So what to make of Richard Dawkins Twitter comment a few weeks back, where he responded to a lady who claimed that she would be faced with a “real ethical dilemma” if she found out she was pregnant with a Down Syndrome baby in the following way: “Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice.” Whatever else you might think about Dawkins, he certainly doesn’t go in for subtlety, does he?
He then made an “apology” on his website (well sort of an apology), before making a statement apparently clarifying his position in more characters than Twitter would allow him. You can read this here.
I plan to write about this more fully in my October article for Samaritan Ministries International, but in the meantime, here are some thoughts that arise from his clarification statement, as well as his original tweet:
- In both the original tweet and the clarification, the themes of morality and immorality are very prevalent. Yet this is the same man who once wrote: “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference” (See River Out of Eden, New York: Harper Collins, 1995, page 133). For sure his remarks on Down Syndrome babies is remarkably consistent with his view of blind pitiless indifference, but where does he get all this talk of morality and immorality from? I am aware that he tries to wriggle out of this inconsistency by saying that morality has evolved, but really such sleight of hand ought not to get past a 3-year-old. A universe which has, at bottom, no good and no evil, and where everything is eventually annihilated, has as much chance of having morality in it as a universe that has no leprechauns in it has of having leprechauns in it. Trying to inject morality and immorality into a universe you have explicitly stated doesn’t possess these traits is a bit like stating categorically that you’ve got nothing in your bank account, before going on to talk about what you’ve got in your bank account.
- Having somehow magicked morality out of his own hat of amorality, he then tells us what this consists of: “a desire to increase the sum of happiness and reduce suffering…” There are some frankly huge assumptions in this statement. The biggest of these is that a child born with Down Syndrome cannot increase the sum of happiness. This in itself assumes either that people with Down Syndrome are bound to be unhappy, or that their parents are bound to be unhappy, or possibly both. But is this really the case? No, it is total nonsense. According to a study published in 2011 by the American Journal of Medical Genetics, 79 percent of parents with a Down Syndrome child report that their outlook on life was more positive because of their child; 94 percent of siblings report feelings of pride about their sibling with Down syndrome; and 99 percent of people with Down syndrome feel happy with their lives. So all in all, it sounds as if the sum of human happiness actually increases, not decreases, in families with a Down Syndrome child.The other major assumption he makes, is that parents who abort their Down Syndrome child are going to increase their happiness. Again, this comes loaded with its own set of highly questionable assumptions, such as the idea that there will be no psychological repercussions, and the implicit idea that a Down Syndrome child will ruin your happiness by restricting your ability to do whatever you want. Needless to say, these are remarkably materialist assumptions which do not appear to accord very much with the human condition.
- His argument of morality based on a desire to increase the sum of human happiness and reduce suffering sounds very sweet, but in reality it is utilitarian to the core and has many times led to dreadful atrocities being carried out in the name of humanitarianism. From euthanasia of old people, to dropping bombs on nations in order to bring them “liberty”, the desire to replace the 10 Commandments with a morality which consists purely of increasing the sum of happiness and reducing suffering often leads to tragic consequences. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, as they say.
- Dawkins then comes out with this jaw dropper: “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”. Well since we can’t ask the aborted children what they think, I suppose we should go and ask the 99% of Down Syndrome people who said they are happy with their lives whether they consider their mothers to be immoral for “deliberately” giving birth to them. My guess is that even the 1% who don’t feel happy would baulk at accusing their mothers of immorality for not killing them.
- Finally, there is this: “… 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.” This is just sad. It is Nietzsche all over again. Is there any higher and nobler calling than for a parent with a disabled child sacrificing themselves to care for them? Is there anything more beautiful than seeing someone devote themselves to the care of one who cannot care for themselves? In the materialist construct that Dawkins espouses, it is the height of folly – even immoral. But thankfully, this is not the universe in which we live. Rather we live in a universe where the sacrifice of one for another is the highest value of all.