Downs syndrome babyRichard Dawkins has achieved another piece of self-publicity. A woman said she would face a real ethical dilemma if she became pregnant with a baby with Down’s syndrome. He replied ‘Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice’.

Naturally there was an outcry, and Dawkins published one of those non-apologies that we often get from public figures these days.

 

Here is my attempt to clarify the main issues.

The ethics of abortion

Some people are against abortion in any circumstances, or with very few exceptions. In this instance the assumption is that abortion is sometimes morally acceptable, and the question is whether Downs syndrome is sufficient reason. It is a legitimate question.

The sanctity of life

That life is sacred is a central belief of most societies. If you hadn’t been born you would have had no experiences at all, so you are pleased that your parents did not have an abortion when you were on the way. You recognise that the same applies to everyone else.

Nevertheless in another sense it is all relative. Your parents conceived you at a specific time on a specific day. If they had conceived five minutes earlier, a different sperm cell would have reached the egg. You would never have been born. Somebody else might have been born instead. There was no obligation on your parents to conceive you rather than the other person. The planet is not big enough to bring to birth all the possible babies. Nature, which makes sacred life possible, wastes most of it. If we waste a few more, the world’s population is still going up. Although it conflicts with our sense of the sanctity of life, in practice individuals and couples do select some possible babies for life and others for non-life. Of course we select blindly, not knowing what the potential babies will be like, but we do select, if only by deciding when and how often to allow conception.

This may leave us feeling that we cannot possibly do the right thing. It is considerations like this that convince people that there is more to life than an arbitrarily selected set of individuals living 70 or 80 years and then being snuffed out for ever. Perhaps ‘we’ are souls inhabiting different bodies at different times, or we are all part of each other in some way we cannot now see. We do not know. What we do know is the apparent contradiction: nature gives us life which is absolutely sacred, and wastes most of it.

Bonding

To the logical awareness of the sanctity of life is added the emotional tie of love. Characteristically parents love their babies even before they are born. After birth the bonds get stronger. These bonds are essential for the child’s development, and the parents’ feelings are of course a central part of any decision-making. This is why it is so much easier for a public commentator to advise abortion than for parents to accept the advice.

Eugenics

Dawkins stands in that long tradition of social engineering which believes the educated elite can make us happier by improving the condition of human society, for example by eugenics. Dawkins is quite open in his support for eugenics. Defending his position he argues:

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's 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.

Within Dawkins’ materialist philosophy this does not make sense. How could the welfare of a Downs syndrome baby be improved by abortion, unless the soul is to be reincarnated in a different baby? Dawkins may have in mind that the parents could then try for another baby, but on his theory it would be a different person: the first would be replaced by the second. Giles Fraser rightly argues that

too many humanists… place the category “human” quite a long way down their order of importance, with things such as rationality or choice or the avoidance of pain being deemed of greater significance. Human life can thus be easily traded away in some utilitarian calculation.

Emotion and logic

In an additional piece of self-defence Dawkins adds:

Those who took offence because they know and love a person with Down's syndrome, and who thought I was saying that their loved one had no right to exist, I have sympathy for this emotional point, but it is an emotional one not a logical one. It is one of a common family of errors, one that frequently arises in the abortion debate.

This explains a lot. His moral judgements are based on a logic from which emotion has been excised.

On the face of it this is entirely fitting for a social engineer who thinks science and technology are going to make us happier by techniques like eugenics.

However, without emotions there cannot be any morality, because nothing would ever matter. Without emotions the project of making us happier would be impossible. If there was no emotion hidden away in Dawkins’ interior, camouflaged by his technocratic façade, he would not want to improve the lot of humanity. All our agendas need emotion as well as logic.

Conclusion

I disagree with Dawkins for two main reasons.

  1. We cannot have an emotion-free morality. Dawkins, as a moral guide, does no better than the traditional Roman Catholic magisterium when it tried to pronounce on every moral issue by analysing its logic. If abortion is to be considered, the views of the parents should be central. Their feelings matter.
  2. Eugenics misses the moral point. It is not just Hitler who should warn us against thinking we can improve the lot of humanity by getting rid of certain classes of people. As an atheist it is natural for Dawkins to imagine that intelligent scientists like himself can improve on nature, since nature produced us unintentionally. I believe the natural order was produced by a mind far greater than his.

So far, scientific research supports my case rather than his. As science progresses it is not getting closer to an understanding of how everything works so that we can control it. On the contrary, every major discovery reveals that the universe is even more complex than we previously thought.

I agree with Dawkins in his desire to improve the happiness of humanity. He thinks it can be done by techniques, as science and technology find ways to exclude people with Downs syndrome and other limitations. I think it is to be done by a more immediate morality, by accepting whoever we are given and caring for them for their own sakes.