On Oxford’s very own Richard Dawkins

by Oxford Students for Life

You’ve probably read about Dawkins’ 20th August Down’s syndrome foot-in-mouth tweet and the furore it caused – perhaps you’ve even forgotten about it (two weeks is a long time on the internet). I wanted to draw attention to a point we can take away from the discussion it sparked, now that Twitter’s moved on. It’s one most of us pro-lifers have shaken our heads at before, but which we need to highlight more when talking about the abortion issue: the strange contradiction in our society’s (rightful) defence of the disabled, and that same society’s qualification of the value of a disabled life when it’s legal to cut it short.

Dawkins’ tweet to a Twitter user who called a Down’s syndrome diagnosis a “real ethical dilemma” read “Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have a choice.”

Cue the response he labelled a “feeding frenzy”. From outraged tweets to articles in national and international papers, accompanied online by comments from the public including this one: “Dawkins would have thrived in 1930s Germany”. My pro-life and pro-choice friends alike shared the link on Facebook – accompanied by statuses to the tune of either ‘oh dear’ or ‘what an idiot’. A pro-choice journalist at the Independent wrote that Dawkins’ “ethical values appeared to [have] come a little unstuck”; the Down’s Syndrome Association responded with “we do not believe Down’s syndrome in itself should be a reason for termination”; personal testimonies refuting Dawkins’ later insinuation that those with Down’s have nothing to “contribute” were published: “Down’s syndrome girl passes six GCSEs as Dad calls Richard Dawkins ‘an ignorant idiot’”. Simon Barnes’ piece in the Spectator is particularly worth the read.

A similar backlash was generated earlier in August when it emerged that an Australian couple had abandoned a baby with Down’s syndrome born to a surrogate mother.

‘Uproar’, ‘storm’, ‘fury’, ‘outrage’. But wait: this isn’t an opportunity to Dawkins-bash – shake our heads and wonder what he’ll come out with next – this is a time to point out to those who do, that actually, he’s ‘right’. Dawkins’ follow-up tweet: “If I were a woman with a DS fetus, I would abort. So do most women, in fact. If you wouldn’t, good luck to you, it’s your decision.” And another one: “Apparently I’m a horrid monster for recommending what actually happens to the great majority of Down Syndrome foetuses. They are aborted.” Estimates of fetuses aborted post-Down’s diagnoses range as high as 92%. Down’s syndrome abortions have gone up by nearly 50% since 2003. Despite the fuss made about his utilitarian logic, Dawkins is in tune with society: many people in Britain clearly take the same position as he does in practice. The consequence of allowing abortion up to birth for unborn children with ‘defects’ is that it happens.

Dawkins’ defence against those making the “emotional point” that they know and love someone with Down’s syndrome was that “There is a profound moral difference between ‘This fetus should now be aborted’ and ‘This person should have been aborted long ago’.” I don’t think the difference is as clear as all that. If there is a moral imperative to kill the unborn who have Down’s syndrome “from the point of view of the child’s own welfare”, then it’s a small to step to the statement that those living outside the womb with Down’s syndrome would be ‘better off dead’. There are all sorts of other questions his comments raise, particularly about the criteria his calculation of the ‘worth’ of a life rests on, but for now let’s focus on pointing out to people that if abortion on the grounds of disability is ok – up to birth – we’ve got a pretty hard job to do to defend the worth of a disabled life outside the womb.

The 92% figure doesn’t sit well with our anti-discrimination policies and joy over Britain’s Paralympic success, or with the recent ‘Lose the Label’ campaign that’s been doing the rounds since World Down’s Syndrome Day.

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Here at OSFL we want to stimulate discussion: the controversy over Dawkins’ statements brings a serious contradiction in our culture to light, and it’s not one we should let go unnoticed – talk to your friends about the way they look at disability and abortion.

I’ll wrap this up by pointing you in the direction of Madeleine Teahan’s article from last week: she makes the case from personal experience, but doesn’t forget to remind us that we can’t fight the battle using terms like ‘potential’ to lead what we consider a ‘successful’ or ‘fulfilled’ life – because if we do that we’re still basing someone’s worth on a calculation of what someone might be able to do, rather than on what they are. “The right to life is inalienable regardless of capacity,” she says, and it’s of this that we need to remind Dawkins.

(A.O.)

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