Who said nothing ever happens in August! Just as we were looking forward to a quiet bank holiday weekend, up pops Prof Dawkins with a disturbing tweet. Responding to another Twitter posting by a woman admitting she would face a ‘“real ethical dilemma”’ if she became pregnant and found she was carrying a baby with Down’s syndrome, he suggested she should simply abort and try again, and that it would be ‘“immoral”’ to bring into the world a child with Down’s syndrome if you had the choice. He attempted to justify himself further here.
So, there we have it. Knowingly giving life to a child with Down’s syndrome is immoral, terminating its life is commendable. On what grounds would an intelligent person say such a thing, you might ask?
To prevent the child’s suffering – the compassion argument?
Truth is, people with Down’s syndrome don’t ‘suffer’ from their condition, they live with it. And in general the lives they live are more joyous than most.
So might it be the struggles faced by the parents that the professor has in mind?
Well, let’s face it – parenting any child brings its challenges, and a child with additional needs and vulnerabilities will certainly present additional challenges. But personal accounts suggest that the particular contribution made to family life by children with Down’s syndrome, and in particular the love that they inspire in others, more than compensates for those added pressures.
No, Prof Dawkins opinion is based on a belief that there is such a thing as a life not worthy to be lived. Sometimes dubbed ‘functionalism’, it is an aspect of utilitarian philosophy that measures the worth of a life in terms of its potential contribution to society as a whole. It leads to certain people, for whom no remedies exist, being regarded as so much ‘excess baggage’.
This is not a new idea. Charles Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, argued strongly that for societies to protect and preserve their weak and sickly members was to contravene natural selection. If they survived into reproductive years then they would be likely to pass on their genetic flaws to another generation, thus inhibiting the evolutionary progress of the human species. Eugenics was born, and the idea was readily accepted in both scientific and political circles, paving the philosophical way for the atrocities that eventually would follow in Nazi Germany.
With increasing distance from those dreadful days, the wish to create ‘desirable’ persons is fuelling a new and so-called ‘respectable’ eugenics. The economic costs of care and modern society’s reluctance to accept personal sacrifice have led to open hunting season on the disabled unborn as evidenced, for example, by the fact that in the UK, 92% of women who receive a diagnosis of Down’s syndrome have an abortion. And even those who do come to birth are not safe – there are ethicists who propose it should be legal to kill newly born babies with Down’s syndrome (1) .
So, thank you Prof Dawkins and Twitter for drawing to our attention the return of eugenics in a new guise – ‘abort, and try again’. Thank you for illustrating again the moral bankruptcy of utilitarian calculus. As for me, the bank holiday included the 20th birthday celebration of one of the liveliest, joy-dispensing and fulfilled people I know, who just happens to have Down’s syndrome. How much poorer the world would be without her!
Posted by Dr Rick Thomas
CMF Public Policy researcher