Richard Dawkins Defends Telling Twitter User to Abort Her Down Syndrome Child

Cortney O'Brien

8/22/2014 11:20:00 AM - Cortney O'Brien

Down syndrome is a condition in which a baby is born with an extra chromosome. Those diagnosed with the syndrome experience mental disability and a plethora of physical challenges. But, is that really justification for abortion? Ethologist Richard Dawkins thinks so. When a Twitter user asked his opinion on whether she should abort a child after learning he or she would have Down syndrome, he was harshly straightforward:

Because of the criticism he received as a result of the tweet, he wrote a response on his website, richarddawkins.net. He apologized not for the content of his tweet, but for the “feeding frenzy” it prompted, blaming the backlash on the fact that Twitter limited his response to 140 characters. So, he took the opportunity to offer a more in depth answer:

“Obviously the choice would be yours. For what it’s worth, my own choice would be to abort the Down fetus and, assuming you want a baby at all, try again. Given a free choice of having an early abortion or deliberately bringing a Down child into the world, I think the moral and sensible choice would be to abort. And, indeed, that is what the great majority of women, in America and especially in Europe, actually do. I personally would go further and say that, 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. I agree that that personal opinion is contentious and needs to be argued further, possibly to be withdrawn. In any case, 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. Your child would probably have a short life expectancy but, if she did outlive you, you would have the worry of who would care for her after you are gone. No wonder most people choose abortion when offered the choice. Having said that, the choice would be entirely yours and I would never dream of trying to impose my views on you or anyone else.”

His expanded explanation may have been more elaborate, but it’s no less rational. One’s quality of life should not determine whether that person lives or dies, for every life has a purpose. In 140 characters, Dawkins was simply summing up his tragic point: a life with Down syndrome is not a life worth living. I would challenge Dawkins to consider this  statistic: 99 percent of those with the condition report being happy with their lives. 

But, he tweeted this defensive follow up trying to justify that other numbers are on his side:

Again, it may be the “norm,” but that doesn’t make it morally right. Sadly, 90 percent of unborn children diagnosed with Down syndrome are aborted. Why should this be the case? Shouldn’t we be encouraging mothers that yes, their child will have obstacles, but they are strong enough to overcome them? Won’t that mother’s love for her child ultimately trump the challenges that will arise from his or her physical setbacks?

Dawkins didn’t offer any of these considerations and was unapologetic about his first argument:

To conclude, what I was saying simply follows logically from the ordinary pro-choice stance that most us, I presume, espouse. My phraseology may have been tactlessly vulnerable to misunderstanding, but I can’t help feeling that at least half the problem lies in a wanton eagerness to misunderstand.

One mother who gave birth to a child with Down syndrome isn’t letting Dawkins get away with his insensitive comments. Former Governor Sarah Palin had this to say:

“I’d let you meet my son if you promised to open your mind, your eyes, and your heart to a unique kind of absolute beauty,” Palin wrote.

“But, in my request for you to be tolerant, I’d have to warn Trig he must be tolerant, too, because he may superficially look at you as kind of awkward. I’ll make sure he’s polite, though!”