I don’t usually defend Richard Dawkins. My views almost always are polar opposites of the evolutionary biologist and atheism promoter. However, I feel that the recent attacks on Dr. Dawkins not only were unfair but they also represented muddled thinking.
If you missed the brouhaha, Dr. Dawkins, who is well known for his opinions, was approached on Twitter by a woman concerned about what to do should she become pregnant with a baby diagnosed in utero with Down syndrome. His response was, “Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice.” This unleashed a furious Twitter storm.
Of the responses I read condemning him, many were from parents of children with Down syndrome. They spoke of the love their child added to their lives and how treasured these children are. Those who know families in this category find these claims unsurprising.
Dr. Dawkins answered with a longer reply, apologizing for making a post that he thought would be limited to a small readership available to his million plus followers. He acknowledged that Twitter might not be the best venue for emotionally charged subjects. However, he stuck with his opinion, expanding on his views.
“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’s 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.”
For this answer, I am grateful to Dr. Dawkins. There are different moral systems in the world. When issues like abortion get politicized truth is often the first victim. Since most people do not change their values on a whim, small, incremental steps are implemented. This leads citizens to legislate decisions they would have unequivocally rejected had they been promoted without the intervening stages.
It is not an accident that abortion rights were trumpeted by invoking pictures of poor girls dying from self-induced abortions. There was talk of pregnancies resulting from incest and rape. Had Roe vs. Wade reached the Supreme Court while women stood with signs stating, “I want a boy, not a girl. It’s my choice,” or “Abortion is my choice for birth control,” or “Pregnancy will interfere with my career,” the case might have been decided differently. Yet once abortion is solely a woman’s choice, her reasoning is immaterial.
Dr. Dawkins is honest. He believes that a child in utero is nothing more than a group of cells. He honestly believes that if human beings veer from an acceptable spectrum of perfection, their lives revolve around suffering and sorrow. His fellow traveler, Dr. Peter Singer, moral philosopher and professor of bioethics at Princeton, believes that even after birth, parents can ease a their own and their child’s suffering by killing a “defective” baby.
From what I have read, both Drs. Dawkins and Singer are well-mannered men who treat the handicapped with respect. I once read a book by Harriet McBride Johnson, a severely disabled author, attorney and disability rights activist. She was also an atheist and chairman of her local county’s Democratic Party. In 2002, she debated Dr. Singer and was greatly troubled with the gentlemanly help he gave her with her motorized wheelchair while he espoused his beliefs that she should have been killed at birth.
Personally, I appreciate both Dr. Dawkins’ and Dr. Singer’s willingness to speak the truth about their beliefs. I shudder at the thought that American law should ever follow their values, but they are offering people an honest choice. As in so many other cases, most Americans are too complacent and shortsighted to see the small, seemingly minor steps that lead to major conclusions. These two men do not disguise the end of the road to which their morality points.
In neither his tweet nor in the follow-up, did Dr. Dawkins suggest that when a pregnant woman learns she is carrying a child who will be born with Down syndrome, that pregnancy should be forcibly terminated. He did not promote the killing of people whose quality of life doesn’t meet the standard he thinks is worthwhile. He did not discount that parents around the world love their children despite disabilities. He does not look evil nor is he a cruel monster. Yet, he did not back down from stating that in his view the lives of children with Down syndrome have less value than the lives of healthier children. He did not refute his idea that these children do not contribute to a “sum of happiness,” for themselves or others. I think I am stating his views fairly by saying that he finds my religious beliefs stupid and irrational. I think that his views will lead to a world without the decency and kindness he personally upholds.
In a country where atheism is on the rise and medicine is marching into the control of government, I am grateful for those who make their positions clear. I come from the viewpoint that life is a gift from God and that He should be the One to direct life and death from the moment of conception through old age. I believe that the human spirit is greater than the human body. Yet, we are moving inexorably towards the time when, in practical law, either my view will prevail or the views of Dawkins and Singer will. Let’s indeed have an honest debate rather than the muddy jumble of thought that says that a society that insists that abortion is completely at the discretion of an individual woman’s choice is compatible with one stating that handicapped human beings have full rights to life.
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