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Abortion in America
Richard Dawkins Sparks Down Syndrome Controversy

Richard Dawkins is no stranger to controversy, but he provoked fresh outrage when he insisted this week that unborn children diagnosed with Down Syndrome should be aborted. The Independent reports on the exchange, which took place over Twitter:

“994 human beings with Down’s Syndrome deliberately killed before birth in England and Wales in 2012. Is that civilised?” @AidanMcCourt asked [Dawkins].

“Yes, it is very civilised. These are fetuses, diagnosed before they have human feelings,” Dawkins responded.

“I honestly don’t know what I would do if I were pregnant with a kid with Down Syndrome. Real ethical dilemma,” @InYourFaceNYer chimed in.

“Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice,” he tweeted back.

Dawkins has since apologized, but only, apparently, for the tone of his comments: “My phraseology may have been tactlessly vulnerable to misunderstanding,” he wrote. Yes, Dawkins has made offensive comments before, and he’s only one man. But it’s worth noting that he was only stating common wisdom in a more straightforward way. Abortion is a relatively common choice among mothers who receive the prenatal diagnosis: Between 60 to 90 percent of all Down Syndrome babies are aborted. And one of the main reasons why people abort them is the same reason why people support physician assisted suicide and other “mercy killings”—because, the argument goes, one ought to spare someone from living a low quality of life.

We’re glad popular indignation forced Dawkins to at least make some apology, as middling as it was. But if we’re going to be at all consistent, it should also force a wider reexamination of more “respectable” applications of Dawkins’ logic.

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  • Corlyss

    “to spare someone from living a low quality of life.”

    That’s a consequence of the popular perception that nothing has changed since the 1950s about both raising a Down’s child and their prospects for a reasonably good life. But the decision should be made with a maximum of accurate information rather than a lot of myths or pie-eyed expectations.

    • LivingRock

      A “progressive” stuck in the ’50s. Why does that theme keep coming up in a number of subjects?

    • Fred

      I may be reading you wrong. Is the “decision” you are referring to the decision to obliterate a human being because he/she may be “defective”? If so, it’s hard for me to imagine what “accurate information” could justify that decision.

      • Corlyss

        Technically the decision I had in mind was “What to do? Abort or Proceed?” I was not assuming a bias in either direction. It is a decision people find themselves having to make every day.

    • gabrielsyme

      These “choices” about the “prospects for a reasonably good life” proceed from the faulty idea that the value of a human the sum of positive experiences. Such utilitarian ideas cannot account for the dignity of our fellow men, especially the disabled. Without some notion of the sanctity (or, if you like, the sui generis value) of human life, one ends up like Dawkins, deciding whose lives are lebensunwertes leben.

      • Corlyss

        “Such utilitarian ideas cannot account for the dignity of our fellow men”
        I take your point, but I will say I have a lot of resistance to folks off-loading the expense of impaired off-spring onto the taxpayer. If the parents can pay for them (without insurance), I heartily endorse raising them to their maximum potential. But that “sanctity of life” crap has gotten us two very unpleasant consequences with no end in sight to the pool that qualifies: 1) a lifetime of major medical expenses on the taxpayers’ nickel with no public good derived therefrom; and 2) people with marginal conditions clamoring to get on the covered rolls so they too can be paid for by the public fisc. I absolutely hate those developments, and I personally will resist them wherever I can have an effect.

  • wigwag

    Dawkins position is literally demented. Comparisons with the Nazi position on eugenics are usually overdone, but not in this case. With modern medical care, children with Downs Syndrome can live long and healthy lives. Their extra chromosome does make it virtually inevitable that their IQ will, on average, be lower than the IQ of people born with they typical number of human chromosomes, but so what? Their ability to express the full range of human emotions is unaffected, their sense of humor is unaffected and, given the proper accommodation, their ability to live enriched, productive lives is unaffected. The idea that these children should be aborted so that their mothers will have an opportunity to “get it right” the next time is simply repugnant.

    What is the IQ cut-off that Richard Dawkins advocates; is it 100? 90? 80? 70? Should we administer IQ tests to children when they reach puberty and euthanize those who don’t measure up to Professor Dawkins’ standards? When pre-natal testing becomes sophisticated enough to predict what the IQ of a fetus is likely to be after birth, should we start aborting those fetuses on the basis of pre-natal testing?

    For years, people with cerebral palsy were believed to be intellectually delayed; we now know that this was a misconception, but people with CP are surely physically impaired. Should they be aborted too or euthanized after birth? Anyone with even the faintest familiarity with the story of Helen Keller knows that our view of a person’s intellectual and emotional intelligence can be shaped by their physical characteristics; /would Professor Dawkins have recommended to Helen Keller’s mother that she be aborted too?

    Given early educational intervention the ability of children with Downs Syndrome, Fragile X, autism and other conditions to live far better lives has improved dramatically. One of the great unheralded success stories of federal legislation in the educational arena has been the ability of children with intellectual disabilities to begin receiving an appropriate education very, very early. There is substantial evidence that this early intervention makes a profound difference in the educational achievement of many of these children. There was a time that children with these disabilities rotted in fetid institutions too horrendous to even contemplate. Now, thanks to early educational interventions, more and more of them are graduating from high school and some even graduate from college. Medications which ameliorate the symptoms of the neurological deficits that these children are born with are also being developed. It is highly likely that these medications will, within a decade or so, improve the ability of people with Downs Syndrome and other intellectual disabilities to thrive. But the Richard Dawkins’s of the world are having none of it; they would rather have these fetuses tossed away in the trash as if they are little more than refuse.

    The idea that there is anything progressive about advocating the ability of a mother to abort her baby because it happens to have an imperfect number of chromosomes is not only sick; its ridiculous. Progressive people shouldn’t be advocating killing fetuses because they are “imperfect” they should be advocating protecting fetuses because they are “imperfect.”

    Whether feminists and various left-wing advocacy groups like it or not, when it comes to this issue, its the Roman Catholic Church and the Conservative Evangelicals who are the progressives. It’s the pro-choice people who are the reactionaries and they are unethical and unmoored reactionaries at that.

    • lujlp

      And best of all, they get to live on government funds all their lives.

      What happens during a down turn and the magical government money spigot gets turned off?

    • Anthony

      Splendid WigWag.

      • Kepha Hor

        God forgive me, but, perhaps Wigwag’s sarcastic comment about euthanizing teens who don’t measure up to intelligence standards might get American school kids serious about doing their homework! [sarc]

    • Corlyss

      “Downs Syndrome can live long and healthy lives.”
      Certainly longER and healthIER lives, but I think raising them to adulthood is still too new to yield how much longer and how much healthier. Certainly they can have productive lives they enjoy – there’s ample research on that. But there appears to be evidence that they develop Alzheimers at much much younger ages than the genpop. That could be linked to the gene or fetal development that results in the Downs. I admit I’ve not heard much about this in the last 8 years, so I could be operating from old info.

  • Dan

    To be fair, it sounds better in the original German

    • Fred


  • Nick_Vermannigan

    Frankly speaking, whenever I am forced to encounter them I find Downs
    people generally to be a pain in the backside. But of course I would
    never say so in public, and always “play nice”.

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