In August 2014, a woman posed a hypothetical scenario to Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist and well-known atheist, tweeting: “I honestly don’t know what I would do if I were pregnant with a kid with Down syndrome. Real ethical dilemma.”
Dawkins tweeted back seconds later: “Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice.”
In the firestorm of outrage that followed, even many of Dawkins’s fellow utilitarians disavowed his hundred-character pronouncement. The next day, Dawkins half-apologized in a statement on his website, but still did not back down: “Parents who care for their children with Down syndrome usually form strong bonds of affection with them, as they would with any child. ... I have sympathy for this emotional point, but it is an emotional one, not a logical one. ...
“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.”1
As advocates for people with disabilities were quick to point out, Dawkins’s assumptions about Down syndrome are not borne out by research. A 2011 study, for instance, found that 99 percent of individuals with Down syndrome were happy with their lives, and that 97 percent of their parents and 94 percent of their siblings reported feelings of pride.2 Only 5 percent of siblings were willing to trade their brother or sister with Down syndrome for a sibling without it.
Yet citing quality-of-life studies does not get to the root of Dawkins’s argument for aborting babies with disabilities: the fear of suffering. I understand and share this fear. If Richard Dawkins were to read these words, I’d want him to know that I appreciate his basic motive: “a desire to increase the sum of happiness and reduce suffering.” At a time marked by the endless march of grim headlines, don’t we need more people passionately working toward this goal?
The difficulty, of course, is that neither suffering nor happiness is objectively measureable; both are, to use Dawkins’s own words, a matter of emotion, not of logic. How are we to determine who suffers more: a child with disabilities who possesses an uncomplicated joy in life, or an intellectually gifted child who has difficulty forging relationships? Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn famously wrote that “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” Similarly, the line dividing happiness and suffering runs through each human heart. That includes the hearts not only of people like Richard Dawkins but also of people like my sister Iris.
- Richard Dawkins, “Abortion and Down Syndrome,” blog post, August 21, 2014 at richarddawkins.net.
- Brian G. Skotko, Susan P. Levine, and Richard Goldstein, “Having a Son or Daughter with Down Syndrome: Perspectives from Mothers and Fathers”; “Having a Brother or Sister with Down Syndrome: Perspectives from Siblings”; and “Self-Perceptions from People with Down Syndrome” in American Journal of Medical Genetics Part A, October 2011, 155A(10):2335–2369.
- Jean Vanier, acceptance speech for the 2015 Templeton Prize, March 11, 2015.