News Brendan O’Connor

Thursday 2 October 2014

Abort it and try again? Whining Dawkins is illogical and medieval

Richard Dawkins' views on Down syndrome are clueless and whingeing, and may have ruined him, says Brendan O'Connor

Published 24/08/2014 | 02:30

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Lack Of Rationale: As someone who prides himself on being an arch-rationalist, it’s surprising that Professor Dawkins, above, would claim that he didn’t really mean what he said

Science is moving at such a rate now that it is thought it will soon be possible to detect traces of Richard Dawkinsness in an unborn child, giving the mother the choice to abort that child. And it would be immoral not to abort a baby that showed signs of Dawkinsness, wouldn't it?

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If you take Dawkins' own morality, which is based on "a desire to increase the sum of happiness and reduce suffering, the decision to deliberately give birth to a [Richard Dawkins] 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."

Dawkins, you may have seen, said the above during the week, not about himself but in relation to foetuses with Down syndrome. In fact, the above was what he said in his whingeing "apology". What he had initially said, on Twitter, in response to someone who said she was unsure what she would do if she was carrying a foetus that had DS, was, "Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice".

Clearly seeing that his brand was damaged following the reaction, Dawkins then rowed back slightly with an elaboration on his website. He first claimed that he hadn't intended most people to see the response, whatever difference that makes. He then blamed "people who go out of their way to find such Tweets", which seems like a bizarre whinge from a man who has a million followers on Twitter, who fancies himself as one of the leading thinkers and controversialists at work right now, who was using a public forum. He then claimed that his clarity was hampered by the 140 characters, and he gave a more elaborate version of what he meant.

Again, as someone who prides himself on being an arch rationalist, it's surprising that Dawkins would claim that he didn't really mean what he said because he had to say it in 140 characters. I would have thought if Dawkins couldn't say rationally what he meant, then he wouldn't say it.

As it happens, Dawkins apology, or clarification, was as ignorant as the initial stark tweet. He says now he thinks the moral and sensible choice would be not to bring a child with Down syndrome into the world (or a "Down child" as he calls it, a phrase for which I would forgive an elderly Irish person, but which in a leading scientist suggests a frightening level of old-fashioned ignorance.)

So why does Dawkins believe it is immoral to have a child with DS? Well it's back to the whole sum of human suffering and happiness argument.

Dawkins's main point is that by taking the irresponsible decision to have "a Down child", you increase the sum of human suffering because that child will suffer and the child's family will be "condemned 
. . . to a lifetime of caring for an adult with the needs of a child."

Just one of the things that is wrong and ignorant about Dawkins's rantings is the notion that people with DS are like children. That kind of thinking might wash in the ignorant, sentimental world that Dawkins seems to inhabit. But it's not true. Actually Richard, the handicapped little babies grow up sometimes too.

Indeed, one aspect of the great civil rights battle that people with disabilities still fight is the right of people with DS to be treated like adults, to be allowed a degree of independence in their romantic, financial and other affairs, to be taken seriously and not dismissed as children by ignoramuses. Dawkins twee and uninformed views set that great enlightenment struggle right back. Maybe he should meet some DS activists. Once he gets over his shock that they are advocating and fighting for themselves, and that their parents aren't doing it for them, he might learn something from them.

On his broader argument about the degree of suffering in the world, you could be glib about this and say that if we are to abort everyone who is going to suffer in this world then there won't be many of us left. But even if you are to take this nonsense at face value and approach it scientifically, then where do you draw the line? Does Dawkins think that only children who will have DS shouldn't be born? What about 'normal' children with equally low IQs? What if two parents are of such a low IQ that there is a good chance their child will be really stupid too. Is having the child immoral? I have definitely met 'normal' people who are less intelligent than some people with DS.

What of a child about to be born to a very poor, teenage single parent, maybe a drug addict? Is there as much of a chance that child will suffer? Is there as much of a chance it will prove a burden on the State?

What of a child who could potentially inherit some serious illness? Science allows us more and more to map whether a potential child will get certain cancers, or heart disease or other conditions? Should we abort all of these foetuses too? Is it immoral to bring these children into the world? Indeed, maybe we should develop other tests for the likelihood of someone adding to the sum of suffering in the world. If someone is likely to be a politician who will destroy an economy or a paedophile priest should we abort them? Why has Dawkins chosen just DS? There are plenty of others who will add much more to the sum of human suffering than people with DS.

I suspect that Dawkins doesn't know any people with DS, or their families. His belief that to have DS or to have a family member with DS means to suffer, that it is something families are "condemned" to, is an odd one. He doesn't appear to be aware that many people with DS live very full lives and are happy people. He seems to imagine them writhing around on the floor, having to be cared for 24/7, unable to perform basic functions. And all the time suffering, always in pain. While DS can bring with it many health conditions, so can life. Indeed, life is full of tragedy and setbacks and shock. I'd actually say that having a child with Downs is not nearly the worst thing that could happen a family. Practically everyone I know has had something worse happen to them.

You'd love Dawkins to meet some people with DS and other disabilities and their families. In my limited experience, they are people who have suffered sure, as we all have in our lives. But sometimes they are also people who who have been incredibly enriched by the struggle because that is the core of life in many ways - the struggle.

Before he says it is immoral to have let them be born, maybe he could scientifically gauge the happiness or suffering of some people with DS, seeing as this is the basis for his argument. He might just find that many of them add hugely to the sum of human happiness, that many of them are among the happiest people he will have met.

He might even find that he deems their lives worthwhile!

Can you conceive of that Richard? That worthwhile lives can be lived by the lower orders, without going to Oxford or Cambridge.?

But of course, Dawkins doesn't need to do this because the scientist in him has all that end worked out as well.

"Parents who care for their children with Down syndrome usually form strong bonds of affection with them, as they would with any child. These feelings are sincere and mutual, and probably account for some of the hate tweets I have been experiencing", he says.

Listen to the way he talks about it, like a robot who finds human beings and their feelings strange and inconvenient, because it interferes with his thesis.

As for the whining about hate tweets? I would imagine the one who introduced hate into it was the rich, powerful author who suggested it was immoral that this vulnerable, powerless class of people were allowed to be born in the first place. Is he hurt now because they and their families and lots of ordinary people hit back?

Dawkins explains away people's crazy, irrational response to his opinions by saying, "those who took offence because they know and love a person with Down syndrome, . . . thought I was saying their loved one had no right to exist. I have sympathy with their emotional point, but it is an emotional one not a logical one."

Again, to be glib, you have to say that if people are only going to have children for logical reasons, then there won't be too many people having children.

Dawkins concludes his apology by saying that what he said "simply follows logically from the ordinary pro-choice stance that most of us, I presume, espouse. My phraseology many have been tactlessly vulnerable to misunderstanding but I can't help feeling that half the problem lies in a wanton eagerness to misunderstand."

Except that isn't logical either. Dawkins was not being pro-choice. To be pro-choice would be to understand that people have an incredibly difficult decision to make when confronted with a foetus with DS. To be pro-choice would be to understand that many people simply feel they cannot handle it, and to understand equally that many people will choose to go ahead with it - and a few you will meet will say they regret their decision. To say that those who do choose to have their kids with DS are immoral is actually anti-choice and borders on selective breeding of human beings.

To whinge that people who take you literally, are wilfully misunderstanding you when you pride yourself on being an arch literalist and master of logical thinking is, you'd have to say, quite childish and illogical.

When Dawkins has worked out properly what he actually thinks about people with disabilities, and when he knows a little bit about their lives, and has observed them properly, as any scientist should, then maybe he would like to come back to us on it.

And maybe he'd like to apologise properly to people everywhere living with Down syndrome, living lives of suffering, joy and fulfilment, like all the rest of us. And maybe he might consider this time not just the offence he caused to the people who love people with DS.

Maybe this time he might actually take into account that people with DS, when not suffering, can actually feel offence in their own right. Some of them are probably even on Twitter. And some of them may have been insulted by him saying it was immoral not to abort them when we had the chance.

And maybe then Dawkins can save his brand. Because right now, he's screwed. The enlightened modernist suddenly seems terribly medieval.

Sunday Independent

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