Eugenics and Richard Dawkins
"As a scientist, I tend to respond to anything by saying: Is it true? What are the facts?"
Those words were spoken by Richard Dawkins, the renowned evolutionary biologist and even more renowned — some might say notorious — atheist, during a conversation recently on Ireland's RTE Radio 1. Dawkins has published a new book, a collection of writings on science as literature titled Books Do Furnish A Life, and he was appearing on Brendan O'Connor's radio program to publicize it.
Book-tour interviews tend to be gentle, laid-back encounters, and O'Connor's conversation with Dawkins seemed at first to fit that pattern. The two men talked about the role of science in the pandemic, about the beauty and inspiration that Dawkins finds in his scientific work, about scientists who are (unlike Dawkins) religious, and about Charles Darwin's views on race and his passionate opposition to slavery. They also talked about a recent "canceling" of Dawkins by the American Humanist Association, which last month stripped him of an award because in a tweet he had wondered why, if transgender identities are accepted, transracial identities are condemned.
Broadcaster Brendan O'Connor, left, interviewed Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins on Ireland's RTE Radio 1.
Then O'Connor switched gears. He brought up an online exchange from 2014 in which Dawkins had responded to a woman who said she would be faced with a "real ethical dilemma" if she became pregnant with a baby who had Down syndrome. Dawkins's advice: "Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice."
O'Connor, whose daughter Mary was born with Down syndrome in 2010, wanted to ask his distinguished guest about that.
"How do you think it is immoral to bring someone with Down syndrome into the world?"
Dawkins first responded by acknowledging that parents of Down syndrome children undoubtedly love their kids — "I wouldn't deny that for one single moment." But it is almost universally the case, he said, for a pregnancy to be aborted if there is a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome.
O'Connor didn't let him evade the question. No one was challenging a woman's legal right to abort a pregnancy if the baby would be born with Down syndrome, he said. "But why is it immoral not to abort it?"
Well, conceded Dawkins, "that was probably putting it a bit too strongly." But he still insisted that it was wrong to give birth to such a child, "given that the amount of suffering in the world probably does not go down – probably does go up – compared to having another child who doesn't have Down's syndrome."
Even taking Dawkins's assumption at face value, his argument is grotesque. The way to minimize suffering in the world is to destroy in advance anyone who might suffer? By that logic, anyone who is apt to be raised in poverty ought to be aborted. Anyone who might be born into a persecuted or disfavored demographic — a baby of the "wrong" sex, race, religion, or ethnicity — ought to be aborted. An unborn child facing any physical, mental, or circumstantial difficulty ought to be destroyed in the womb, lest more "suffering" be added to the world.
But leave aside Dawkins's bizarre moral calculus. O'Connor asked him for his empirical evidence that when a couple has a baby with Down syndrome, it increases global suffering. Dawkins had avowed earlier that his default approach to everything is to ask "Is it true? What are the facts?" Well, O'Connor wondered, what facts had he gathered about Down syndrome? How does he know that aborting a baby with Down syndrome makes the world less painful?
Buddy Wood, left, and Sutton Ballard were born in Giles County, Va., 63 years apart. Researchers have found that 99 percent of people with Down syndrome are happy with their lives.
"I don't know for certain," the famous scientist admitted. "It seems to me to be plausible that if a child has any kind of disability, then you probably would increase the amount of happiness in the world more by having another child instead."
O'Connor: But you have no reason for knowing that.
Dawkins: I have no direct evidence.
O'Connor: OK. You know you're such a scientific, logical person I thought you could possibly have some logical backup to it. So, do you know anyone with Down syndrome?
Dawkins: Not — not intimately, no.
In other words, when Dawkins confidently asserted that an unborn child with Down syndrome ought to be aborted, he was speaking out of sheer, arrogant ignorance. He was relying not on research and data, but on crude superstition. He was doing, in short, what he so frequently and contemptuously accuses religious believers of doing.
As it happens, science has plenty to say about Down syndrome and the overall impact it has on human life.
Researchers at Children's Hospital in Boston reported in 2011 that "the experience of Down syndrome is a positive one for most parents, siblings, and people with Down syndrome." In three linked national surveys, the research team found that 79 percent of parents of a child with Down syndrome reported that their outlook on life was enhanced because of their child, while 94 percent of brothers and sisters of someone with Down syndrome expressed pride in their sibling. As for the people with Down syndrome themselves, an astonishing 99 percent said they were happy with their lives, 97 percent liked who they are, and 96 percent liked how they look. Only 4 percent expressed sadness about their life.
This is the "increased suffering" that Dawkins insists it would be immoral not to prevent through abortion.
What the hospital researchers documented statistically, many people who have relatives with Down syndrome have documented in personal narratives. One such account was published last week at the website Tortoise by Simon Barnes, an admirer of Dawkins's scientific work who is also the father of Eddie Barnes, a 20-year-old man with Down syndrome. "We weren't forced to have Eddie because of tyrannical religious prejudices," Barnes writes.
It was a decision based on the subject Dawkins has written about with such certainty: life. My wife had a child inside her and we chose not to kill it. Such was our right. Other people make other decisions; that is their right and I don't go about calling them immoral.
But I would like to explain to such people – before they make the decision to abort – that Eddie was born and lives and thrives. When he was at his mainstream primary school, the head teacher said that he made the school a better place: more caring, more considerate. The pupils voted to give him their annual Peace Prize.
These days, he works two days a week at the excellent Clinks Care Farm down the road from us in Norfolk. He recently completed an Open University Course in photography, for which he was given a mark of 89 per cent. He has a passion for music. He is a valued member of his community. He has good friends of all ages, including his own, and I think they would all say that knowing Eddie has enriched their lives. He and I chase wildlife together. He asks questions like, "How does a buzzard come to fly like that?" I can answer that because I've read Darwin and Dawkins. I am wiser for reading them. I am also wiser in many ways for living with Eddie for the past 20 years.
Sometimes Eddie will tell us, "I love my life." In my view, that's a good reason for letting him have it. Eddie loves and is loved: is that not a sufficient qualification for life?
In his interview on RTE Radio, Dawkins was asked what other imperfections he would "screen out" through abortion. His reply: "Deafness, blindness . . . [any] easily diagnosable disability."
O'Connor wanted to make sure he was hearing Dawkins correctly: "You believe that if we can check for deafness or blindness or any other disability, that we should abort those children — those fetuses?"
Dawkins: Well, it's a choice that the parents have.
O'Connor: Do you think it would be immoral not to do it?
Dawkins: Let's leave out the immoral.
O'Connor: You brought immoral into it.
Dawkins: Okay, well, I take that back. But it would be wise — I think it would be wise and sensible to abort a child that had a serious disability that was diagnosed early in pregnancy.
There is a name for Dawkins's attitude, though he never uses it. He is an advocate of eugenics, which held that "undesirable" populations should be reduced or eliminated by preventing them from being born in the first place. In many states in the early 20th century, the eugenics movement succeeded in passing laws to mandate the sterilization of people deemed unfit for reproduction. In the notorious 1927 case of Buck v. Bell, the Supreme Court upheld the right of state governments to forcibly sterilize "feebleminded" citizens. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, writing for the majority, proclaimed it "better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind."
Similarly fixated on perfecting the human race through eugenics was Margaret Sanger, the founder of the American Birth Control League, which was later renamed Planned Parenthood. In her influential 1922 book, The Pivot Of Civilization, Sanger called for "immediate, stern, and definite" action to solve the "problem of the feeble-minded and the menace of the moron" — those she regarded as the "dead weight of human waste." She denounced the provision of free medical care to "slum mothers," since that "would facilitate . . . maternity among the very classes in which the absolute necessity is to discourage it."
Eugenics fell into disfavor only after it was enthusiastically embraced by Nazi Germany, which not only sterilized an estimated 400,000 people against their will, but also murdered more than 300,000 German citizens with cognitive and physical disabilities. Needless to say, no one today advocates that babies born with Down syndrome be euthanized. But Dawkins is far from alone in advocating that those who would be born with the disorder be killed before they can take their first breath.
In much of Europe, the abortion rate after a prenatal Down syndrome diagnosis is above 90 percent. In Iceland, where prenatal screening is widespread, "we have basically eradicated, almost, Down syndrome from our society," geneticist Kari Stefansson told CBS a few years ago. Stefansson made clear that he disapproved of the "heavy-handed genetic counseling" that led to those results, but CBS promoted its story with an unmistakably upbeat tagline: "Iceland is on pace to virtually eliminate Down syndrome through abortion."
Except that Iceland and other European nations aren't eliminating Down syndrome at all. They are eliminating people. They are deliberately targeting a certain category of "unfit" persons for elimination. And so is the United States, where about 75 percent of women who learn that they are carrying a baby with Down syndrome abort the pregnancy, according to a meta-study published in 2012.
In a 2018 Washington Post column, George Will remarked bluntly that this sustained and largely successful campaign to abort anyone with Down syndrome deserved to be labeled genocide. That is the proper term, he wrote, for any "deliberate, systematic attempt to erase a category of people." When prenatal specialists strongly encourage such abortions, when prominent scientists like Dawkins declare that the world would be happier without Down syndrome babies, what they are really promoting is a "Final Solution to the Down syndrome problem."
Baseball fan Jon Will, standing with his father George F. Will, gives the Washington Nationals lineup card to the umpire on Opening Day in 2010.
As it happens, Will has good reason to shun euphemisms in discussing the subject: His oldest child, Jonathan, has Down syndrome. So he knows only too well how much joy and goodness the world would have missed out on if his son's life had been destroyed in utero. "Judging by Jon," Will wrote when his son turned 40 in 2013, "the world would be improved by more people with Down syndrome, who are quite nice, as humans go."
In 2021, any civilized person regards with horror the compulsory sterilization of disabled people that was once championed by medical and political elites. The day is coming when those who urge the destruction of unborn human beings with Down syndrome will evoke the same repugnance. In the meantime, Richard Dawkins has been revealed as a smug and uninformed bigot. It's not much, but it's a step in the right direction.
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(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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