Insensitivity, ignorance and then backtracking does precious little to help people in our society with learning difficulties, says Peter Scott
Richard Dawkins’ now infamous tweet, stating that it would be immoral to give birth to a child who has Down’s syndrome if you had a choice (“Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice”) rightly generated much media interest and public debate. Now that the dust has settled, and tensions have waned, it is worth taking a little time to reflect on what he had to say, and why he felt the need to say it.
Dawkins issued an apology, of sorts, via an article posted on his Foundation website, entitled “Abortion and Down’s Syndrome: An Apology for Letting Slip the Dogs of Twitterwar”.
The title suggests that the apology is in fact for starting a “Twitterwar”, rather than for causing any offence to people who have Down’s syndrome or their loved ones, and indeed this is the case. Rather than acknowledge the offence he caused, or genuinely reflecting on the Twitter “feeding frenzy” it sparked, he seeks only to justify his position and expand on his rationale. It is a response which follows a harsh, logical and unemotional train of thought, and one which lacks any genuine reflection beyond seeking self-justification.
Dawkins apologises for using “abbreviated phraseology which caused so much upset”. He then continues to outline what he would have said had he not been confined by the 140-character limit on Twitter. I fear he has succeeded only in causing more upset.
Dawkins argues that the majority of women in the USA and Europe choose to abort when they discover their unborn child has Down’s syndrome. He continues: “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’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.”
Let me make it clear that I respect each and every woman’s and family’s right to make their own decision on whether or not to choose termination of a pregnancy when a diagnosis of Down’s syndrome is received, and I understand the enormous dilemma people face in these circumstances.
In facing this dilemma, however, people need information, support and balance. The suggestion that the birth of a Down’s syndrome child somehow leads to less happiness and more suffering in the world is, in my view, dangerous, misleading and ignorant.
If this is the kind of view that is shared with people facing this dilemma, it is no wonder that so many choose to abort.
As I type this article, a few yards across the office sits Lesley at her desk. She has worked with us for 22 years. She is working conscientiously as always. She is happy. She is loved. She loves. She is not suffering. She is causing no suffering. She has Down’s syndrome.
Lesley is one of many people I know who have Down’s syndrome. At the risk of stereotyping, they pretty much all seem to be enjoying life. Why wouldn’t they? Life is all about relationships and love. People who have Down’s syndrome love and are loved as much as anyone else.
Dawkins states that he has sympathy for those families who took offence at his view because they have a loved one who has Down’s syndrome. However he is still critical of these people, because their response to his view is emotional (as opposed to logical).
Frankly, I would be very concerned if Dawkins’ view did not illicit an emotional response in all people, never mind those who have a loved one who has Down’s syndrome. And when it comes to matters such as these, I don’t share his view that somehow logic is superior to emotion. Even if it was, however, I consider his own logic to be seriously flawed.
It is based on an assumption that Down’s syndrome is correlated with unhappiness and suffering, and that this unhappiness and suffering is the result of an individual having an extra copy of chromosome 21.
People who have Down’s syndrome, like others who have learning or physical disabilities, do indeed face challenges in life.
However, these challenges, more often than not, are the result of disabling assumptions and societal attitudes which Dawkins at best does nothing to challenge, but which he probably perpetuates.
Dawkins’ article concludes by saying, in relation to the “feeding frenzy” generated by his initial tweet that “at least half the problem lies in a wanton eagerness to misunderstand”.
My reaction, like that of the people I have spoken with about this issue, stems from a wanton eagerness to ensure people who have Down’s syndrome are afforded the dignity and respect they deserve.
• Peter Scott is chief executive officer of ENABLE Scotland www.enable.org.uk