. I said what I’d do & why. Happens to be what most do.
— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) August 20, 2014
In point of fact, a majority of Down Syndrome fetuses in Europe and USA are aborted. What I recommended is not outlandish but the norm. — Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) August 20, 2014
Apparently I’m a horrid monster for recommending WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENS to the great majority of Down Syndrome fetuses. They are aborted. — Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) August 20, 2014
If I were a woman with a DS fetus I personally would abort. So do most women in fact. If you wouldn’t, good luck to you, it’s your decision,
— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) August 20, 2014
Dawkins published a very helpful article the following day, apologizing and explaining his views more clearly. The entire post is worth reading.
Here are his main points:
- Dawkins thought his tweets would only be visible by the person he was responding to, so he wasn’t trying as hard to be politically correct because she is a regular on his website.
- Without the 140-character limit of Twitter, he would have said this:
“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.”
- Dawkins regrets his decision to simplify his views on Twitter, causing so much anger and hurt feelings from parents of DS children.
- If pro-life people are angry about DS children being aborted, then they should direct that anger at the majority of parents who abort their DS children and the doctors who do it, not at Dawkins for agreeing with it.
- He didn’t mean to imply that he would tell a woman what to do. It’s her choice. He’s trying to say what he would do in the situation.
- He doesn’t believe that simply because most people abort DS children means it’s necessarily right.
- His view is not eugenic, because DS has almost zero heritability. (In other words, eugenics is about improving the human race and killing DS people wouldn’t help accomplish that because DS is rarely passed through the genes. If a DS person reproduces, it is unlikely their child will also have DS.)
- He has empathy for people who were offended because they have DS children, but they are making an emotional argument, not a logical one.
Just like in any dialogue with a pro-choice person, we should start by trying to understand his views, and after what I’ve seen on social media in the last week, I’m concerned that many pro-life people don’t get where he’s coming from. We should be trying to figure out the answer to this question: Why is Dawkins particularly in favor of abortion when the child is diagnosed with DS? (I’ll give you a hint: It’s not that he hates people with DS)
I strongly disagree with Dawkins’ views about abortion, but now that I’ve read his longer post, I’m going to try to explain why I believe his view isn’t as offensive as his first tweet was. One of the reasons I launched Equal Rights Institute is to help pro-life and pro-choice people to have better dialogues. I believe a necessary condition of having a good dialogue is accurately understanding what the pro-choice person in front of you actually believes, which is rarely clear in the beginning of a conversation. I think trying to get into Dawkins’ shoes will be a good exercise.
To understand Dawkins’ tweets about Down Syndrome, I think we need to understand two things:
#1. Assuming my read on Dawkins is right, then from his perspective there is nothing wrong with having a first-trimester abortion.
Dawkins believes that a first-trimester embryo/fetus is absolutely not a valuable human being or person. He could say it’s a potential person, meaning if it grew up it would become a person at some point late in pregnancy, but he seems to believe that at three months into pregnancy it has zero value.
Based on his recent tweets about abortion, Dawkins seems to believe that you should only get legal rights after you have the biological components necessary to be conscious.
If he’s right, then abortion is like having a mole removed, even though if you gave the mole enough time it could turn into a person. That doesn’t matter. It’s not a person right now, and what it is right now matters more than what it could become later.
Side note: This is why pro-life people need to avoid arguing that abortion is wrong because it kills a potential person. I’m arguing that the unborn IS a person, and that pro-choice philosophers have the wrong definition of person.
#2. Dawkins wants to minimize suffering.
Put those together, and OF COURSE he would tell a woman who’s first trimester child has been diagnosed with DS to abort and try again. There’s nothing wrong with the abortion in his view, AND it helps minimize the parent’s suffering by them avoiding the hardship of taking care of a DS child. Abortion is actually the most moral choice in Dawkins’ view, because he believes that minimizing suffering is tied to morality. In fact, Dawkins believes that from the child’s perspective that not aborting it when you had the chance, before it ever became conscious, may actually be immoral, because you’re allowing suffering to take place that never had to begin.
His view is offensive and I strongly disagree with it, but it’s not as bad as some people thought.
I like something my brother Tim recently said:
“There are no Snidely Whiplashes. There isn’t anybody actually tying girls to railroad tracks, twirling their mustaches, and laughing maniacally in enjoyment of their own evil. Everybody rationalizes what they do to themselves.”
How does Dawkins justify his views about abortion and DS? He wants to minimize suffering. He doesn’t want to destroy DS babies because he’s evil. He thinks they will suffer and killing them does not cause them to suffer and so in order to create a world with the least amount of suffering, you kill those kids before they become a person deserving of rights. That’s still wrong, but notice what’s motivating his view. He’s trying to stop suffering. He’s not intending to be insulting to parents of DS children.
While I disagree with his methods, I agree with and appreciate his goal of reducing suffering. We disagree about whether abortion reduces suffering, or if it did, whether or not that would justify it. Richard Dawkins is hostile to most of my values, but we can find common ground with anybody.
Except for Snidely Whiplash.