Dawkins, Down’s, and Abortion: A recipe for controversy

Richard Dawkins using social media

Richard Dawkins using social media

Article By Justin McGregor, 2L

The outspoken scientist and well-known atheist Richard Dawkins landed himself in hot water after making what many thought was a highly offensive and insensitive comment on Twitter.

In response to a tweet by a mother who was uncertain what she would do if she was pregnant with a baby with Down syndrome, Dawkins tweeted “Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice”.

Not surprisingly, the comment unleashed a firestorm of criticisms across media outlets, with some even equating Dawkins’ views to those of the Nazis. The Canadian Down Syndrome Society said it was “appalled” by Dawkins’ tweets in a statement posted to its website. Many parents of children with Down syndrome shared pictures and stories of their children on Facebook and other social media websites.

In Dawkins’ defense, it is often difficult to convey anything meaningful in less than 150 characters, particularly when the subject on which you are commenting is as politically charged as abortion. Add to that the touchy issue of prenatal screening and a quick tweet is bound to fall victim to misinterpretations. True, it was tactless and incredibly short-sighted on Dawkins’ part to offer an opinion on such a sensitive and complicated subject in less than 150 characters. However, equating Dawkins to Hitler based on one tweet seems a tad excessive.
Dawkins did attempt to clarify his comment on his website in an article entitled “Abortion & Down Syndrome: An Apology for Letting Slip the Dogs of Twitterwar”. Unfortunately for Dawkins, however, his second stab at expressing his opinion didn’t fully remove his foot from his mouth.
First, Dawkins pleads twitter ignorance and says he thought the comment was private. Apparently he didn’t realize the comment was viewable to the public, not just to the woman at whom it was directed. To me, that sounds awfully like the author of a racist joke saying “I didn’t know anyone else was listening”. Even if genuine, his ignorance doesn’t address the content of the message, which is what people are attacking.

Second, Dawkins makes a half-hearted apology to those who found his comment offensive. I say “half-hearted” because, although he says he never meant to suggest any of the terrible things people accuse him of, and admits his language was “understandably seen in some quarters as rather heartless and callous”, he more or less excuses his comment and shifts the blame to critics with an axe to grind: “my phraseology may have been tactlessly vulnerable to misunderstanding, but I can’t help feeling that at least half of the problem lies in a wanton eagerness to misunderstand”.

Dawkins then seeks to justify his comment by arguing that 1) it is simply based on his moral theory of utilitarianism—that you should wherever possible aim to maximize pleasure and happiness while minimizing pain and suffering—and 2) it is a logical extension of the pro-choice position, which many of his critics presumably espouse.

Generally speaking, it is not a good idea to justify an offensive comment in what is supposed to be a genuine apology for the offensive comment. Anyone who has ever tried to apologize to someone for offending him/her knows this. You only cause insult to injury when you accuse those offended by your comment of being driven by ulterior motives. That conjecture is inconsistent with Dawkins’ earlier admission that his comment could understandably be seen as heartless and callous. If it’s reasonable to see his comment as offensive, then surely it’s also reasonable to say it was offensive. Or to put it another way: If there’s wood to be cut, it’s not fair to criticize people for grinding an axe.

Obviously Down syndrome presents challenges that a child without downs will not have to overcome. However, the assertion that it is morally better for a child not be born at all than to be born with some complications is not a self-evident truth. Whether this is true is a complex ethical question to which there are likely many different, reasonable answers. Down syndrome may make life harder for a child, but a parent might want to nevertheless give the child a chance. Moreover, there are a multitude of different ways to define and measure happiness and well-being. To label the decision of a mother to give life to a fetus immoral seems uncalled for. Who is Dawkins to say who and for what reasons a fetus ought to be brought into this world? The reasoning behind his argument also seems to invite slippery slope criticisms. How much of an impact must congenital complications or defects have before a mother is morally obligated not to bring the child into the world? That question, obviously, isn’t easy to answer, which is precisely the point Dawkins fails to realize.

In any event, I’m not really interested in Dawkins moral defense of his comment. He is after all entitled to his opinion, which is at least somewhat defensible. Where my problem with Dawkins’ comments lies is his claim that they are simply a logical extension of the pro-choice view.

Dawkins makes the case that some of his critics—or “haters” as he calls them—are hypocrites for arguing his comment is offensive. Among those who found Dawkins’ comment offensive are many people who also consider themselves pro-choice. Holding the two views seems to create a paradox. On the one hand, people found Dawkins’ suggestion that a woman should abort a fetus with downs syndrome offensive because it suggested the fetus with downs didn’t deserve a life. On the other hand, the same people also believe that a woman should have the general right to decide whether or not to have an abortion, which logically entails and protects women aborting fetuses because they have downs syndrome. The reason a woman exercises her right to abortion shouldn’t matter if you accept the basic premise of the pro-choice position, which is that a woman has a right to choose whether to carry a fetus to term. Recognizing the general right to make the choice necessarily includes exercises of the right for specific reasons. Dawkins is just advocating exercising the right in a particular circumstance, which most women apparently already do.

Logically, this makes sense. I agree it is internally incoherent and self-contradictory to believe a woman has a general right to get an abortion, but then to also believe it’s wrong to abort a fetus solely because it has downs syndrome, or for that matter any other reason. However, Dawkins misses the more subtle point of the controversy, and appears to be as blind to the hypocrisy within his own response as he alleges against his critics.

What Dawkins said was that it would be immoral not to abort a fetus if you knew it had downs syndrome and had the ability to get an abortion. He maintains this firm view in his unabridged reply, saying, “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”.

To say an act is immoral is to suggest that people have a moral obligation not to engage in the act. Dawkins is therefore saying that a woman has a moral obligation to make a very particular choice with respect to her body (i.e., getting an abortion). And the choice is motivated by a concern that not exercising that choice will potentially cause the baby harm once it is born.

To me, this is logically no different than a pro-life supporter saying a woman shouldn’t get an abortion out of concern for the fetus. Both views claim women have a moral obligation to make a very particular choice in relation to their body, and ground this belief in their own personal moral views which others may reasonably disagree with.

Dawkins’ comments, both in their abridged and full version, are not a logical extension of the pro-choice view. What follows from accepting that women are free to get an abortion is that the morality of the choice, and the specific reasons motivating the choice, is something for a woman to decide. Bold claims about how and why a woman ought to exercise her right, and why it would be immoral for her not to exercise it in a very particular way in a particular circumstance, are, in my opinion, an affront to women’s liberty.

Pro-choice is just that: believing that women ought to have the liberty to make decisions about their body, such as whether to get an abortion. Dawkins may have very good reasons to think it is immoral not to abort a fetus if one knows it has downs syndrome. If he is ever faced with the choice he can follow his morals. Similarly, a Christian may be rationally justified in believing it is immoral to abort a fetus and act accordingly. Neither, however, are in a position to cast moral judgment on the actions of other women, particularly when the choice is a very personal one (as is the case, I think, with deciding whether to have a child with downs) and especially if you claim to support pro-choice, as Dawkins, I presume, does.