First Things 22 August 2014
Dear Dr. Dawkins,
Earlier this week, on Twitter, you drew attention to a troubling fact unknown to most people. You pointed out that in the United States and Europe, most children conceived with Down syndrome are aborted. You’re right. Some experts put the number as high as 90 percent. Others suggest that only 65 percent, or 70 percent, or 80 percent of children with Down syndrome are aborted. The actual number is probably very difficult to determine. You have a platform, Dr. Dawkins, an audience, and in some real way I’m very grateful that you drew attention to the pre-natal eradication of people with Down syndrome.
But you made your point about the ubiquity of Down syndrome abortion in order to defend a terrible assertion. You suggested on Twitter, Dr. Dawkins, a moral imperative to abort children conceived with Down Syndrome. You said that if a woman had the choice to abort such a child, and she failed to so, she would have acted immorally. I’m troubled by that, and, very honestly, I’m confused.
You’ve traditionally held a position of moral neutrality regarding abortion. You’ve asserted that killing animals, with the capacity to experience pain, fear, and suffering, is of greater moral significance than killing fetuses: nascently human, you assert, but without the kind of sentience that gives them moral significance. You’ve suggested that no carnivore can reasonably hold a position in opposition to abortion. You’re not alone in that position, it’s become de rigueur among most contemporary analytic ethicists.
I disagree with your position. I’ve long ago concluded that the fetus, the embryo, and in fact, the zygote are human beings—undeveloped, certainly, but possessing the dignity and the rights of sentient adults.
Despite my disagreement, I recognize that you’ve tried to apply your viewpoint with consistency across a variety of ethical situations.
Until this week. This week, you moved from presenting abortion as a morally neutral act to asserting that the abortion of some people—genetically disabled people—is a moral good. A moral imperative, in fact. You haven’t asserted a basis for this position. I suspect you believe that people with Down syndrome suffer, needlessly, and cause undue suffering to their friends and relatives. And, as a general principle, I believe you’re inclined to obviate as much human suffering as possible.
You’ve often said that people who disagree with you should “go away, and learn how to think.” I’ve tried to learn to think, over the years, but perhaps I am naive in some ways. But one of things I’ve concluded is that ethical philosophy can’t be done in a sterile environment—that our humanity, our intuition, our empathy, in fact, must be recognized as a source of ethical insight if we want to think well. Perhaps you believe that your position on abortion and down syndrome is logically valid. But I wonder if you’re kept awake at night by the revulsion that comes with being the champion of killing.
Suffering is not a moral evil to be avoided. Suffering can have meaning and value. Ask Victor Frankl. Or Mohandas Gandhi. Or Martin Luther King, Jr. Or, if you’re willing, ask my children.
I have two children with Down syndrome. They’re adopted. Their birth-parents faced the choice to abort them, and didn’t. Instead the children came to live with us. They’re delightful children. They’re beautiful. They’re happy. One is a cancer survivor, twice-over. I found that in the hospital, as she underwent chemotherapy and we suffered through agony and exhaustion, our daughter Pia was more focused on befriending nurses and stealing stethoscopes. They suffer, my children, but in the context of irrepressible joy.
I wonder, if you spent some time with them, whether you’d feel the same way about suffering, about happiness, about personal dignity. I wonder, if you danced with them in the kitchen, whether you’d think abortion was in their best interest. I wonder, if you played games with them, or shared a joke with them, whether you’d find some worth in their existence.
And so, Dr. Dawkins, I’d like to invite you to dinner. Come spend time with my children. Share a meal with them. Before you advocate their deaths, come find out what’s worthwhile in their lives. Find out if the suffering is worth the joy.
I don’t want you to come over for a debate. I don’t want to condemn you. I want you to experience the joy of children with Down syndrome. I want your heart to be moved to joy as well.
Any day next week is good for us except for Wednesday.
JD Flynn writes from Lincoln, Nebraska.