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The Problem with Dawkins' Intolerance on Down Syndrome

Author: Mariana Cervantes-Burchell

This article has been written as a response to the widely reported comments and 'tweets' by the scientist Richard Dawkins on the 'moral obligation' to abort those with Down Syndrome. 

I sometimes feel as though I inhabit a surreal world, between the reality, my reality, of having a young child with Down Syndrome, and some kind of abstraction put forward by some scientists, this time by Richard Dawkins, about the apparent morality of aborting a “Down fetus”, in his own words. Needless to say that, in Dawkins’ world, I am bound to have made the “immoral” choice, almost six years ago, to carry on with my pregnancy, without a diagnostic test, once the 12-week nuchal test threw a relatively high probability of carrying a baby with Downs. It might be hard for someone like him to conceive the idea that I was happy and at peace with my choice, that my husband supported this decision, and that as a result, just over five years ago, we had a baby with Downs. One day, my son will be old enough to realise that there are people, among them eminent scientists, who think that there should not be people with Downs in the world – that they should be aborted, like some project gone wrong. I should hope that my son has the generosity of heart and strength of self-belief to accept that there is a place in the world for all sorts of people, including those who are intolerant of people like him.

For all of the lengthy explanations that Dawkins gives on his website, he cannot deny that it was he who chose to advise on the course of action in the case of pregnancy with a diagnosis of Down Syndrome; and he chose to say: “Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice.” Such a view, when expressed by an individual with no high profile or great influence on public opinion or policy, is dubious enough and calls for serious scrutiny. Coming from Dawkins, it is dangerous because high profile, charismatic, white, western men like him speak and many listen; what he says holds sway among millions of people. It may well provide those who do not wish to consider the views and experiences of families like ours, with a ready-made argument for the termination of babies in the womb on the basis of having Downs.

Dawkins goes on to explain, on his website: “My phraseology may have been tactlessly vulnerable to misunderstanding, but I can’t help feeling that at least half the problem lies in a wanton eagerness to misunderstand.” 

He certainly was tactless; but “vulnerable”? A man with such influence, who tweets a response that betrays some tendency - at least unconscious - to play god, to tell others what they should do about a life in the making, is hardly in a position to claim vulnerability or to accuse people like me of “wanton eagerness to misunderstand”. Let us get this straight: it is people with Down Syndrome among others who are vulnerable groups; and it is women who are pregnant that are particularly vulnerable to views such as Dawkins’. Individuals of Dawkins’ calibre have a duty to think very carefully before giving such opinions, even if he thinks that the rest of the world is not watching. 

Dawkins may well say that he would not tell a person with Downs that they should not have been born – he may not say it to their face, but he has made his point loud and clear, and his point is that a life with Down Syndrome is not worth living. If he is to advise individuals on matters of life and death – and the termination of a fetus, whether considered a person or not, is a death, whether you are pro-choice like me or not – he needs to assume the full responsibility not just of the logical but also of the emotional implications of the views he holds and expounds on such matters.

Both the tweet and the lengthy response on Dawkins’s website betray a complete lack of understanding of the variety and richness of the lives of many people with Down Syndrome, their families and those around them. It makes me wonder just what he means by “a desire to increase the sum of happiness and reduce suffering”. What does Dawkins know about my son’s life, and the lives of those of us around him who live with him, share with him, love him and go the extra mile to meet his additional needs, with all the joys and pains, excitement and frustration that comes from raising him? Increasing happiness and reducing misery come not from having a high IQ or from the pretence that having a typically developing baby means they will grow happy, healthy, trouble free and live beyond their sixties – sooner or later, that pretence is bound to come up against the challenging realities of life. And happiness and misery certainly do not boil down to some logical argument devoid of the fuller human experienced that is, inevitably, permeated by our emotional experiences. 

There also appears to be a tendency to confuse the pro-choice case with the decision on whether to keep a baby or terminate when there is a diagnosis of Down Syndrome. Dawkins takes us through the argument about when the fetus becomes a person, and however important this point may be in the overall debate about abortion, it blurs a key issue here. Terminations on the basis of pro-choice tend to involve unexpected and/or unwanted pregnancies, even before screening is involved. On the other hand, terminating a pregnancy on the basis of a diagnosis of Downs (and diagnosis are not 100% accurate), often involve a pregnancy that was, to begin with, wanted, and becomes unwanted following the diagnosis. Moreover, the medical profession - geneticists like Dawkins indeed - need to bear a large chunk of the responsibility for these terminations. One just has to read what Dawkins has to say about it, to see why. These are people held by parents and parents-to-be, in the ‘know’. At such highly vulnerable times as the prenatal and perinatal stages, mothers rely on the medical profession as much, if not more than on their own loved ones, to make decisions. And the medical profession is by and large giving out the clear message that Down Syndrome is an unwanted condition, paving the way to termination. The context in which the vast majority (over 90%) of women in the US and the UK choose to terminate such pregnancies is one that is extremely biased and fails to provide expecting mothers with access to real information about what it is like to live with a child with Downs.

All these five years since my son was born have been an odyssey for me and for our family. I have struggled with the issue, knowing that in many ways, he is unlike his peers, but in many other ways he is like them; sometimes I have wished he was more like them, other times I have been touched to the core by the joy that he gives those of us around him. With my son, I have not been able to take for granted what I could take for granted with my daughter. I have embarked on a journey that is very much about acceptance, and it is not an easy road, but it has made me a more thoughtful mother with both my children. Our experience as a family has, gradually, gained a depth that we could never have imagined. It is like a kind of richness gained from looking at a beautiful work of art and recognising its imperfections; and this is not because my daughter is perfect and my son is not. It is because he has put that mirror in front of me and of each one of us, so that we can all begin to see that we all have beauty and a few cracks too. The beauty, which I found in my daughter’s eyes when she was born, and which I found in his eyes, has acquired a special quality with him, because as he holds up the mirror, he tends to do it with love, good humour, playfulness, curiosity and a great deal of acceptance. 

This reality of my life with a child with Downs is a world away from Dawkins’s doomsday scenario – as to what the future will bring, well, that is something that not even the most privileged families can control – who would have thought that the heir to the throne is dreading the day he becomes King?! Dawkins’s views have nevertheless stirred up a debate that needs to go on. I know there are many others who also challenge his views, and perhaps it is time that we raise our voices a bit more loudly and proactively. I do not intend to pass judgement on those who opt for terminating a pregnancy on the basis of a diagnosis of Down Syndrome, because we do not live in an ideal world where everyone can accept the extra challenge of having a child with Downs. However, I think we as parents have an invaluable role as advocates of our children. And far from Dawkins’s doomsday scenario, more young people with Downs are taking a stand, demonstrating their abilities and claiming their rights. 

As the mother of a child with Downs and of a typically developing child, as a woman, and as a member of society who actively works for the welfare of children and young people, I feel strongly about the importance of making a stand on these issues. As a society we find abhorrent the abortion of babies on the basis of their sex – primarily discrimination against girls. The presumption of inferiority behind such selectiveness, behind some sort of playing god with human life, needs to continue to be challenged if we are really to begin to grasp what it means to be human.

The publisher is The Centre for Welfare Reform.

The Problem with Dawkins' Intolerance on Down Syndrome © Mariana Cervantes-Burchell 2014.

All Rights Reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.