Abortion & Down Syndrome: An Apology for Letting Slip the Dogs of Twitterwar

Aug 21, 2014

by Richard Dawkins

Those intrepid enough to venture onto my Twitter feed will have noticed a new feeding frenzy yesterday (20th August 2014), for which I apologise. The issue is the morality of abortion following screening for Down syndrome.

Down Syndrome, or Trisomy 21, results from the presence of an extra copy (or partial copy) of Chromosome 21. Symptoms vary but usually include characteristic facial features especially eye shape, abnormal growth patterns, and moderate mental disability. Life expectancy is reduced, and those who survive through adulthood often need special care as though they are children. Parents who care for their children with Down Syndrome usually form strong bonds of affection with them, as they would with any child. These feelings are sincere and mutual, and probably account for some of the hate tweets I have been experiencing (see below).

Screening for the chromosomal abnormality is normally offered, especially to older mothers who are more likely to have a child with the condition. When Down Syndrome is detected, most couples opt for abortion and most doctors recommend it.\

Yesterday a woman on Twitter, one of our respected regulars on RichardDawkins.net, said she would be unsure what to do if she found a fetus she was carrying had Down Syndrome. I replied to her, beginning my reply with @ which – or so I thought (I’m told Twitter’s policy on this might recently have changed) – meant it would not go to all my million followers but only to the minority of people who follow both her and me. That was my intention. However, it doesn’t stop people who go out of their way to find such tweets, even if they don’t automatically pop up on their Twitter feeds. Many did so, and the whole affair blew up into the feeding frenzy I mentioned.

Here is what I would have said in my reply to this woman, given more than 140 characters:

“Obviously the choice would be yours. For what it’s worth, my own choice would be to abort the Down fetus and, assuming you want a baby at all, try again. 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. And, indeed, that is what the great majority of women, in America and especially in Europe, actually do.  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 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. I agree that that personal opinion is contentious and needs to be argued further, possibly to be withdrawn. In any case, you would probably be condemning yourself as a mother (or yourselves as a couple) to a lifetime of caring for an adult with the needs of a child. Your child would probably have a short life expectancy but, if she did outlive you, you would have the worry of who would care for her after you are gone. No wonder most people choose abortion when offered the choice. Having said that, the choice would be entirely yours and I would never dream of trying to impose my views on you or anyone else.”

That’s what I would have said, if a woman were to ask my advice. As you might notice, it takes a lot more than 140 characters! I condensed it down to a tweet, and the result was understandably seen in some quarters as rather heartless and callous: “Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice.” Of course I regret using abbreviated phraseology which caused so much upset. I never wanted to “cry havoc”!

Now to the upset itself. The haters came from various directions:-

  1. Those who are against abortion under any circumstances. The majority fell into this category. I’m not going to get into that old debate. My position, which I would guess is shared by most people reading this, is that a woman has a right to early abortion, and I personally would not condemn her for choosing it. If you disagree, fair enough; many do, often on religious grounds. But then your quarrel is not just with me but with prevailing medical opinion and with the decision actually taken by most people who are faced with the choice.
  2. Those who thought I was bossily telling a woman what to do rather than let her choose. Of course this was absolutely not my intention and I apologise if brevity made it look that way. My true intention was, as stated at length above, simply to say what I personally would do, based upon my own assessment of the pragmatics of the case, and my own moral philosophy which in turn is based on a desire to increase happiness and reduce suffering.
  3. Those who thought I was advocating a kind of mob rule, when I pointed out that a majority of women, when facing this dilemma, as a matter of fact do choose abortion. Wasn’t that like saying “Hanging is right because if you took a plebiscite most people would bring back hanging.”? No, I was not advocating mob rule. I was simply suggesting that those hurling accusations of Nazism, vile, monstrous fascistic callousness etc., should reflect that their fireballs of hatred might as well be aimed directly at the great majority of the women who have actually faced the dilemma. Might that not give you pause before you accuse one individual of being a brute simply because he spells out the thinking behind the majority choice?
  4. Those who thought I was advocating a eugenic policy and who therefore compared me to Hitler. That never entered my head, nor should it have. Down Syndrome has almost zero heritability. That means that, although it is a congenital condition – a chromosomal abnormality that babies are born with – there is very little tendency for susceptibility to trisomy to be inherited genetically. If you were eugenically inclined, you’d be wasting your time screening for Down syndrome. You’d screen for genuinely heritable conditions where your screening would make a difference to future generations.
  5. Those who took offence because they know and love a person with Down 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. Another version of it is “The Great Beethoven Fallacy” discussed in Chapter 8 of The God Delusion. I combated it in a tweet as follows: “There’s a profound moral difference between ‘This fetus should now be aborted’ and ‘This person should have been aborted long ago’.” I would never dream of saying to any person, “You should have been aborted before you were born.” But that reluctance is fully compatible with a belief that, at a time before a fetus becomes a “person”, the decision to abort can be a moral one. If you think about it, you pretty much have to agree with that unless you are against all abortion in principle.The definition of “personhood” is much debated among moral philosophers and this is not the place to go into it at length. Briefly, I support those philosophers who say that, for moral purposes, an adult, a child and a baby should all be granted the rights of a person. An early fetus, before it develops a nervous system, should not.  As embryonic development proceeds towards term, the morality of abortion becomes progressively more difficult to assess. There is no hard and fast dividing line. As I have argued in “The Tyranny of the Discontinuous Mind”, the definition of personhood is a gradual, “fading in / fading out” definition. In any case, this is a problem that faces anybody on the pro-choice side of the general abortion debate.

To conclude, what I was saying simply follows logically from the ordinary pro-choice stance that most us, I presume, espouse. My phraseology may have been tactlessly vulnerable to misunderstanding, but I can’t help feeling that at least half the problem lies in a wanton eagerness to misunderstand.

810 comments on “Abortion & Down Syndrome: An Apology for Letting Slip the Dogs of Twitterwar

  • My wife and I faced this moral dilemma when she was pregnant with our son. We were older parents, and considered the risk that a trisomy-21 child would impact our ability to provide for our (then 3-year-old) daughter. We opted for amniocentesis, and we decided that we would terminate the pregnancy if this condition were present. It was not a decision made lightly. Fortunately, we did not have to act on our resolution.

    Just as strongly as I (we) feel that this was the right decision for us, I believe others in the same situation should be free to choose differently. My heat breaks for several friends and colleagues who have special-needs children, and I would never suggest that they made the wrong decision. But I have no apologies for my potential actions.

    I am sorry Dr. Dawkins has had to field so much criticism. I understand what he meant to say, even in the abbreviated format used. Sadly, as he indicated, many of his critics would have considered his point of view wrong under any circumstances.


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  • I would proscribe a Twitter-ectomy. It is impossible to say anything meaningful in 140 characters, apart from witty, pithy or vitriolic one liners. Argue you case, as you did above, if you must on another “Crime Against Humanity”, Facebook, but argue it as you did above, with space to construct a rational argument. You are a watched and targeted person. If you don’t spell it out rationally, so the quick on the drawn can comprehend it (If they have the attention span to read anything longer than 140 characters) , and negate their arguments before they reach for the QWERTY, this type of storm will follow you to the grave, and likely continue after you’ve gone on to meet Hitch in atheists heaven. Cancel your twitter account.

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  • Whenever I see a family with a Downs Syndrome child, I feel really sorry for them. I don’t feel sorry for the child because they normally present a rather cheerful picture. Other children in the family can be adversely affected because this situation impacts on their lives as well.
    If I were in that situation I know that I’d undergo a termination, though I certainly wouldn’t want this to be mandatory, just advisable.
    I’m not opposed to abortion of a healthy foetus so I think it would be hypocritical of me to advocate that a special needs child be brought into the world.

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  • Many Down’s foetuses spontaneously abort at around 12 weeks. ‘God’ is the great slayer. The few that are born beat odds more staggering than those faced by the rest of us in order to live. Had I known my wife was carrying a Down’s baby I am certain we would have opted for abortion. The reasons for this are complex and not all of them are noble one’s but that is human’s being human. We are all fearful of things we don’t understand or things we don’t feel we can cope with. As it happens my wife nearly lost our daughter at the 12 week stage and our lives might have been different. Rest and care averted the miscarriage and our daughter emerged full term. Doctor’s immediately alerted us to a potential issue and tests later confirmed their fears. That was 33 years ago. We brought her back to the UK for heart surgery by the late great surgeon Leon Abrams and worked like demons to educate her. She is now a healthy adult, manages most of her own money and affairs, buys her own clothes, goes shopping for essentials. She’s literate, fairly numerate and can use computers and all the latest iPhones etc etc. Loves good food music and dance and basically she has a good life. I’m so glad I wasn’t given the opportunity to deprive her of these few decades of consciousness. It has been staggeringly hard but I have no regrets. I would not however take issue with anyone who thought abortion was the best option. It’s their opinion and there is something to be said for it. Some parents who have Down’s kids can’t or won’t cope and abandon them to the state.

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  • Dude…
    I understand what you were trying to say, but Twitter just doesn’t seem to be your thing. Not your fault, but the format is too limited for the type of conversation that you’re creating.

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  • Sir,

    With respect, it seems to me that Twitter is not your best medium. This post comes on the heels of your recent tweets – and subsequent clarifications – on taboo subjects, in which you used rape as an example. “Dear Muslima” also comes to mind. While I am sympathetic with your use of social media to connect with a larger audience, might I suggest that nuanced and thoughtful commentary such as this is not best served with a 140 character limit?

    Best regards,

    Jay Lonner
    Bellingham, WA, USA

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  • Admittedly, I cringed when I saw the tweet that started this tweetwar even though I understood what you meant, and agree with it in context. But it sounded very harsh in the constrained format as you described. I do think if I were you in this scenario (unsolicited advice coming), I would publish a simple apology, unfettered with explanation or defensiveness. Have the debate on semantics and intentions on another page, another thread or in another venue. But a simple apology like “I’m sorry to those offended by my tweet, especially to those with or who care for someone with Down Syndrome. I can see how it came across as insensitive even though that was not my intention.”

    Seems like that would have put the fire out for most people–maybe not the anti-choice folks, but for most of the people who appreciate your great contributions to science and skepticism. I think far too often, when we try to apologize, especially public figures, the temptation to justify and defend overshadows the sincerity of the actual apology and just gives opportunity for more misunderstanding, more fighting over semantics and more hurt.

    Wish you the best.

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  • 8
    Jan (BGS) says:

    I would definitely not want RD to stop using twitter but I do agree with D. Allen that his account is watched closely by the perpetually outraged with hopes of something to jump on. The hate storm that follows is sad, misinformed and ridiculously over blown. These kinds of topics are best tackled in a blog post and twitter used to link to it…in that order.

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  • Hi Richard,
    Might I suggest you get someone to read whatever you might want to tweet whenever you feel like tweeting, before you post it? I’ve followed you for some time and I know you always have a good point to make, but even lectures can’t be just a torrent of information – you need to make it tasty, or at least not distasteful for your audience.

    Hope you take this into consideration. Cheers.

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  • You need not feel sorry for people simply because you do not understand their situation. When you or anyone else shares pity for those who have a family member with DS is simply an expression of your unfortunate ignorance. Be brave and allow for the possibility that it is your family who deserves our pity.

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  • Richard,

    I do completely agree with what you mean. I do however sometimes wish you could be more like Christopher Hitchens. By the way you sometimes talk in discussion, you seem to alienate people from our cause. You get angry (understandable if you see what kind of people you are up against), or you seem to be talking down to people. Richard please continue with your work, but look at some of the videos of discussions of you and of CH. Try to see how you could improve and be a little bit more like him.

    Oh and thank you for your years of good work.

    With kind regards,

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  • I agree with Richard’s answer. Yet I don’t see the word “father” anywhere. I tend to think it can be undervalued. Clearly the mother is a priority, yet in many cases there is another individual fully engaged.

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  • @M
    I expected such a response though I hope you appreciate the fact that I was being brutally honest and not resorting to fake sentimentality. At one stage of our lives we lived next door to a family who included a mature girl with Downs Syndrome. The remaining four children paid a price, more’s the pity. These considerations should be factored in by the parents when making life decisions
    Parents of special needs children must love them dearly, I’m sure. They need to be fully aware of the long term prospects nevertheless..

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  • 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 baby […] might actually be immoral

    The assessment that it would be ‘more moral’ to abort the child does essentially seem to entail the suggestion that women who have not taken this choice have acted immorally. But that is the problem with the kind of utilitarian calculative morality espoused by Dawkins that assumes that various discrete instances of things like happiness and suffering can be parsed into commensurable units and counted; you end up with a hard division between moral and immoral, the dividing line being somewhere between acts-that-infinitesimally-increase-suffering and acts-that-infinitesimally-decrease-suffering. A further problematic implication of this is that it is unclear where (if anywhere) to draw the line; what amounts to an ‘acceptable’ or ‘bearable enough’ disability to make it not immoral to proceed with the pregnancy? If doing the right thing means doing the thing that will overall increase net happiness (assuming some kind of implausible informational omniscience where we could even know what that would be) then there ought to be a whole lot of abortions.

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  • Mr. Dawkins, fellow secularists;

    It seems as though a great many Americans have invaded this twitter feed like a Las Vegas buffet. I have to admit that I was a bit surprised when Mr. Dawkins took to twitter; sir twitter is a convention of sub literates for the most part, and one that never ceases, much like Hitchen’s parody of the religious afterlife. Consider your audience, share perhaps an anecdote, although this would surely sail over the heads of those who through willful ignorance strive to misunderstand and misrepresent your point of view. Try not to hold it against us, we’re a young country with a teenagers perspective concerning secularism. We have yet to outgrow our childish attachment to religion; regrettably this statement is an insult to children everywhere. Carry on. Cheers

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  • Lucas, really? With king regards please try and be more like Christopher Hitchens? I miss him to, he’s a hero to many of us of course. What our community needs is a greater variety of speakers and activists. I get your point, but the religious spokespersons need to be knocked on their asses now and again.

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  • Professor Dawkins,

    That’s it, I’ve had enough. I’m out.
    I have been a follower of yours for 20 years now. I marvelled at the Selfish Gene and Blind Watchmaker, both of which I devoured as part of my adolescent intellectual awakening. I thrilled at the God Delusion and publicised it wherever I could. I dismissed those who said you were too divisive, too angry.
    I stared at my feet as you began offending regular people through Twitter, thinking you might get the hang of it soon, you’re a reasonable man.
    But you’ve lost me now with your comments on Down Syndrome.
    It’s not even that I disagree with your reasoning, it does make sense on a purely dispassionate level. But that’s not the point, is it? You have to understand that your comments are not private but are read by millions.
    You are acting like Mr Spock, the emotionless Vulcan from Star Trek who cannot understand that others may have motivations that aren’t purely logical.
    And then these mealy-mouthed apologies where you continue to defend your reasoning, inflaming passions further rather than pouring oil on troubled waters. Just say sorry, let it be and think more about feelings next time.
    You’re losing credibility and a few more supporters each time you get embroiled in one of these Professor. It’s not becoming.
    Dr Danny Morland.

    Disclaimer: I am a pro-choice atheist and have a son who has Down Syndrome.

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  • M,

    I am sympathetic to your position, I fully support your right to choose as you have. And I can understand how given your choice you may feel that Richard having said what he did in his tweet you might feel personally attacked. However, unless you wish to tar yourself with the same brush you are accusing Richard of then you should back off the aggression. There will be people on this site who have with great consideration made the opposite choice than you. Your comments seem to indicate the same level of vitriol you are claiming Richard is guilty of. One guy I work with has a profoundly mentally handicapped son he suffers from a multitude of other related issues and I mean suffers. The father deeply loves and cares for his son and will be doing so until he drops. I have asked him if he had known in time if they would have aborted he says yes. Now, I’m sure you get attitude from people who you brindle against with various judgements questioning your choice to not abort. But please don’t assume you are the only one to have made a valid decision, unless you wish to submit others to your judgement. Please take some care for others who may have made the opposite decision to you for perfectly good reasons.

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  • Thank you Danny,
    Beautifully put, and not only my sentiments as well, but a lot of my atheist friends are saying the same. I would love Professor Dawkins to take a long hard look at himself and the way he relates to the world. I think we need people like Professor Dawkins, but not if they seem not to understand the basics of human interaction. This isn’t fluff – it’s at the heart of how ideas are communicated and arguments are made truly persuasive.
    Martin Jacobs

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  • Richard,
    Firstly, please consider your titles before posting these wildly intelligent statements. We are of course all duty-bound to bow down to your superior intellect, but I must point out what I am sure is a very rare error for somebody of your stature. The title would be more accurate if it read “Abortion & Down Syndrome: An Apology for all those arseholes disagreeing with my offensive bollocks”. Just a thought.

    Whether a person feels, like a certain German chap, or perhaps the bearded terrorist and his hate filled mates, that all people should look and act the same; or whether a person is a tolerant and socially educated person, generally I feel that most would agree that we should keep our offensive thoughts within our heads, or perhaps within closed groups of like minded ignorant individuals…but then again, we’re heading back to Adolf and Osama’s ways with that idea so maybe not such a good plan.

    Anyhow Richard, what I’m getting at is simple, we’re taught from a young age that we should think before we speak, or type in your case. You have upset a lot of people. People who did not look for your comments, people who did not seek to misunderstand you, nor did they want a twitter war. They are parents, friends, family of people with Down’s Syndrome, and people who also have the extra chromosome themselves. For the offence, hurt and anger you have caused with your ignorance, or educated opinion, depending on how your prefer to describe it, the upshot is not pleasant. The world is moving on Richard, and whilst I agree with many of your standpoints, this is not one I can subscribe to, because I have been there. I have had the news, I have had the worry, I have had the sympathetic looks but above all I have held both of my children and fell head over heels immediately.

    I have a beautiful daughter, and a handsome son. I didn’t have to grow to love either, I simply did, unquestionably and without reservation. One of my children has provided extra challenges, extra emotional stress and worry, but so has the other. They are going through their own development pathways, with their own challenges, sadly one of them will have to face the upset that people with your views cause.

    For someone who is so against religion, you appear to enjoy playing God a little too much for my liking! Anyway, congratulations to your publicist, a few more people now know your name, you’ve reached a whole new group of people, good people who have enough to worry about but now have the extra upset and worry that they are somehow immoral for loving their child regardless of how many copies of C21 they have.

    Now Dick, grow some balls and apologise

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  • I think RD has more than clarified his position in this post. But then, being pro-choice myself maybe my opinion is a bit biased… However the morality/ happiness arguments made here got me thinking…

    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…

    Thousands of female children in India are abandoned/ aborted every year (despite the strict laws forbidding sex determination in ultrasound clinics). The girl child is considered undesirable (at least in rural India) in a society where getting daughters married (with dowry et al) causes entire families to drown in a sea of financial debt that cannot be paid in one lifetime. Can the “increase happiness/ reduce suffering” argument then justify their actions in the face of immense social pressure and economic burdens that are a part of raising a girl child, in an extremely patriarchal, male-centric society?
    If the answer is “no”, then where does one draw the line? Is there a degree of “handicap” in an unborn child that can justify an abortion?

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  • Dawkins would probably fail your post under the category of the “tyranny of the discontinuous mind.” Yes, the logical conclusion is that he is saying that those who knowingly chose to have a DS child acted immorally, using his own definitions (which I agree with). It is, of course, more complicated than that given all other mitigating factors, but let’s focus on your central premise.

    Your discontinuous mind feels the need to equate this “immoral” decision with, say, genocide, but that is your limitation. Others are quite content with the concept that something which causes only a minor decrease in unhappiness is only slightly immoral.

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  • So, H3000, is it your contention that the decision of mothers to bring to the world a Down Syndrome child knowingly, i.e. having been told prenatally about the condition their child would have if born, is morally justified? Knowing a child will have a mental disability and likely, a reduced life span? Knowing chances will be that child may never be able to look after itself and will therefore require constant care? I guess those mothers who choose to abort such fetuses follow the ‘utilitarian calculative morality’ you obviously do not hold much regard for, as I am sure such mothers (and fathers) undergo the painful but thorough process of drawing the ‘dividing line being somewhere between acts-that-infinitesimally-increase-suffering and acts-that-infinitesimally-decrease-suffering’, in order to make the decision for abortion.

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  • Do you have a list of topics at hand about which we should avoid talking logically? That would be most convenient for everyone concerned. Even if you can’t see the absurdity of that, consider that your list would differ from everyone else’s list of sensitive topics and we’d end up with very little that we could indeed discuss rationally.

    You say that you marveled at the Blind Watchmaker and were thrilled by the God Delusion. Did you find them to be well balanced between rational argument and emotional sentiment? I, personally, did not find any patronizing emotional arguments in those two, and if there had been they would not only be unreadable, but insufferable. Why should your sensitivities trump those who are offended by analyzing religion too closely?

    Yes, it is harder to be calmly rational about a topic that you personally find sensitive, but if you can’t stomach that then you never understood the principles to begin with (and you’d be a hypocrite). The test of free speech is allowing speech that you disagree with or find offensive.

    Dawkins fully understands that others have motivations that aren’t purely logical (or logical at all). What he doesn’t understand is that others will not tolerate when he wants to analyze a sensitive topic logically. (Actually, of course, he understands that too, he just doesn’t care.)

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  • Good phrase, David: “Richard, you are a watched and targeted person.” Given that Twitter is linguistic communication at its most basic, it seems ill advised to use it for hot button topics that require nuanced explanation.

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  • Do you think that aborting females results in more happiness for the people of India or less? If the people of India are ultimately better off by this practice then how could you possibly be against it?

    You don’t need Dawkins to answer for you.

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  • Aborting a fetus, no matter if it had any abnormalities, should and is in most of the civilized world accepted although frowned upon as a type of after-the-fact birth control by a minority, which personally I can’t accept is as common as some would say.

    If the reason for the pregnancy is to have a child, then aborting when there is an abnormality, of the sort that anyone would opt out of if they could, is totally understandable, and in fact I agree with RD that it is in a way a moral decision of the good kind.

    a test question, I put this before people when talking about abortions and these abnormalities, and I often do, because I work with people with disabilities ( DS is one of the lesser cases) and I do so very well, because people who are already in this world for what ever reason, should and usually do (at least in my country) get a very good life given their conditions. But on to the question.

    lets say there is something called a soul, and in a very slowed down time scale, there is a line of them waiting for the next body down on earth that’s available, so as soon as another body is born, you “jump in” so to speak, utter non-sense of course, but imagine it anyway 😛 , now, there is a red button at the gateway, and before you jump through the gateway into your respective body, you get information about it’s condition, and everyone gets to use the red button as a “no thank you, lets try once more and see if I get something else” , would you press the button if, when you’re up for the next body, you got the information that your body had DS, or some other abnormality.

    I haven’t met a person so far that hasn’t said that they would press the button of course!

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  • Dear Mr Dawkins.
    on many things i agree with you but on this you are so wide of the mark. im amazed a seemingly intelligent man like you would stoop to such generalisations regarding people born with down syndrome.
    my recently departed brother lived a full and active life for his 59 years on this planet. he contributed not only to society with his work and activities but also took part in numerous research projects to aid the development of services catering for people with his condition. Your assumption is that anyone with down syndrome will be some kind of burden to society but this is simply not the case, its a huge generalisation on your part and displays both arrogance and ignorance. I urge you to take time out from your cosseted academic world and go into an adult centre and experience the lives of the people there. I think it will be of great advantage to you and your development as a human being.
    all the best.

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  • I agree Zubin, he has clarified his position, but unfortunately that position is pretty much I’m sorry that you’ve taken offence, but that’s your problem!

    I am generally pro choice, however with pro life asterisks without the religious issues that go with it! My issue with RD’s statement is that it is offensive, hurtful and not accurate. His response is arrogant and insincere and it is that I take issue with and if he chooses to make such statements he should accept the twitterwar that should ensues. In short, live and let live and if your thoughts may offend then keep them as just that!

    On the subject of female children in India, working in child protection myself, I see this as a horrific practice. I have a colleague who has seen the bins that baby girls are thrown into on the streets. It’s one of many cultural issues which is not acceptable and needs to be eradicated.

    For me, choice should sit with justifiable reasoning, which in itself is a fluffy and vague statement. I know form my own experience that the aborting of a child was not acceptable to me unless they would knowingly suffer. I knew my little one would have certain additional health issues, but correctable and research the consultants presented me an my wife with showed an overwhelming case for our baby to thrive, which she is doing, ignorant of her chromosomal set up. I don’t agree however with a friend of mine’s decision to chose that a child, with no issues or identifiable problems, should be aborted because it wasn’t the right time.

    An interesting debate that will live on forever more no doubt

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  • Dawkins did not say anything like what you’ve attributed to him.

    The fact that you felt the need to go into such detail about your brother is evidence that he is the exception. To pretend that DS children are not statistically more likely to be a financial and emotional burden is disingenuous.

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  • RD is not just a person but an authority. When he voices a personal opinion, many people take his opinion as a prescription by an authority. From the above article, it is clear that RD meant, “By my personal moral system, it is wrong to X.” It’s unfortunate that it came across to many (myself included, initially) as “In my position as authority, I declare that it is wrong to X.”

    A large part of the problem is the text-based brevity of the tweet format. Perhaps a small part of the problem is RD’s trust that others will apply a scientific attitude to his comments, and see his opinions as merely one data point in a debate. I’m not sure how realistic it is to expect people to apply that attitude by default, given the weight his opinions now carry.

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  • Alex, RD never said it was immoral to love your child and I am sure he and anyone else would agree that loving your own child is the most natural thing in the world, we’re programmed to do just that, it’s not magical, it’s oxytocin, and just because we know what’s happening inside our bodies and brains that makes us feel a certain way, doesn’t diminish the importance of that feeling, but just accept the fact it isn’t magical, i.e. love.

    my second point would be to not confuse the rights of life, liberty and happiness of a person already born, no matter the number of C21 they have, with a fetus and parents choice in aborting said fetus.

    because if I had a genetic disease that diminished the quality of my life and I couldn’t do a lot of things because of that disease, should I be personally upset when I read that someone was advocating the abortion of fetuses that had the same disease as I do?

    Absolutely not !

    and saying that life is not always the same, we should embrace diversity etc etc, doesn’t mean we should condemn another Future living being into an existence, we would (given the choice) never choose for ourselves.

    playing the hurts feelings card doesn’t give your argument any more weight, I live and thrive in the world of disabled people, I help provide them with the best life they can have, because I and the society I live in thinks they deserve it, but it isn’t much, and nobody would choose their life as their own, it may sound harsh, but it’s the truth, diversity be damned when it comes to a life of mostly eating, drinking (not alcohol), sitting, going for drives, sitting in the sun, unable to connect meaningfully with another human being, pain, unable to express your feelings or physical well being or lack there of, unable to understand your feelings, crying, screaming and medicated just to be able to not go through your day in pain.

    but everything he gets, he deserves, all the care, all the considerations, all the free medication, free housing, free food, because he’s a human being and already in this world.

    would I think it moral to have aborted this person when he was still a fetus, hell yes!

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  • Dawkins is not in the habit of making “declarations” that should simply be taken on faith and followed blindly. If people choose to believe that about him, (or anyone!) then perhaps he is teaching two valuable lessons here.

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  • This is not an apology, unless you count ‘I’m sorry you were all so thick’ as an apology.

    You say that your morality is based on a “desire to increase the sum of happiness and reduce suffering”. Fine, but before condemning people’s decisions as ‘immoral’ and telling people what to do based on this morality, you need to be pretty sure that what you are condemning and recommending is immoral and moral respectively by your own standard.

    Where do you get the certainty that a decision not to terminate a pregnancy where the foetus has Down’s syndrome necessarily reduces the sum of human happiness? Please show your workings, to include a definition of ‘happiness’ . Please also explain why you can dismiss the actual experience of people with Down’s and their families as irrelevant. Of course their reaction is emotional, but happiness is an emotional state. It seems odd to dismiss emotion when it is the very foundation of your morality.

    I know you would object to my accusation of ‘telling people what to do’, but you are an influential person and you have basically said ‘it’s entirely up to you what you but if you do X then in my view it would be immoral’. Telling people what to do in a passive-aggressive manner is still telling them what to do in my book.

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  • 36
    Martyns says:

    I get Richards point here, but I can understand why lots of people don’t. It’s a matter of when a conception becomes a person. If you a take a 5 year old child, healthy or with DS or some other condition – they ARE a person. That’s clear, it’s also clear that if you take an individual sperm and an individual egg, they are NOT a person.

    So when does a conception become a person?

    I think what Richard Dawkins is actually saying is a bit like, if you were having IVF with pre-implantation diagnosis and of the several fetus offered, one was DS – you would select one of the none-DS fetus for implantation. I suspect most people would agree that at that point where you are asked to select a fetus – nobody would choose a DS one over a none-DS one. Irrespective of how emotive we feel about children and adults with DS, DS presents significant risks. It’s a broad spectrum syndrome, some DS individuals are indistinguishable from none-DS and lead equally fulfilling and successful lives.

    It’s a little bit like if during pre-implantation, one fetus was found to have a gene which meant it was more susceptible to cancer and likely to die before it was forty. Or it showed the multiple CAG triplets that indicate Huntingtons Syndrome. You would choose a fetus that did not have the cancer gene or HS gene over the one that did.

    Dawkins is simply taking this one step further – saying at the point of diagnosis, the fetus hasn’t formed the neural pathways in order to be truly self-aware and as a person – they only really exist as a potential. He’s arguing I think – that that potential might be better transferred to another fetus who might theoretically have a better shot at life.

    My fear I suppose is that pregnancy can be difficult. DS tends to affect older women, who maybe don’t have the physiology for making multiple attempts at pregnancy. It might be that she’d made several attempts at IVF and saw it as her last chance to rear a child. I think there’d be a significant risk of regret, if they were unable to conceive afterwards. In that case the potential that Richard Dawkins is advocating transferring to another fetus – would have been lost.

    I would also say this. if you were using pre-implantation diagnosis, and you had for example four fetus to choose from, one Downs, one Huntingtons, one Douchenne syndrome and one which meant childhood cancer was essentially inevitable – you should probably choose the Downs Syndrome fetus.

    Personally I’m opposed to abortion in generally. I’m more opposed to taking away people’s choices though. It shouldn’t be seen as a form of contraception and I think 20 weeks is really too late. I’d argue that if you reach 20 weeks you should carry the child to term and offer it for adoption rather than abort – for your own emotional welfare if nothing else. It’s a complex thing isn’t it? When is a person a person? When are they entitled to rights afforded to a person?

    I suppose it’s a bit like the speed limit, or drinking age. 32 miles per hour isn’t really more dangerous than driving at 28 miles per hour. Letting kids drink alcohol at 17 years and 6 months wouldn’t be particularly more risky than changing the drinking age to 18 years and 6 months. As a society we just have to choose where to draw the line.

    Personally where to draw that line, I don’t know. All I know is I feel people should not be allowed to abort a healthy fetus, even if DS in late pregnancy – but I have no objection to aborting even healthy fetus in early, early pregnancy.

    If you took this logic to the extreme, any IVF patients who have multiple fetus ready for implantation, even frozen for later pregnancy are acting immorally by not carrying all fertilized fetuses to term. You could take it a step further and say every time a woman COULD get pregnant, she SHOULD. Which would lead to an uncomfortable life as a living incubator for her and a massive problem of over-population for the world.

    We’re in a strange position aren’t we? We’re sentient and self-aware, but biologically we’re just animals like all the rest of the non-human population of the earth. I suppose it’s partly a question of how much we are prepared to allow our emotions to control our rational decisions. Perhaps because unusually, as a species we are able to make that choice.


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  • If the birth of a girl will lead to severe financial hardship on the part of a family where the birth of a boy would not, then it is an outcome that will decrease the sum of human happiness. If you have the choice (because you identify the sex of the foetus during the pregnancy) then by Professor Dawkins’s standard it would be immoral not to terminate the pregnancy and try again.

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  • Egill

    Thanks for the reply. My comment was emotive because RD’s comments were hurtful. He made statements which caused me and many people offence and upset.
    Now to clarify, trisomy 21 is not a disease. People with DS do not sit dribbling in bed without the brain function to get themselves to the toilet. They live full and rewarding lives. The majority of research into life expectancy is outdated and based on institutionalised cohorts.

    Now, if there were an antenatal screening test for ignorance…

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  • Well, I almost entirely agree with you.

    My problem is that, in this particular case, the lessons you mention will not be learned by those that could do with learning them. They will simply feel more hostile towards RD. If one really wants to reach people, one must do one’s best to avoid communication traps, and I think RD fell in one here. If the tweet had included ‘(personal opinion)’, I suspect a lot of the furore might have been avoided – though to be fair perhaps not.

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  • Exactly! If some shitehead clergymen said this child is god’s punishment for your wrongdoings I doubt there’d be more than a few raised eyebrows. I’ve even heard the other extreme from some simpering religios who say that god gives his special children only to special parents. What utter bollox and the most patronising, vapid and infantile ignorance.

    Keep posting Richard you won’t please ’em all and the daft responses you get from some twitterati are not representative of an entire population. There are doubtless thousands who agree with you but won’t put their 140 in the ring.

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  • 44
    Elizabeth says:

    Dr Dawkins, I have to say you have entirely missed the point of at least of what some of us found objectionable in your tweets.

    The first problem is that you seem unable to recognise that “it would not be immoral to…” is different from “it would be immoral not to…” The first is permissive, the second is prescriptive. You were prescriptive – you stated, as though it were an authoritative fact, not a personal opinion – that to knowingly bring a baby with Downs into the world is immoral. That has nothing to do with pro-choice, and everything to do with Richard Dawkins, male scientist, thinking he knows what choice all women should make, and that he has a right to tell them what it is. It’s no different from some male religious guy saying: to knowingly terminate a Downs pregnancy would be immoral. Pro-choice women over the world cringe.

    The second problem is, ironically, a logical error. You claimed that that a person with Downs, unlike a person with autism, apparently, would not “contribute to society”, forgetting, apparently, that society includes people with Downs and autism! You seem to regard society as some kind of exogenous entity (a deity?) that requires “contributions” from … from whom or from where? Society IS the network of social interactions between people. The only person who does not “contribute to society” is a person who cuts him/herself off from all contact with other people and lives off-grid. People with DS are part of that society and can’t NOT contribute to it, unless you mean “contribute” in some narrow economic sense. But if you meant it in that narrow economic sense, your entire “logical” position hangs on the implicit assumption that it is only a person’s potential economic “contribution” to society that justifies their entry into the world, even though, clearly, economics is merely a poor proxy measure for human happiness and welfare.

    I don’t suppose you actually think that a person who voluntarily visits a lonely elderly person is contributing less to her welfare (and thus to “society”) than the person paid to sign off on her winter-fuel-allowance, but that is the “logical” conclusion of your implicit equation of “contribution” with economic value.

    And if you aren’t equating “contribution” with “net contribution to the economy” then your logic fails anyway, because, as you readily concede, people with DS can, like all people, bring great joy into the lives of others.

    There is no prenatal diagnostic test for being a selfish jerk, and even selfish jerks probably contribute something.

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  • Dawkins knows what he’s doing, he is simply unwilling to water down or filter his thoughts to the extent that some people would wish. It is unlikely that he would reach those who take such issue with him and that is not really his role (and certainly not his obligation), IMO. His style of teaching does not suit those who do not wish to learn. If others have a desire to teach the same lessons in their own ways to reach a different audience then they are welcome to it, but I seriously doubt they would have any more success.

    However, you can be absolutely certain that what you do see from him has already gone through several mental filters and edits before it gets released in the wild. Just not as many as you would like (although already more than I would).

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  • Of course it’s not right, but it is consistent with Professor Dawkins’s concept of morality, as set out above.

    There are two possible outcomes for a pregnancy: a boy or a girl. Based on the information available to the parents at (let’s say) 12 weeks, the two outcomes are identical in terms of happiness (on the part of both the child in question and the family) other than the requirement to provide a dowry if the foetus is female. The obligation to provide a dowry will impose financial hardship and therefore suffering on the family, and/or suffering on the part of the child if the family is unable to provide a sufficient dowry, preventing her from marrying. A boy is therefore the outcome that will result in less suffering and contribute more to human happiness. By Professor Dawkins’s measure it would be immoral not to terminate the pregnancy if the foetus is a girl.

    In a way this is actually a more clear-cut case than the case of a Down’s foetus, since many individuals with Down’s and their families report levels of happiness that are at least on a par with that experienced by non-Down’s individuals and their families, so predicting more suffering and less happiness as a result of proceeding with a Down’s pregnancy can be done with less certainty than predicting the suffering that results from payment of a dowry.

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  • Agreed! It seems that for some people we should not only discuss things that are not proscribed but only talk about them in an approved way. Just like the anti abortion catholic shower!

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  • After reading the comments so far, one would think that terminating the pregnancy of a DS baby was a rare event! A procedure only undertaken by selfish parents who do not want the bother of having a disabled child. If this is the case, why is screening routine especially when it applies to the older mother? Today’s parents invest a great deal in their small families. They’re given every opportunity to make an informed decision and they should not be made to feel guilty about that decision.

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  • The issue here is not one of style, it is one of substance. His more considered and emollient follow-up is just as wrong as the original tweet.

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  • The experiences of those who have DS or have it in their family is certainly emotional, which is fine. It’s also anecdotal and biased, which makes it far less useful.

    Are you willing to say that introducing another DS child into the world increases the overall happiness or are you just saying that nobody (especially Dawkins) should have an opinion on that until it is proven to your satisfaction one way or the other?

    As an “influential person” I guess Dawkins is indeed telling people what to do in the sense that he is offering them a shortcut: if you don’t want to think for yourself, do what I would do. Now if all the people who choose not to think for themselves simply accepted Dawkins pre-calculated opinions instead of the opposite then I would also consider that an improvement. Of course, we’d all rather they come to the same conclusion on their own, but Dawkins is at least willing to show his work so it’s not that hard for people to follow along.

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  • 51
    Tintern says:

    The biggest enemy of good public discussion today is the enslavement to soundbites – Twitter is its highest contemporary form – for every subject trivial or serious. Be part of the solution, the fight-back against that. Just post a link on twitter to say there is a point to be discussed and direct them to it here. it’s not just Twitter, however. I became aware of this through a BBC article and they were as one-sided and emotional as possible, hence the “controversy” instead of vigorous discussion. The reputable BBC went with soundbite sensationalism just like the others.

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  • That gross misinterpretation of what Dawkins said might be understandable (yet still wrong) if it were a response to the original tweets, but it would take a very clouded or biased mind to believe that is what he is saying after reading the full article.

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  • Of course it’s anecdotal and biased. Which non-subjective measures of happiness do you prefer to use?

    Of course I’m not willing to say with certainty that introducing another DS child into the world will always increase the sum of human happiness. It is impossible to know, of course. But this is really the point: by condemning those who choose to continue with a Down’s pregnancy as immoral Dawkins is effectively saying that he does know.

    He doesn’t.

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  • 55
    stefvek says:

    saying that life is not always the same, we should embrace diversity
    etc etc, doesn’t mean we should condemn another Future living being
    into an existence, we would (given the choice) never choose for

    That’s exactly it. To bring a child into existence in full knowledge of the fact that it will live and in various ways suffer (depending on the severity in each individual’s case) when we would never, never choose such a life for ourselves. That’s the crux of the issue here – condemning that early stage foetus to a reduced lifespan with a significantly higher potential of suffering when we would never choose such a life for ourselves. And that’s why, on a case by case basis, the mother and of course the father should be able to rationalise and decide what they think is the best outcome for their future child – whether they are prepared to bring a child into the world that will in so many ways have a reduced potential or, if it is still practically feasible and there’s a realistic chance of further pregnancy, to try again and give that child so many more opportunities and, potentially, happiness, than a DS child could have.

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  • further to that , by your argument aren’t all children a financial and emotional burden.
    as with Dawkins you have also displayed the ignorance of generalisation. Your entire assumption is based on seeing the syndrome, not the person. How can you possibly know that a foetus, whether downs or so called normal, will grow up to be a burden to society.

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  • That is truly a ridiculous question.

    Before I offer my proof which disagreed with a statement you made (without proof) I would like you to say for the record that you believe that those with DS do not need any financial or other support from their community or government beyond what a non DS child receives.

    Have you made an equal effort to correct every DS organization on the planet that has asked for special consideration and funding from governments and/or insurance companies?

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  • that isnt what i’m saying at all. of course some people require more assistance…but isnt that what SOCIETY is all about ? caring for those less advantaged or able is a central tenet to a functioning society, without that you enter a realm of heartless sterility. is that the kind of world you want to live in ?

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  • Apparently you think it is impossible to have any scientific study on happiness or make any statistical estimations in that regard. Are people generally happier after their spouse dies in a car crash or not? Impossible to say, right?

    Dawkins doesn’t know and doesn’t claim to know with 100% certainly. He has a solid opinion that is based on many factors and if you can provide any reason why his conclusion is wrong (e.g. introduce new evidence or studies that he hadn’t thought of), then by all means do so.

    Until then I will continue to have the opinion that people are less happy when their spouses meet a fiery end. You are welcome to disagree and not prevent such events when they are in your control.

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  • I was surprised to find someone so well educated speaking with so little humanity, but then again, I live in Sweden, a country where human beings with disabilities are given full citizens’ rights. Having worked with “these people” and people with a variety of handicaps I do not think that this is at all the most difficult thing a family can have to deal with. If we are to abort people with downs syndrome, then the list of “causes for justified abortion” would be long indeed. I think it would be far more moral to claim poverty as a valid reason for abortion. As more and more illnesses, diseases and “syndromes” can be tied directly to genes, how many of us would be left? How many of us would pass screening?

    I come from a long line of schizophrenics, alcoholics and (perhaps worst of all) religious fanatics including Catholics. My father was a manic and substance abuser on his good days. The rest of the family is the kind of stuff good books are made of. My gene-pool is one of the worst going.

    Should I have been allowed to live?

    I wish that Mr. Dawkins could interact or even work with disabled people for an extended period of time. They are VERY human, have good days and bad days, just like everyone else. They are much more LIKE us then they are APPART from us. Don’t believe for one second that because they are different that they can’t be happy. Or love. Or stand up for their human rights. There are many organizations run by people with downs syndrome. Guess what they think!

    I am not saying that the life they would live would be an easy one, but how many of us go completely unharmed and joyful through life. Hands?

    I will, however, on all accounts concede the rights of any mother to terminate a pregnancy early on if it is her choice. It is, after all, her body and her life.

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  • RD stated that the twitter conversation was private at first, then an outside person somehow got privy to it. cmiiw.

    Maybe just a wild coincidence, but I did notice yesterday a tv movie and article in loving support of families with DS children. Kind of a “make love not war” approach, if indeed they were in response to the RD tweet.

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  • So you choose to avoid the unpleasant truths, such as that DS children have a higher cost to society. I can see why Dawkins bothers you so much.

    Caring for those who are disadvantaged is one thing. Choosing to bring more disadvantaged people into the world when you don’t need to is far different. Especially when your choice is paid for in no small part by the rest of society.

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  • I do not think it would be impossible, but Dawkins has not done it, so he is not in a position to draw the conclusions he draws, or to condemn a decision made by thousands of people in good conscience as ‘immoral’.

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  • 67
    Karmakshanti says:

    my own moral philosophy which in turn is based on a desire to increase happiness and reduce suffering.

    This is the essential problem, and not any particular suggestion you may make. Since we cannot see the future, we cannot know how much happiness or suffering any action will cause and for whom. A moral stance like this would make sense only if we could know this. Otherwise each of our acts becomes as morally arbitrary as any other, and atheism devolves into amoralism.

    In fact, the question of the existence of God can be reduced to the question of whether the structure of the universe is in any way “moral”. If the universe is not moral, why should we be? And if the universe is not moral, how do we distinguish between intelligibly between happiness and homeostasis? This is a condition possible only for a certain type of carbon chemistry at a certain level of organization, and there is no abstract and independent standpoint to separate happiness from our individual pleasure and suffering from our individual pain.

    Under these conditions the only sort of person with a realistic view of life is the pure sociopath. To the degree that we deviate from this to call our actions moral or immoral we are implicitly undermining our own atheism, if we have any, and creating the conditions for permanent cognitive dissonance about any of our actions.

    In the long run this permanent dissonance, if it becomes universal in mankind, is likely to have a negative impact on the survival of our species. This possibility clarifies the function of religion in society and culture, and the need for it for our survival–the avoidance of a world of total sociopathy.

    This is the atheist equivalent of the old saying: Every man for himself and God against all.

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  • If you don’t understand maths, particularly statistics and probability then I don’t know how I can explain any of this to you. If you wish to stick with your purely emotional arguments then you are in the wrong place.

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  • 69
    Barry.M says:

    Abort it and try again.

    Whether it’s this short version or the longer version in Richard’s statement above, the message is the same. It’s a perfectly reasonable position and, as already stated, it’s what happens in most cases anyway. In fact, it almost goes without saying that ‘aborting it and trying again’ is a valid option, otherwise why would doctors even bother to offer the test to women of a certain age?

    I don’t completely agree with Richard’s advice because there are a whole bunch of variables to consider and a blanket ‘try again’ approach is obviously not for everyone. However, the reaction to his Twitter comment is ridiculously excessive. He’s not saying that everyone with Down Syndrome should be executed. He’s not some kind of Nazi. He’s not saying that parents with DS children are stupid or wrong or selfish. He’s stating his own position which, as already mentioned, is not only perfectly reasonable, it’s also what the majority of people already decide to do. Total storm in a teacup.

    The statement was a bit abrupt and perhaps not wrapped up in as much flowery language as it could have been but the biggest issue here is the reaction, not the statement. People are almost queueing up to be offended. Some of the media coverage has demonized Professor Dawkins and presented his comment in an extremely negative manner. It says more about their agenda than his lack of tact. Even if he’d used the full statement (> 140 characters) they would still have reported it as “Famous atheist advocates murder of babies”.

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  • Jimmy Kimmel has a fantastic section where celebs read aloud mean tweets written about them. Perhaps people could start filming themselves doing the same with Richard’s tweets. I wonder how that would make him look?

    Richard may be intelligent but he lacks wisdom and compassion. Which means he creates divisions rather than unity. So I wonder how intelligent he really is.

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  • yeah, i probably am, i’d rather not be part of a little club that considers the fixed and defined rules of physics and mathematics to be all there is in this world. as sentient beings to deny emotion as an inherent part of the human condition would render us pretty worthless as a species.
    i shall leave you to your laboratory, enjoy your beautyless world my friend

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  • Thanks Prof. Dawkins for taking the time to explain. Helps clarify my own (closely matching) intuitions on this point.
    This whole reaction is below the belt and hopefully something you’ve learned to deal with. All the best!

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  • Once again we are left with your premise that unless you have proven it with 100% surety then every answer is equally good.

    Dawkins opinion is shared by an overwhelming percentage of the population (especially obstetricians), even if they do not vocalize it. It would seem to me that the burden of proof is on your side if you want to sway public opinion.

    Many people “in good conscience” also choose to not have their children vaccinated for common childhood diseases. Are you okay with that choice as well?

    You can certainly choose a different definition of morality than Dawkins offers, but you can’t keep using your personal definition to imply Dawkins believes something he doesn’t. He is saying that not terminating a DS fetus causes statistically more unhappiness than happiness, not that it is evil (as you imply).

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  • What is limiting is believing that science and reason are mutually exclusive to beauty and emotion. Completely ignoring science and reason is a short term solution, at best.

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  • I’d also add that if someone is meant to be so intelligent that they are giving advice on abortion, how on earth can they not know how the @ functionality works on Twitter.

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  • “People with DS do not sit dribbling in bed without the brain function to get themselves to the toilet. They live full and rewarding lives.”

    This is, sadly, a generalization that is not true for some Downs individuals. There is quite a wide range of expression of the extra chromosome, which is not clear until after the child is born. This makes it difficult to decide what to do when DS is detected early in pregnancy.

    I am a dentist, and I have cared for DS children who are combative (some to the point of requiring sedation), with nasal discharge all over their faces and multiple decayed teeth. I’ve also had patients at the other end of the spectrum; in fact one of the dental assistants I work with is a very high-functioning DS individual.

    This is one of the things that makes the decision to abort or not so difficult.


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  • Since we cannot see the future, we cannot know how much happiness or suffering any action will cause and for whom.

    If you were trying to sound like a sociopath you certainly succeeded. Who is to say whether stabbing someone in the eye with a pen will cause more suffering or not? Why shouldn’t I drive 120 mph down the freeway? It’s impossible to say whether I will actually crash into someone or not.

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  • Firstly, Dawkins is effectively saying that not terminating a Down’s foetus is evil, because he is describing the decision as ‘immoral’. If he had said ‘inadvisable in most cases’ we would not be having this discussion.

    Secondly, I am not saying that every answer is equally good in the absence of 100% certainty. What I am saying is that a high degree of confidence is required before condemning people’s decisions as ‘immoral’, as Dawkins does. If he wants to make such absolute value judgements then I think that the burden of proof is on him.

    Thirdly, I am not using my own definition of morality, I am using Dawkins’s definition (more happiness, less suffering). I happen to think that it’s a bit facile, but I am trying to address what he’s saying on his own terms.

    And finally, I understand that Dawkins is saying that not terminating Down’s foetuses causes statistically more unhappiness than happiness, and this is precisely the problem because he has no evidence for it. Simply saying ‘it’s obvious’ is not good enough when set against the very large number of individuals with Down’s Syndrome and their families who report that the experience of being alive or having such people in their lives is a positive one. Of course others report a negative experience, but the position is clearly ambiguous: much more so than your example of dead spouses. In such circumstances absolute moral judgements are foolish.

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  • Being in the public eye, expressing atheist views surely comes with much bashing. After all, it’s more fun to whack a tree with fruit than one which is barren. With all the Richard Dawkins bashing lately, I’ve realized it’s a tactic in attempt to bring Richard down. Yes, I do not like you on Twitter, Professor. Unless you’re good at dishing out one line zingers, it’s tough to get your point across. People pull out the line like cherry picking through Bible quotes. The line is then put it up on a digital platform with what is essentially flashing lights and arrows pointed at it in order for everyone to notice it. Yes, Professor you need to watch what you are saying, but what they are doing is an attempt at character assassination. People respond unfavorably and even several atheists as well. They found that this brings disharmony to the atheist community and I’m sure they are smiling about it.

    I found it interesting that one article claimed that this abortion statement was in response to a mother. As far as I recall, In Your Face New Yorker, does not have children. Perhaps she does, but this was assumed by the article to further paint you as despicable and evil.

    I’m getting tired of people creating drama to protect their sacred views. Most of the religious are actually deists and I think it’s time we point this out and create disharmony and division in their backyard.

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  • I would suggest that to give advice on Twitter on anything, let alone something as serious and potentially traumatic as abortion, does in itself indicate a lack of intelligence.

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  • 81
    Elizabeth says:

    Or alternatively, let me explain.

    Yes, my post is “a response to the original tweets”. That’s why I started with:

    Dr Dawkins, I have to say you have entirely missed the point of at
    least of what some of us found objectionable in your tweets.

    And my point is not which interpretation is “correct” but how readers of those tweets (including myself) interpreted them. And Richard Dawkins’ wording, in the form of a categorical assertion that:

    It would be immoral to bring [a DS person] into the world if you have
    the choice

    is an assertion precisely of the form:

    It would be immoral to abort a foetus with DS

    In other words, it is exactly the kind of anti-choice assertion that religious (mostly male) leaders have been beating women around the womb with for far too long. That is one reason why at least some of us found his tweet objectionable.

    To say, oh well he really didn’t mean it, it’s just his opinion, he wasn’t telling anyone what they should do, it was just that a tweet is too short to make that clear, is, frankly, bullshit. Let me try:

    I would abort it and try again. I think I would consider that the more
    moral choice.

    Oh, look, it’s shorter.

    And to explain my second point: in subsequent tweets, Dawkins justifies his moral stance on the basis of whether a DS foetus will make a “contribution to society” – in contrast to an autistic person who could make an “enhanced” contribution to society. And my point is that this is not even logical, because Dawkins seems to forget that a DS person, like all people, is a component of that society – that society is a word that describes the entire network of social relationships, not an amorphous exogenous entity demanding “contributions”.

    In this “apology”, it turns out that what he really meant by “contribution to society” was contribution to the sum of human happiness. Which makes no sense of his tweet – why should an autistic person have a greater capacity than a DS person to contribute to “the sum of human happiness”?

    In other words, Dawkins is making the fallacy of equivocation. On the one hand he claims to base his morality on maximising the sum of human happiness and minimising suffering (which I do too), but then glibly equivocates, in his tweet, from contribution society as in contribution to the sum of human happiness to contribution to society as in something a autistic person has an enhanced ability to make to, but a DS person not. Which is, again, bullshit. And even if we, generously, take him to mean by sum of human happiness something like a healthy happy life and concede that people with DS often suffer frustration and physical pain – would he really insist that a person with DS will “statistically” be less happy and suffer more, than a person with autism?

    These are good questions but by equivocating over how he actually evaluates “sum of human happiness” or “contribution to society” he ends up with a ludicrous moral stance in which he starts with his own gut prejudice (a DS person has less to contribute than an autistic person to the sum of human happiness) and elevates it into a position that carries the imprimatur of “logical”.

    If he wants to make the point that we should think seriously about whether the moral decision to bring into the world a child that we know may have less chance of health and happiness than a different child, then he has made it in a thoroughly illogical manner, and his post hoc rationalisation merely reveals that his “logic” leads to the conclusion that poor people shouldn’t have children. Or, at any rate, girls.

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  • I’m deeply offended by Dawkins and his so called logic yet again. I haven’t read twitter, the above apology or anything else related to this latest attack of his. I happened to get a momentary glimpse of part of a headline on the Daily Mail website while I was searching for like-minded people who wanted to rid our country of atheists, gays and foreigners, and I have to say, I’m seething. Is there no part of our great institution that this man won’t attack? Firstly he’s defending date rappers rather than extolling the virtues of a nice old fashioned personalised romantic poem, now he’s attacking us in our beds.

    My wife and I have used Duck Down duvets for over 20 years, but Dawkins wants to get rid of them now does he? Morally indefensible to keep warm on a cold winter’s night with a natural and biodegradable material is it, Mr Scientist? The irony is that it’s your seeming insistence on the use of hollow fibre quilts that’s causing the global warming which leads to harsher winters in the first instance. And of course older people are more likely to use Duck Down than younger people. It’s because the circulatory system is less efficient as age increases. Or are you suggesting we throw old people on the same bonfire as the duvets eh Dr Mengele?

    Yours truly,

    Enraged Middle Englander.

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  • “Being in the public eye, expressing atheist views surely comes with much bashing.”

    Richard’s Twitter image is him wearing a shirt bashing religion, comparing it to a disease. Now, I’m an atheist too and I think it’s perfectly fine to express your own beliefs. Wear a shirt saying ‘i don’t believe in god’ if you want. But to pick on other’s views and to degrade them, that too is ‘bashing’ and some may say Richard reaps what he sows.

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  • 84
    Bongani says:

    I Would say Richard does not have to apologise, but as a progressively minded human being he has , and will always do. It does not matter what throngs of ready-stone-anything-from-Dawkins mob say. The opinions are always received with freshness of attitude from the people who have good intentions for the human race, and the nature at large.

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  • If you’re certain that a termination is merely the disposal of a cluster of cells rather than a life, then how is this moral framework even relevant? The reason for the termination is no longer important, because there’s not yet any life to extinguish. In weighing up the relative suffering of these impoverished Indian daughters or Down Syndrome children, you’re talking about individuals that never began to ‘exist’, little different from a child who only exists in the minds and plans of it’s future parents.

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  • 86
    Barry.M says:


    You have upset a lot of people.

    That’s not strictly true. You could certainly say that a lot people were upset by Richard’s comments but there’s an important and distinct difference between the two. As he says himself: “I can’t help feeling that at least half the problem lies in a wanton eagerness to misunderstand“.

    The fact that you love your children, regardless of the extra stress and worry you endure, is not under attack. I certainly don’t see why Professor Dawkins should apologise for expressing his opinion. Yes, his wording could have been better, but he is entitled to say what he thinks and if anyone is upset by that then, with respect, that’s their problem.

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  • Well, for anyone who has ever thought about disability issues before, there is nothing new in RD’s thinking. The Nazi comparisons are actually quite legitimate; in Nazi Germany it was, according to the prevailing mores of society, immoral to deliver a disabled child into the world, and the idea of “life unworthy of life” was used to argue that, for the disabled people’s own good, it would be better if they did not exist at all to begin with. The point is not to equate RD with Nazis here, I’m just saying that all this has been seen in that particular context already.

    While I am certainly nearly persuaded by both the idea that disability is both objectively a challenge to the individual (I have a somewhat serious, heritable physical disability myself) and that a fetus is not a person and hence abortion is ok, the issues with RD’s statement are the categorical claim of immorality of creating Down’s people and this “better that you wouldn’t exist for your own good” argument.

    Morality is the commonly agreed set of acceptable behaviours in society — it would be better to talk about ethics, not what is moral. A society’s own prejudices may predispose a group of people to fall victim to this idea that, because other people believe so, their existence is unwanted. The comparison to aborting gays is quite fitting here. For some people, homosexuality is immoral and thus gays end up at the receiving end of this segment of society’s shunning. One needs to tread carefully here when considering who exactly is the one who needs the enforcement of these moral rules.

    In general we’re talking about a judgement call of the desirability of the existence of certain kinds of people in this world, so it’s necessarily a judgement of the actual lives of disabled people, even though these lives’ prevention would legitimately happen by aborting a fetus.

    The desirability of disability by others is probably just simply a question of cost; I doubt it that anyone is particularly bothered by the mere sight of my wheelchair or anything else related to my disability.

    Now, when an outsider needs to judge what the disabled person himself would want, or if he would want to live at all, is the tough bit, in particular if you’re going to keep your own cost-benefit calculations out of the equation. It’s no wonder that disabled people are up in arms by these lines of reasoning where the risk is we’re being deprived of agency over our lives — we’re understandably afraid of the slippery slope that ends with “it’s moral to euthanize you, and you’re being irrational not to understand it as your disability lowers your quality of life no matter what”. No amount of adaptation or general enjoyment of one’s life gets you past the deficiency you get into your happiness total, Peter Singer-style.

    It’s a touchy issue and I’d hate to just shout RD down, no matter if he came across as too provocative even for my taste. It is obvious that really gross deformities in the fetus mean the possible child’s life really is short and full of pain; it is hard to see what gain there is in these situations for anyone. I am personally willing to admit to disability being something I’d rather do without… but I’m quite happy with my life. I’ve never wanted “not to have existed”. But then again, I wouldn’t want to pass this on to a child. I’m not sure the decision not to have biological children is much different from actually aborting.

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  • 89
    shahrad says:

    This is absolutely right.
    I might add something about logic.
    Mr. Dawkins, from a logical point of view (you seem to like logic a lot), happiness is based on morality and not morality on happiness. And morality is based on humanity and not humanity on morality.
    Can you disprove this logically? Never ever.
    This means:
    If someone wants to sum happiness (how well you did express yourself), he must act morally, to act morally, he must act with dignity.
    I give an example:
    One plans to marry to sum happiness, one should marry someone with a down syndrome, not an actress.

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  • Richard,

    Several years ago I was having an argument with a close friend of mine who is religious. We were talking about the existence/composition of the House of Lords and I was saying that it should be abolished but that the bishops in particular being in there was ridiculous. She tried to defend it and then as a concession started to say that as we are now a multicultural nation that it should not now be just bishops but other religious representatives too. I got really annoyed at this and I asked her, what about me, there must be 40 % at least of people in the UK who aren’t religious, I don’t want any bishops, or anyone else religious in there because none of those people speak for me. If there’s going to be representation for ‘belief’ or ‘philosophy’ in the House of Lords, then I want people like Richard Dawkins there, 40% (or whatever) of the total.

    This stumped her. She didn’t have a reply and the very mention of your name seemed to strike something into her. She pretty much changed her opinion right then and there and agreed that maybe there shouldn’t be any ‘religious’ representation in the House of Lords.

    My point is that I wonder if I could have won that argument today by using your name. I suspect that now she would immediately come back at me pointing out the rape tweets and now these about down’s syndrome and see you as someone to be ridiculed rather than recognised as someone with some of the best arguments re atheism.

    Just one little story but I tell it as an illustration of why I think you need to pull back from these tweets that are giving your enemies a field day.

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  • 91
    Barry.M says:


    As far as I recall, In Your Face New Yorker, does not have children.

    It would appear that you are correct. On top of that, it should be remembered that the whole question of what IYFNY might do if she became pregnant with a DS baby was purely hypothetical!

    Poor Richard; he is constantly criticized for attacking imaginary deities and now he’s under attack for wanting to abort an imaginary fetus!

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  • 92
    shahrad says:

    This is absolutely right.
    I might add something about logic.
    Mr. Dawkins, from a logical point of view (you seem to like logic a lot), happiness is based on morality and not morality on happiness. And morality is based on humanity and not humanity on morality.
    Can you disprove this logically? Never ever.
    This means:
    If someone wants to sum happiness (how well you did express yourself), he must act morally, to act morally, he must act with dignity.
    I give an example:
    One plans to marry to sum happiness, one should marry someone with a down syndrome, not an actress.

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  • As the younger brother of man with Down Syndrome, reading about these comments from Richard hurts my heart deeply. I have read his comments and apology and clarifications, and while I believe I understand his point of view I can’t keep the pain away when I think how my life would have been different had I not grown up with my loving, compassionate, riotously funny, little big brother. My life without him could only have been one of reduced happiness. In stature I rise high above him. Were heart the measure of a man’s height he would tower high above me. And, because of his outgoing, open-hearted nature I have no doubt that he has enriched and positively touched many more lives during his life than the number of people I have simply met in mine.

    Having shared the above, this whole incident has not diminshed my thankfulness for Richard and his writings. He holds a genius I could never attain, and I only wish there were more women and men like him.

  • 94
    jag1859 says:

    What Professor Richard Dawkins said was very rational. No sane person would want to bring a child in to the world that would end up suffering. Professor Dawkins after all was just talking about terminating an embryo which doesn’t feel pain (After 25 weeks of pregnancy there are some that say embryos develop the ability to feel pain but the pain it may feel is nothing compared to say an animal being slaughtered for meat) . There’s a huge difference between an embryo and a child and if some people can’t see that then there allowing absolutism to cloud there judgement. Professor Dawkins is an honest and moral man despite what some people may say.

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  • I am sympathetic to you. But isn’t it catastrophic for some one who has raised a child with an extra chromosome to hear that his/her child shouldn’t have been born. Same for the child also. I know a couple whose child still lives with them, at the age of about 22, and can’t read and write.

    I know Your position, and I am sympathetic to it somehow.

    Nature is Nature, and we cannot perhaps do much with it.

    But isnn’t life strange. The bipedal fifth ape does have to have to accept evolution in its own terms.

    Those mongoloids who have been born, we fellow humans must respect their integrity, and human value.

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  • 97
    Jessica says:

    To R. Dawkins: I sympathise with you, however there are several problems with what you say in the above post.

    Firstly, even taking into account the limitations of twitter, you still stated that it would be ‘immoral’ to bring a Down syndrome child to term. That aspect of your comment remains only slightly qualified in your longer statement above, where you say that you believe abortion would be the most sensible and moral course of action under such circumstances.

    Therefore, while you did not call for forced abortions, you still expressed a categorical moral judgement about what it is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ to do under such circumstances; and that goes beyond simply stating your opinion of what you would do given such-and-such a situation. Instead, it amounts to a moral condemnation of those people who choose to raise Down syndrome children.

    Secondly, there is a fundamental problem with your opinion that aborting a Down syndrome child is the more moral course of action according to a utilitarian ethic of maximising happiness and minimizing pain. The problem being that this assumes that raising a Down syndrome child is on balance more ‘painful’ for the child and its parents than aborting it. However, as many studies have shown, over 90% of adults with Down syndrome report that they lead satisfied and happy lives; while many people with Down syndrome live independently without relying on their parents.

    In summary, I wish you would be more responsible with your moralising, and take the time to do some research before broadcasting hasty moral judgements about issues involving vulnerable people who already have to deal with quite enough persecution and prejudice as it is.

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  • 98
    Barry.M says:

    Thanks for removing any residual doubt!

    As someone with two feline and two human children, I can honestly say that your familial situation demonstrates great wisdom 🙂

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  • 99
    ColdThinker says:

    This seems to be a question of after the fact feelings attached to a before the fact situation. That is a terrible fallacy, and that has made this conversation idiotic.

    Arguably every parent loves a child after it is born, whatever the situation. The parents of Down children seem to be especially devoted. Perhaps it’s an acquaired pre-emptive strike against useless pity offered by stupid neighbours, or perhaps it is a beautiful part of human nature to be especially nurturing towards the weaker ones.

    But it is fallacious to transfer those parental feelings to a situation, where the child has not yet been born, and that lovable person does not yet exist.

    By the same logic, not having an infinite number of children would mean killing those prospective human beings by denying their chance to exist. By choosing to have a definite number of children, which should be reasonable by any moral guidelines, we are always denying another human a life.

    And people usually do eventually try again. So, by aborting one insentient fetus, we give that spot to another fetus, which will develop into a sentient being. Give life to one fetus, you deny it from another, and vice versa.

    Having our daughter, my spouse and I were about forty, so there was a certain Down risk. We took certain tests, except the amniocentesis, as we were told that there would be certain risks involved in in. The non-invasive tests already gave us a very high probability of a healthy fetus. We found the low risk of a trisomy 21 abnormality acceptable.

    However, had there been an indication of a high possibility of a Down’s syndrome, we would not have hesitated for a moment. We would have aborted the fetus as soon as possible. It would have been a painless operation, causing suffering to no sentient being whatsoever.

    Given our age, we were certain of not having more than one child. Giving birth to a Down fetus would have meant that a healthy child of ours would never exist. Aborting a Down fetus would have meant that a healthy child would be born with fair expectations of a long and healthy life.

    Luckily, with such good odds, we didn’t really have to face that choice in reality. So it is hard to say how high a risk we would have been ready to accept.

    The crazy thing is, there is a movement promoting the idea of disallowing the abortion of Down fetuses. Yet at the same time, these people wish to allow the abortion of healthy ones. So, they actually consider the life of a Down person more valuable than that of others.

    Needless to say, I am pro-choice, whatever the reasons. I think the more control we sentient beings have on our lives, bodies, health and future, the better.

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  • 100
    Grammy says:

    The problem is that there are many, many people born with Down’s Syndrome that are not suffering. A dimished intellect does not cause most of these people to suffer. Some common ailments may cause suffering (like heart disease), but these sufferings are no different than the sufferings that any human without Down’s Syndrome may suffer over the course of their lives – and not all Down’s people have these ailments. If the potential for heart problems in life was a risk factor that made parents choose to abort there would be a lot fewer people enjoying life on this planet. I would also wager that those people at high risk for heart problems would overwhelmingly choose life with heart problems over no chance at life at all.

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  • I have some questions for readers here; if you were given a pill that substantially reduced the chances of having a child with birth defects, would you take it? Would you ask your spouse to take it? What if it were in the form of a vaccine that you could take early in life and would last through child bearing years, would you get it? Would you want your children to get it? Would you want the health service to provide it for the general population?

    Would it make any difference to you if this pill worked by repairing genes or just causing sperm or eggs to not develop with defects? Would it make a difference if the pill worked by simply preventing conception? How about preventing cell division after conception? What if the pill prevented implantation? What if it causes miscarriages in the first month or two? Would you still take it?

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  • 102
    Jessica says:

    @Cold Thinker

    The point is that R. Dawkins states that, if one is concerned with maximizing happiness and minimizing suffering, the most moral action would be to abort a Down syndrome fetus.

    Think about it. That logically implies that allowing people with Down syndrome to be born depletes the overall amount of happiness in the world – that on balance, people with Down syndrome suffer more and cause more suffering to their families.

    You have to consider: what evidence does R.D. have for thinking this? Can he see into the hearts and minds of all of those people who have Down syndrome, or have raised Down syndrome children? How do you possibly compare amounts of ‘happiness’ and ‘suffering’?

    In short, R.D.’s argument is based on a massive, unjustified, set of assumptions.

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  • 103
    Daniel says:

    “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 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”.

    Sir, your obvious misunderstanding of Down syndrome makes you horribly unqualified to make this statement. My family was surprised by the birth of our child with Down syndrome. Our doctor told my wife that we had a 1 in 4000 chance of the child having the condition. No further testing was needed. We were devastated at first. What life would this child have in a world that is so unforgiving? What I have found by raising this wonderful little boy, is that there is a side to the human condition that I believe you are not giving enough credit in your assessment. From the times Ardy and Lucy were gathering food with their arms to walk home, I must believe that they were motivated, in part, to not only improve their own condition but also those of their group. Down syndrome research today is helping to unlock the mysteries of Alzheimer’s and Dementia (something that should concern your advanced age), as well as some forms of cancer. The physical delays presented with Down syndrome are, today, being targeted by precision speech, physical and occupational therapies yielding incredible results. Children taught in inclusive environments and raised among typically developing peers are progressing further cognitively, then was every expected. This all without the pharmaceutical intervention that is currently in human clinical trials. (Phase II study: http://www.roche-trials.com/trialDetailsGet.action?studyNumber=BP25543) It is my strong belief that knowing all that society is and will benefit by people living with Down syndrome, you will please retract your, sorry to say, ignorant statement on the subject. Even with a typically mild to moderate intellectual disability, my child has the potential to be a contributing member of his community. I don’t just measure this success in a few individuals. Just 15 years ago there we’re only a handful of life programs in institutions of higher learning helping people with disabilities to transition towards independence. Today, in the US, there are over 200. The demand is there. These are kids ready and willing to take the next steps. Unfortunately, it is opinions like yours, based on past experiences that may as well be from the middle ages on this subject, that are hurting my son. Be careful that your opinion, and ignorance, is not doing more harm to him, then his disability. Please advocate treating the patient and not the condition. Like Lucy, you will not only be upright and walking, but also contributing positively to our collective future. I implore you, on this subject, to put down the pen and pick up a book. You will, as I am, be pleasantly surprised. A life with Down syndrome is, today, a far cry form the suffering so many people are describing. With such a positive outlook on helping individuals with the condition, my advise to that mother now, would be to have that child, love it and treat it like any other, precisely because it is the moral thing to do.

    Daniel Sheire
    Proud father of a son with Down syndrome
    Washington DC

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  • Mr. Dawkins, what is the basis for your assertion that a child with Down’s syndrome experiences less happiness or suffers more than a typically developing child? You say, after all, that it is immoral not to abort “from the point of view of the child’s own welfare.” That sounds like a naive and prejudiced view to me.

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  • I had no doubt regarding the good professors integrity. I did see something about that on twitter & I concur fully that 140 characters does not allow one to fully express oneself on occasion. If in doubt, don’t jump to conclusions & look further into any matter. Due to Richards’ atheistic views some do get on the bandwagon. An unexamined life is not worth living; unexamined anything is not worth consideration. Abortion is personal choice & Richard never espoused otherwise. My partner & I would without question abort a baby with severely diminished prospects of a prosperous life due to diminished capacities for the exact same reasons Richard mentioned. They are the exact same reasons we concluded 8 months ago when we found out she was pregnant. Other serious reasons for abortion which Richard didn’t give may be the mothers survival, viability of the embryo; I have read stories of mothers refusing to abort despite the fetus not having a brain (the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.) Anyone who insists that the bible forbade’s abortion might like to know that the bible neglects to even mention abortion, yet espouses killing healthy viable living babies. I hope you do see this comment professor & the others that also agree with your position. May reason and rationale reign, because ‘god’ doesn’t. I couldn’t be more atheist if they invented Richard Dawkins pills & I took 100 per day!

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  • “What Professor Richard Dawkins said was very rational. No sane person would want to bring a child in to the world that would end up suffering.”

    It’s not rational at all. If you were to discover your child would be blind, without a limb, or any number of abnormalities, should the child be aborted because they may suffer? Why just Downs? Why not just kill all embryos in third world countries where children most definitely could suffer from malnutrition, disease, poor social / economic issues. What about children in warzones? Children with AIDs? All these children suffer in some way. Children whose family genes show high levels of alcoholism?

    It’s a nonsensical statement with little thought and highly selective.

    Who is Richard to declare how much suffering someone should endure for their life to be forfeit?

    As for your absolutism, you should check the mirror.

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  • I’m terribly sorry to be a pedant, but I believe that you might have meant to say that you would “prescribe a Twitter-ectomy”, rather than “proscribe”, which means to forbid or prohibit. This is in no way to detract from your argument or belittle you. I do not mean to offend.

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  • 110
    Joseph says:

    Dear Mr. Dawkins,

    While I agree with much of what you say, this topic is no doubt difficult because it requires that we judge all downs syndrome individuals as those who violate your moral philosophy of “a desire to increase happiness and reduce suffering.”

    What if, those with Downs syndrome turn out to increase happiness and reduce suffering? There is an individual by the name of Tim Harris who is a restaurant owner and someone who has Down Syndrome. Not only is he a functioning member of society, his upbeat attitude and a desire to give his restaurant patrons a hug as they come through the door produces happiness and reduces suffering.

    Here’s his story in 3 min:


    Now granted, he may be the rare exception…but then if you speak to many parents of Down Syndrome kids, they refer to these kids as having “UP” syndrome, because their attitude to life can be very uplifting…thereby producing happiness for others and reducing suffering.

    From an evolutionary perspective, the mutation that causes people to have Downs Syndrome may turn out to be one where nature accepts that individual because he serves to better draw out our humanity towards those who with some extra love will return that love back many fold. Not to compare someone with Down Syndrome to a dog, but think about the reasons why dogs continue to exist even though many breeds of dog would not survive in nature without people. They provide happiness to their owners and so we act as the nature which selects them. Why not have otherwise “normal” human beings select Downs Syndrome patients.

    Think about that.


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  • 111
    Joseph says:

    I don’t have Downs Syndrome. My life has been very difficult with many struggles. Bad things have happened to me, and sometimes, I have wondered whether it is immoral to have any children at all and subject them to this difficult life.

    On the other hand, if we followed that line of thinking, we’d have no civilization…which is probably immoral.

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  • 112
    peter.manchester says:

    Professor Dawkins

    Like Danny, above, I have come to the end of my tether with you. You behaviour follows a recognisable pattern which repeats itself over and over again. This incident, and the mealy-mouthed evasive non-apology which you offer us here, is the final straw. You portray yourself as a misunderstood genius, hounded by ‘haters’ who deliberately take offence, when in fact, I think you are at heart a deeply unpleasant person whose character flaws cannot help revealing themselves with increasing frequency.
    You have become a liability to the humanist/atheist movement, and it can only be a matter of time before it disowns you, regardless of the services you have rendered it in the past. I will now cancel my account here.

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  • It seems to me that there is (at least) one other group of people who felt hatred towards your comments and whom you overlooked: people who have Down Syndrome. Your sweeping, ill-informed tweet “DS not enhanced” caused insult, hurt and, yes, hate amongst those I have spoken to.

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  • 114
    shahrad says:

    This is absolutely right.
    I might add something about logic.
    Mr. Dawkins, from a logical point of view (you seem to like logic a lot), happiness is based on morality and not morality on happiness. And morality is based on humanity and not humanity on morality.
    Can you disprove this logically? Never ever.
    This means:
    If someone wants to sum happiness (how well you did express yourself), he must act morally, to act morally, he must act with dignity.
    I give an example:
    One plans to marry to sum happiness, one should marry someone with a down syndrome, not an actress.

    I hope, I did finally post my comment on the right place (@H3000),lol.

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  • 115
    Joseph says:

    One way to test any philosophical argument is to test its logic at the boundary conditions, i.e. at the extremes.

    The way I understand Dawkins’ philosophical argument is that he feels it is immoral to bring humans into the world who, I guess on net, don’t bring happiness and reduce suffering. I presume he means “on net”, because every human suffers or has unhappy moments in his or her life. And I cannot imagine that Dawkins is advocating aborting everyone. I also presume “on net”, because if folks with Down Syndrome experience some happiness or reduce some human suffering, which they clearly do (just look at the happiness of those who win in the special olympics as an example), Dawkins would still take the position of aborting those with that condition.

    So Dawkins strays away from the boundary conditions. He does not abort everyone, even if everyone suffers in life, and he would not save some of those with Down Syndrome, who might only have a minimum of happiness.

    So logically, I must conclude that Dawkins means, “on net”. Hence, I think Dawkins would advocate aborting any fetus, which might be deemed to suffer more than he doesn’t and be less happy than he is.

    But that kind of logic would lead us to some sort of slippery slope whereby we start aborting not only those who have Downs, but really any disease, which we may judge (subjectively I might add) to cause more unhappiness and suffering on net.

    But the problem with aborting many fetuses with bad diseases is that while it may ultimately reduce disease, vis a vis a eugenic type of philosophy, it will also take away the challenge from the medical community to find ways in which diseased individuals can find more happiness and less suffering on net through treatment. How can any treatment exist if we don’t have enough people with a disease requiring that treatment? But if we had treatment and those humans could be happier and have less suffering, then wouldn’t we want that?

    I know it’s a chicken and egg problem…but I don’t think there a solution that can be objective when determining who on net will be happier and have less suffering.


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  • 116
    shahrad says:

    Although abortion must not be the same like genocide, it is absolutely wrong to assume that a DS child means an increase in unhappiness and the abortion means a minor decrease in unhappiness.
    Either Dawkins doesn’t know much about happiness and suffering or he is misleading because the truth about happiness and suffering is not going hand in hand with his other interests.
    I have already write about this in my reply to H3000. But even a simple look at it, makes Dawkins mistake clear: Suffering is caused by not accepting when something doesn’t go the way we did expect it and sooner or later everything ends up in a way we didn’t expect it. Happiness is caused by growing (especially mentally and morally) on the situations which did end up in a way, we didn’t expect it. Although there are or might be some extreme situations where we cannot do anything about it, but a DS child surely doesn’t fall under those categories.
    From DS child’s point of view, one might just ask a DS child, if it would rather “be or not to be”. The point is, being alive is intrinsically such a beautiful feeling (I guess, this did never came to Dawkins mind), that even in most extreme situations, ppl still prefer to be alive than death. The only exceptions are those who commit suicide and those who commit suicide they are usually handicapped with depression in the first place and not with DS.
    One of the most important things which produce happiness, is the feeling that people care for you. Meaning that DS children who have parents who care for them, who did grow on this situation mentally and morally, might be/are way more happy than most children who don’t have really the feeling their parents do care for them appropriately.

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  • 117
    Joseph says:

    Hmmm. What if that pill also worked “cure” homosexuality? Instead of changing the individual, why not change society?

    Years ago, in fact, only a decade or two ago, homosexuality would mean a very difficult life of hiding, stigma, discrimination, etc. But eventually society started to change and accept homosexuality…many of whom have gone on to provide great value to society. Imagine what the world would be like if we aborted all homosexuals.

    How do you know that a treatment won’t come about in the future which will enable those with Downs to not only become very functional in society, but also benefit society in ways that those without Downs wouldn’t otherwise be able to do?

    Why not give science and technology a chance to turn disabilities into super abilities?

    If you argue that there would be a lot of needless suffering of Downs patients before we come to that point…then you are also arguing that we should have had a pill to end homosexuality back in the 70s or 80s or whenever it was fatally unacceptable to society.

    It’s a moving target. Instead of changing the individual with the perceived disease…change society to accept that individual and help him or her to become the best he or she can be…even with an extra chromosome…because what society deems today as non-functional may tomorrow see as very useful.

    Warren Buffett once said that as successful as he is, if he were born in a prehistoric time, he would have been clubbed to death because he could not hunt a woolly mammoth. Imagine if during that prehistoric era, humans had found a way to abort all those like Warren Buffett. Where would we be today?


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  • James, it’s clear that the main reason you take issue with Dawkins statements on DS and morality is that you are just totally unclear on the concept.

    Dawkins is not saying that everyone should be selfish, think about only themselves and their family, and act in their own interests because that is the moral thing to do. Why would you think that?

    The “sum of happiness” extends to all of humanity, not just to those you see in your immediate vicinity, that should be abundantly clear. What is perhaps less obvious, although logically consistent, would be that it extends into the future as well (e.g. it is not moral to steal from your future grandchildren to make your existing family better off).

    So, if you want to make the case that the decision to terminate a female fetus by an Indian family increases the long term happiness of humanity and decreases overall suffering then you should celebrate such a decision.

    However, if, like me, you believe that it causes more harm than good, then you should feel sad that Indian families are put in the position of having to make such a selfish decision in order to survive.

    If we assume your opinion on the happiness of DS families were true then you should be an advocate of encouraging more DS children. Women should have birth at a later age, we should forgo prenatal testing and we should encourage parents who have a DS child to have another. This would maximize happiness, in your opinion. When you find the flaws in this thinking you will be further on your way to understanding Dawkins’ point.

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  • 120
    aplinthjr says:

    I agree with the Twitter-ectomy. If it can’t be said well in 140 characters – and very little can – then it should not be said on Twitter. Especially for someone like Richard Dawkins, who is constantly being followed by the Twitter-parazzi. You have better places to present your views, Prof. Dawkins.

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  • You are under the false impression that “evil” is the opposite of “moral.” It is not. ISIS is evil, even Terry Jones was evil. Cheating on your wife or not tipping in restaurants is not. See above: “tyranny of the discontinuous mind.”

    Dawkins gives his definition of immoral, which you fail to understand, and continue to misapply leading you to make absolute judgements that are not warranted. That is on you.

    Finally, your opinion on the overall happiness as a result of DS children is faulty in so many ways, some of which I’ve illuminated already. Very few people actually believe that the world would be better off with many more new DS children in it. By your logic we should cut off funding for DS research (unless that research is in to finding a method to have even more children with DS).

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  • We at Special Olympics have lots of reactions to what you wrote in your 8/21 post, Dr. Dawkins, but we will focus on just one aspect, and that is life expectancy.

    People with Down Syndrome and other intellectual disabilities (often called learning disabilities in the UK) have shorter life expectancy in part because they consistently get drastically less and lower-quality health care than the general population. This happens for a lot of reasons – stigma, exclusion, medical professionals lacking training, poor communication, etc. A story in The Guardian on 3/19/13 provides a good overview.

    You imply that the shorter life expectancy of people with Down Syndrome is one reason to consider termination of a pregnancy. But given the evidence on health care disparities, isn’t that like rigging the game against people with a disability or a difference –in this case, society failing to provide good healthcare to them—and then condemning them when they evidence the results of the injustice – in this case, through an abbreviated life expectancy?

    By the way, the people in about 25 African countries have lower average life expectancy than that of people with Down Syndrome, which is 60 years of age. People in those African countries don’t get great health care either and many people in the world think that has something to do with injustice as well.

    Through its Healthy Athletes and Healthy Communities programs, Special Olympics (http://www.specialolympics.org/) works every day in 170 countries to eliminate health disparities for people with intellectual disabilities, along with providing sports training and competition to millions of athletes. We do it because changing the world is a contact sport.

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  • I agree with those who think twitter is not your friend, Richard. It is a terrible medium in which to express an argument or even just a non-trivial thought. And you don’t seem to understand how it works. NOTHING is private on twitter. Anyone can visit your time line and see what you’ve posted. Numerous people have lost jobs and public respect for posting tweets they thought were just between two people. Google Nir Rosen, for just one example.
    You seem to think it is somehow unfair and sneaky for people to look in on your tweets. This shows you don’t really get the medium. The whole point of it is to make communication as public as possible.
    Perhaps you could take some lessons in how to make twitter work for the secular movement, instead of against it, You are definitely not winning the movement any popularity contests.
    Your friend in secularism,

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  • Mods, why was my August 21 comment removed?
    First time in 5 years that has happened.
    It was in no way harsh. I said I had been singing RD’s praises to a visiting relative, an influential surgeon who found RD’s books too “difficult” and now he would be even more averse to his books because of this thoughtless Twitter business.
    Twitter is for The Twits (Roald Dahl) and should be called “Blurt” instead.

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  • A slippery slope is inevitable, you demonstrate that yourself by raising the issue of a fetus with “severe” deformity. The solution is not to pretend it doesn’t exist or to choose one ridiculous extreme or the other.

    Of course the issue for other people is about cost. But not just financial cost, also emotional cost and opportunity cost. You admit that you’d rather not have your disability and we agree. Not that you don’t have a right to exist in our society, by your birth you’ve earned that right. However, we’d rather have the you without the disability, that’s what the very blunt “abort it and try again” means.

    (For purposes of keeping this thread simple, I’m assuming your disability were prenatal and detectable, at least in some universe.)

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  • Hi Quarecuss This isn't ringing any bells. We understand there were some technical problems with the site earlier today, and can only think your comment somehow got caught up in those. Sorry about that. The mods

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  • The argument may be unproven, but it is far from unjustified.

    Is it conceivable that there are a small number of people who are more fulfilled by having a DS child than having a child without DS? Yes, it’s conceivable, but that will be a very small number. Are those people capable of taking care of that child on their own without asking for help from the rest of society? Possible, but that number is even smaller.

    The idea that adding a DS child into the world (rather than a ‘healthy’ child) increases overall happiness is the unreasonable assumption that needs to be proven. Coldthinker has pointed out some of the reasons why it’s convenient for you to believe that (perhaps even healthy for you to convince yourself of that), but it is not true and if you examined your own opinions carefully you would see the inconsistencies. It’s up to you whether you want to do that or not.

    I will concede that an abortion is possibly harder for some people than raising a DS child, but that says more about their issues regarding abortion than it does about DS.

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  • 130
    Karmakshanti says:

    Exactly. I am pointing out that an a priori moral standard about actions is a necessity for human social organization. Whatever its truth or falsity, religion gives people this. So, of course, does the law, but the law is largely the product of religious people in the past and religious law has been the progenitor and archetype for all law derived from Western Europe.

    Mr. Dawkins’ happiness/suffering gradient is simply not an adequate substitute for this. Most religions can be attacked for claims science does not support. Many religions can be attacked for the forms of law and punishment they advocate. I don’t think my religion (Buddhism) can be so impeached in any essential way, but there is no reason why I can’t be wrong about this. No one here, however, appears to have taken it on.

    But the need for a usable moral standard remains, and my criticism of Mr. Dawkins, and of most Atheists I have encountered is that they have not really stepped up to the plate and addressed the issue of secular morality in a way that truly substitutes for what religion and the law between them provide.

    I have no answer to this myself but I do think that Buddhism generally has the most logical form of such morality, given a small number of admittedly unprovable assumptions.

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  • Hi Steve. It is a generalisation on my part, agreed, but the chap I was responding to was making wilder and far more inaccurate and dangerous generalisations that people with ds are a write off who live pointless lives with no hope of making any contribution. While people such as the professor promote such waffle, sadly many shall miss out on what is a very special experience.

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  • Abortion is a topic I usually steer well clear of, just as Hitch tended to steer clear of it. What our response to it should rationally be is as per Pete Singer, where there is no consciousness and no accumulated experience there are no harms to be concerned about. Brains R Us and a functional one does not yet exist in a foetus for most of its existence.

    Yet two things confound the rational, our moral heuristics and the sometimes up-screwing existence of oxytocin. Oxytocin starts a bonding process pre-birth, and thats a bitch. It confounds our reason with unreasonable emotion. The sensible choice to terminate hurts the more when it is delayed and bonding has begun. The morning after pill? No Probs, but after months of hopes and dreams…?

    And what of these moral heuristics? It stands us in good stead to have a gut feel that we should do no harm. It stays our hand many times in our life. Don’t kill kith or those close is a good heuristic we have developed to aid us living together. We tamper with it at our peril. On every occasion to say yes but are we sure we shouldn’t just pop him off, he beats the kids horribly, is to slowly train us out of our handy cautious heuristic. There may be a risk to too often subverting our gut feels.

    I’ve seen, close to, the unhappiness of a perfectly rational health related abortion. That bitch, oxytocin, can take as much as it gives. I suspect that Hitch may have been near to such an experience and so was slow like I am to espouse the simple moral calculus of Pete Singer, when the emotional calculus says elsehow.

    The decision not to abort, may on balance be selfish, but the mum to be has every right to be. Most decisions to have kids are selfish decisions…

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  • It’s their problem? In the same way that the victim of racism should just shrug it off? Or perhaps the man in a wheelchair should take discrimination on the chin?

    I am very much in favour of free speech and debate. However to make judgement on a woman’s morality based on her decision to give birth to a child with down’s syndrome is out of order and offensive. That’s not acceptable and should be challenged.

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  • Joseph, if there were a pill that guaranteed DS or another birth defect in your children would you take it?

    It sure sounds like you would. Think of the super abilities your children might have!

    I think you’re taking X-Men and other science fiction a little too seriously.

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  • Craig, unless you have a compelling proof that the rest of us are unaware of, it is pretty hard to argue with Dawkins opinion that this is a possibility worth considering.

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  • For the fifth time of asking…..Please, Richard, don’t tweet. Posting here is brilliant. This site has recently been transformed by your recent intellectual provocations. Tweet links for sure. But in tweeting single concepts in such a low bandwidth way, the delay in getting out the full arguments means the misunderstandings (malicious and otherwise) will have gone critical well before tweet two or three can get out and can no longer be managed.

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  • Joseph, so what you are basically saying is that you want more unhappiness in the world. Your logic would also lead you towards afflicting more people with rare diseases so that we would then have enough to be worth searching for a cure for those rare diseases.

    Not only do you misunderstand the utilitarian view on happiness (hint: it’s not just about making one individual happy), but you don’t even consistently apply your concept of testing the boundary conditions.

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  • A challenge
    Prof Dawkins, how about some field research into the impact on ds on the sum happiness of humanity? Come along and meet some people, with ds, and their parents, drink some tea and talk over your views with us all. Yoy never know, your own morality may be be challenged…

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  • I am asking Dawkins for the evidence for his assertion that people with Down’s syndrome are less happy than people without Down’s syndrome. In my personal experience, this is not true. (If there is an identifiable trait for depression, Dawkin’s statement would be more defensible in that context.) You are putting the burden on me; how very unatheist of you.

    In the regulatory context, putting a lower value on quality of life years for people with disabilities has come under fire for misrepresenting how those people actually report their own happiness. It is a bias–one which Dawkins has succumbed to. I do not have compelling proof one way or the other, but it is a topic of current research and debate. See, e.g., http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-27554754. It is also likely very context-specific. For example, if you are healthy for most of your life and then become blind and have poor adaptability, then you will suffer because of your disability. But if you are born blind and have a different character, then you may indeed be happier than many sighted people.

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  • I question the accuracy of your statement that those afflicted with DS receive less health care than others; searching for your Guardian article was fruitless so please provide a link or more info. It is quite possible (perhaps probable) that they receive inadequate healthcare given their special needs and that there is more we could and should be doing. However, the statement that they receive less healthcare by cost, by number of visits, (whatever metric you like) is surprising.

    Regarding children in Africa. Dawkins argument would certainly not lead one to abort every African fetus, however it would lead one to abort a fetus that was significantly more unhealthy than the average African fetus (i.e. the relatively healthy fetus that the mother would have in her next pregnancy). Not doing so would seem exceedingly cruel given their even more limited resources.

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  • Many people here have made the point that people with Down Syndrome can lead worthwhile lives and actually increase happiness and well-being in others. I’ve no doubt this is true.

    But, of course, it’s also true that people without Down Syndrome or any other kind of disability can lead worthwhile lives!

    Yet I’m sure if anyone were to recommend an abortion to a mother pregnant with a “healthy” foetus in a case where she was unsure whether or not she wanted a child, it wouldn’t cause half the furore, especially from pro-choicers who accepted that a foetus has no sentience at that point.

    If a woman is pregnant with a “healthy” foetus at, say, a time she considers too early in her life, and chooses an early abortion, perhaps with the intention of trying for a baby later, many pro-choicers would support that decision without any issue. But if she were pregnant with a foetus known to carry some kind of disability and decided to have an early abortion with the intention of trying again for a child later, it seems to create a lot more unease. Yet, did the “healthy” foetus not deserve to live as much as the “less healthy” foetus?

    I think if you accept that a foetus has no sentience at the time it may be aborted, there is no crime, no direct victim; so you must accept this is the case whatever the known state of “health” of the foetus. It doesn’t make the action of the abortion worse if the prospective health of the child would be worse. There should not be any shame or guilt attached to a mother’s decision to abort an “unhealthy” foetus if there would be none attached to a decision to abort a “healthy” foetus. And if mothers ask advice on whether or not they should have an abortion, there should be no guilt or shame attached to those who give their honest opinion, provided it is made with good intentions and as long as the final decision rests with the mother and she is fully supported in her choice.

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  • 142
    Christopher says:

    Yes, Prof. Dawkins, PLEASE abort your twitter account! Have you not noticed the link between twitter post and shitstorm? Very little can be intelligently discussed and elaborated on in 140 characters. This latest twit (tweet) sounded to me like a fishing expedition in hopes that you would (and did) bite the foul bait and run out the line. You will always have a pack of angry, ready-to-be-offended, attack dogs nipping at your heals, just as any well-known politician does. What do you gain by throwing them these large, bloody chunks of twitter meat? You have spent much of your life attempting to spread and increase science literacy. These twitter fights are undermining much of what you have worked for. At the very least, if you insist on continuing this social media experiment, approach these moral landmines with a more detached and formal objective scientific mindset, avoiding any prescriptions for morality or anything that might come across as such. Forgive me for the pretension; that I would dare suggest what you as a distinguished scientist, educator, and intellectual ought to do, but I beg you, leave twitter to the rest of the twits, and go back to the long form science writing you are so good at.

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  • Dawkins has put shame on women who decide to keep a child with Down’s syndrome–the woman’s decision is immoral, in his words.

    Dawkins apology is based on the prejudice that people with Down’s syndrome lead less happy and fulfilling lives. That is not an apology–it is digging himself deeper.

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  • .it’s what happens in most cases anyway. In fact, it almost goes without saying that ‘aborting it and trying again’ is a valid option, otherwise why would doctors even bother to offer the test to women of a certain age?

    Thank you! This is the point that the majority of posters are missing! Is this Superman’s Bizarro World? My daughter just had her second ultrasound ( at twelve weeks). Why did she have this? In order to detect abnormalities! If things were not progressing well, a termination would follow as a matter of course. This would be a sad event just as the first pregnancy that ended naturally at ten weeks was a sad event.
    Richard was not advocating throwing a live baby to the wolves! Thankfully those days have passed! He was talking about the decision to terminate a pregnancy! A sound decision! The cloying rhetoric surrounding this topic is at odds with the reality of decisions made everyday by decent human beings.

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  • First, I would ask you to identify where Dawkins made such an assertion. Answer: he didn’t.

    It is still an open question as to whether those with DS in our modern, relatively welcoming society are approximately as happy as everyone else. It’s probably close enough one way or the other that it’s probably not worth spending too much time thinking about.

    What is far more certain however is that those with DS are a heavier burden on society and contribute less (by whatever rational metric you choose). Without the special consideration (in time and resources) they are given they would no doubt be far less happy. This in no way means that those alive today with DS are any less deserving than anyone else or that they shouldn’t be given special consideration. Just that there is no reason to create an unnecessary burden when the benefit is so small.

    This may not be a pleasant truth, but it is true nonetheless.

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  • “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 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.

    Dawkins is presuming less happiness and more suffering for a child with Down’s syndrome.

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  • I assume you are going to complete that thought at some point.

    Dawkins also said “I eat women and condemn short children” if you’re going to ignore context and make selective omissions.

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  • Tell me how I am misinterpreting that sentence. He says “from the point of view of the child’s own welfare.” I am not quibbling right now with everything else you’re talking about, including costs to the mother and society. I am critiquing one assertion.

    Did he not make this assertion; am I reading the sentence incorrectly?

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  • Do you seriously not see the word “might” in there? What do you think that means? To most people it means that that is not an assertion of absolute fact, that it is open to question or debate.

    That should be enough, but in the very next sentence he states “I agree that that personal opinion is contentious and needs to be argued further, possibly to be withdrawn.”

    So is it your opinion that people should not have personal opinions that they are not willing to prove to your own satisfaction upon demand, or that they should just keep those opinions to themselves? You’ve expressed several opinions here yourself – are you willing to prove them all or are you going to retract them?

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  • I am asking Dawkins to substantiate the basis for his opinion. His assertion is at odds with my personal experience with people with Down’s syndrome, which is that they tend not to be unhappy people. His opinion is also at odds with the current retreat from the devaluation of quality of life years for people with disabilities.

    This is an example of the very arguments he suggests need to take place. I think his opinion is based on prejudice, not evidence.

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  • Ok, but what if the woman/family unit was affected by the abortion to the point that the overall level of happiness was significantly less than her life would have had by having the child with Down’s Syndrome? Would she not then be morally obliged to have the child? I guess in essence that is a decision that people in this situation have to make. I think it is up to the mother/couple and their individual circumstances. Good luck, whatever the choice, I say.

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  • Preposterous! Stating what his choice would be has nothing to do with anyone but himself. And shame is a decidedly religious tactic. He has not dug himself in deeper, nor do I think you will find many people on his website who agree with you.

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  • 154
    Richard says:

    Dear Prof Dawkins. Please stop using twitter to express opinions which require some subtlety, and that can’t be fully expressed in 140 characters. It’s like trying to hammer a nail using a saw. After your Downs Syndrome comments I was at a meeting at the local atheist club on my university. They referred to you as being like the crazy uncle every family has. Twitter is useless for the job you’re using it for, and it will only lead to embarrassment for other atheists.

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  • If a family were that likely to become prostrated with guilt, they wouldn’t have chosen abortion in the first place. You get to choose for yourself (well, you don’t because you’re not the one whose reproductive rights are protected by law). Each individual gets to decide for herself. It is not your place to butt in, interfere or even comment with agreement or dissent over the choice a woman makes. Do you get that? It is not up to you! Given your ridiculous comments here, I would suspect that you only gravitate toward people who think/behave exactly like you do, so this is all moot for you. Again, mind your business and let others tend to theirs.

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  • 157
    Barry.M says:

    The cloying rhetoric surrounding this topic is at odds with the
    reality of decisions made everyday by decent human beings.

    “Cloying rhetoric” is a great description for some of the comments on here. Richard has simply been open and honest about an everyday occurrence that, for most people, normally remains quiet and private. It’s clearly yet another topic to add to the growing list of things he’s not ‘allowed’ to talk about for fear of a massive backlash.

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  • “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 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.”

    If a woman is happy to have a child regardless of Down syndrome, Dawkins’s statement implies that she would still be acting immorally to have that child because Dawkins believes the child will suffer and be less happy. I am doubtful that people with Down syndrome are actually less happy. And the woman might suffer more from having the abortion than having the child with special needs. That is why Dawkins’s statement is too sweeping and wrongly condemns women who consciously decide to have a child with Down syndrome.

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  • His opinion is no more unfounded than your own and he is not exhibiting any more prejudice or generalizing any more than you are.

    Since his opinion is the prevailing one, it would seem that the opening salvo of the debate should come from your side. If you are happy with the status quo, that disabilities on average lead to a lower quality of life, then by all means do nothing.

    However, if you can make the argument that there is no overall downside to having a disability for those who have it and those who love them then Dawkins has offered you a large audience to make your case. Because if you can make that case then we are seriously overspending on researching cures and pursuing new treatment options.

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  • Hi Barry.
    It’s typical of the dishonesty generated by the believing public. I made a comment near the beginning and was immediately pounced upon. I made the comment knowing full well that this would be the case. Everyday realities are sugar-coated and homogenised. I’m very glad that our children do not have DS. I’m delighted that our only grandchild does not have DS. It’s to be hoped that our expected grandchild does not have DS though if perchance, he/she slips the net and is born so afflicted, I will love the child nonetheless. I’m living in the REAL world! Babies are aborted. The world population is seven billion and rising.

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  • You might have a point if religious standards were actually handed down by a true god, but since they are the somewhat arbitrary rules created by a group of men from long ago they are no more valid than any arbitrary rules we choose to come up with today.

    I was trying to point out the absurdity of your claim that it is impossible to have any clue about whether a particular action (or rule against that action) would cause more or less happiness. That seems to have eluded you.

    To you it seems that it’s okay for the rules to be arbitrary as long as they are fixed in time and never changing. Homosexuality is a sin now and forever. Fine. Poking others in the eye with a stick is also fine. It’s in the rules. Hey, don’t blame me I’m just following the religion (now I just need to con a billion others into agreeing with me).

    If you have an example of a Buddhist precept that does not follow the rule of maximizing overall long term happiness for society then please tell me what it is and why you think we should follow it anyway.

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  • The conversation should have been between you and the person you were responding to. If you were any regular Joe, this wouldn’t have gotten as much attention as it has. You don’t owe anyone an apology for your beliefs. But since we’re both already here on your post, why not take it a further step and encourage couples to undergo genetic testing. It’s costly sure, but children are even more expensive. Especially kids that require special care. If couples know beforehand what risks may be possible, they have the option to go a different route if they want children.

    As others have said, Twitter is bs. You’re better off blogging here and then linking from Twitter. That’s all from me. Just came to show some support because the world can be a big scary ugly place. Gonna work on my homework. Anyone want to help with Physics? 🙂

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  • I’m sorry, but this is nonsense. You are welcome to your opinion if that makes your life more bearable, but please don’t try to pass it off as anything rational or statistically valid.

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  • Nitya, I agree with you. In fact, I came close to making this decision myself, in my third pregnancy years ago. I had preliminary results that indicated a possibility of DS in with that fetus. We opted to have the amnio because we agreed in about five minutes that in the case of a positive on the amnio we would choose to terminate. Yes, that’s right, abort it and try again.

    This was not a decision based on emotion. It was based on practical concerns that every woman considers for any pregnancy that she carries. How will this future child affect my life? How will it affect my children that exist now? Do I have enough help to manage another child? How will this affect my marriage? What about the financial burden of another child?

    These questions are part of a normal and natural calculation that is as old as our species. Now, thanks to medical science we have the means to make this decision quickly and pretty much painlessly. In times past, on discovery of serious birth defects or a perception by the mother that the newborn infant she had produced would endanger her already existing offspring or deplete her own meager fat reserves over a harsh winter and endanger her own life or enrage her current mate to violence when he suspects it’s not his own, or any other possibility, then the only option at that point was to abandon the child. There must have been an assumption of death in that mix on some level.

    In the days between my own amnio years ago, and the day that they phoned in the results of that test, normal chromosomal configuration, I remember feeling anxious and sad, but I never wavered in my decision to terminate if given a positive result. Both of my daughters know about the circumstances surrounding that pregnancy. The have both assured me that if they are in the same position some day that they would do the same thing. (Even the daughter who WAS that pregnancy, mind you!) You see, they have an older brother who has suffered from mental illness issues his whole life. We know very well what happens to a family that has to deal with these problems. It’s a very long road that can end in suffering for everyone.

    I hope you and your daughter fare well. What I now know about all of these daughters is that they have mothers (and hopefully governments) who will never railroad them into producing offspring that they don’t want. I only wish that all women could feel their own mother, parents, mates, siblings and friends rally strong behind them whatever their final decision on any pregnancy might be . This is reproductive freedom! It’s what we’re fighting for. That’s what I had and I’m ever grateful for it.

    fist bump to you

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  • 166
    Barry.M says:

    How is there a comparison to racism or discrimination? Richard Dawkins is simply stating a valid and reasonable opinion based on his own moral values. He’s not attacking anyone.

    With regard to his “judgement on a woman’s morality”, I would remind you that the point in question is only really relevant to people who have had a test carried out to see if their fetus might have Down Syndrome. I don’t want to jump to conclusions, but surely the woman in such a case must be at least considering an abortion in order to go ahead with the test in the first place.

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  • I get your point, Dave. I wrote a post “longer than a Sam Harris book” on some of the pitfalls of communication under the topic dealing with the rape controversy. Richard does need “sensitivity training.” Yet, the author is guilty of a blatant attempt at painting Richard in a poor light.

    As suspected IYFNY is not a mother. Why would an author state something on the lines of – Richard Dawkins tells mother to abort and try again? Strangely, I cannot find this article today. My assumptions are that IYFNY’s comment was read and the article was corrected or I’m just not finding the original article. Surely, Richard telling a mother to abort and try again is much more sensational and effective at stirring the pot than Richard telling a woman to abort and try again.

    Yes, Richard needs to watch his wording and apologize when appropriate because it is OPEN SEASON on atheists and atheist leaders. The opposition lurks through Richard’s Twitter account like vultures hoping for a phrase that they can scoop up, emphasize, and proudly put it on display for everyone to see and comment. Their motives are transparent; they’ve found Richard’s Achilles heel. If you don’t think there is an effort to divide atheists, you have no idea of what’s coming. Yes, in essence, Richard has declared “war” on theists, so they will retaliate. Hopefully, these recent events will spur Richard onto finding better ways of expressing his views.

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  • 169
    Barry.M says:

    Hi Nitya.

    I will love the child nonetheless

    Well said. I would feel exactly the same. This is the mistake people are making. Nobody is saying that everyone with Down Syndrome should be unloved or bumped off but there’s no doubting that life would usually be harder for all concerned in such a circumstance.

    If a woman has had the test and then deliberately brings a DS baby into the world, then I think it’s perfectly reasonable to make an argument against that being the correct moral choice.

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  • Hi LaurieB
    It’s good to hear another rational, real world response. My daughter has had three pregnancies. The first brought with it great joy from all concerned. We were delighted and started making plans, as you do. We were all very disappointed when it ended ( the baby simply disappeared and was reabsorbed into her system I believe.) We all came to grips with the disappointment by saying that the baby was not developing properly in all likelihood and this is nature’s
    way of self correction.

    The second pregnancy was textbook perfect and resulted in a beautiful little boy. She’s now twenty weeks into her third pregnancy. If tests revealed an abnormality this would be extremely distressing but they have to live their lives aware of all the ramifications of bringing a special needs child into the world. It would affect the relationship our grandson would have with his peers. Some kids are really tough and can take occasional teasing but others are not.

    As you said, it’s not an easy decision. The family need to weigh up every aspect with full knowledge of the impact on every member of the family. And I should add, why have the tests and scans if you’re not prepared to take action? It would be better to take pot luck and see how things turn out.

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  • Congratulations, You have given the opposition exactly what they want to hear. Richard has done somuch for the atheist movement. Let’s give him some more time to figure things out and make an improvement.

    My advice to you Richard – Stick to science, stick to atheism, avoid comparisons and avoid making quick comments when it should elaborated upon.

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  • 172
    Karmakshanti says:

    I don’t believe I said that I personally had a preference for every a priori moral standard. And from my vantage point the problem is not that the happiness/suffering gradient is wrong, but, rather, it is simply unworkable in the absence of knowledge of the future. We need to have a reliable standard of how to act, and this gradient simply doesn’t supply one.

    Since you bring it up I’ll state the unprovable assumptions behind the Buddhist view: past and future lives, and a process casually called “karma”, but in detail is known as Action, Causation, and Consequences. Any action has long term consequences, but what those will be in any given life depends upon the contributing conditions available.

    As a (rare) example of this in a single life consider long term tobacco use and cancer. Smoking has the potential to result in cancer, but it does not do so in every case. For a small minority of people, they can continue to smoke throughout their long lives (think of Winston Churchill) and not develop cancer, presumably due to the genes they have inherited. A somewhat larger minority die before the cancer matures. Everybody else contracts cancer. Good or bad genes, or other fatal consequences are the contributing conditions that make the emergence of cancer possible.

    The Buddhist points out that many of our actions, even our bad actions have no apparent personal consequences (Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot all died in bed). This is due to the fact that it may take multiple lives to bring forth the necessary contributing conditions.

    Now all of this is simply unprovable, so don’t ask me to try. The Buddhist has to treat these like axioms in mathematics: the basis for proving something else, but unprovable in and of themselves.

    Therefore assuming these, the basis of Buddhist morality is quite simple: a bad action sooner or later has bad personal consequences for the individual who commits it. As an example, killing living things in this life shortens your lifespan in future lives and leaves you prone to being killed violently yourself.

    This is all personal, focusing on the bad actions and the bad actor rather than the victims of bad actions. Everybody creates their own karmic problems, so the issue of “greatest general happiness” is disposed of.

    Now, as I say, none of this is provable, and all of it may be false, but it certainly “makes sense”, it is consistent and controllable at the stage of action by any individual. This is what I mean by it having the simplest and most logical form of all the possible a priori moral standards.

    But I would go further and say that any standard of morality must rely on some unprovable assumptions. Proponents of simple happiness/suffering gradient generally do not question the assumptions behind it and treat moral conduct as generally self-evident.

    It isn’t.

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  • You are hilarious. You brought up the word ‘evil’, implying it from my words when I myself had never used it.

    I understand Dawkins’s definition of immoral perfectly. I just don’t think he is justfied in using it in this context. He himself comes very close to acknowledging as much when he says that his view ‘is contentious and needs to be debated further, possibly to be withdrawn’. He just doesn’t go the whole hog, admit he was wrong and apologise.

    Your last paragraph is just complete gibberish. You haven’t illuminated anything other than your own confusion so I’m going to give up on you.

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  • Yes, I did bring up the term “evil” because that was your implication by continuing to reiterate Dawkins opinion that such an action is “immoral.” If you meant no more than how Dawkins defined it (as reducing the happiness in the world) then why oh why do you keep emphasizing that term out of context!? You are trying to make the implication of something that isn’t there, to raise a ruckus and cause confusion in the minds of others.

    My last paragraph highlights the hypocrisies of your position. You (collectively) want to claim that DS children and their families are better off (or at least no worse) while simultaneously asking for more support and funding for research. If there is no overall downside to DS then we are certainly wasting a lot of resources that could be used elsewhere. I know that it impossible for you to comprehend that you can’t have it both ways, but that’s the reality.

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  • Right, so the equation of immorality with evil came from you.

    Once again you have ascribed to me views that I have not expressed, and do not hold. This time you appear to have plucked them out of thin air. As a method of debate this is tedious in the extreme and renders the whole exercise completely pointless.

    Good night.

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  • Your cancer example is perfect.

    Let us assume that someone with a terminal debilitating illness has their suffering alleviated by smoking cigarettes (or marijuana). According to your philosophy they should abstain from taking such relief because even though there is effectively zero risk in this lifetime it will eventually come back to hurt them.

    In this single example you have just caused more unhappiness and suffering in the world.

    Your philosophy has exactly the same holes as the utilitarianism you disagree with it. What inherently makes smoking bad? Has it always been bad or did it suddenly become bad once we established the link with cancer?

    Why not use the best available knowledge at the time to determine whether the consequences are worth the action rather than make an arbitrary standard that is certain to be false (and by its religious nature cannot be improved upon). Yes it is imperfect, but it’s better than random.

    The “golden rule” (which seems to be the crude basis for your Buddhism) is just as fine a starting point for the utilitarian concept of happiness. If you don’t want to get poked in the eye, it is immoral to go around poking others (even if you can get away with it, which has the same probability for both philosophies).

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  • If you can explain your position fully without contradicting yourself by all means do so. Of course, as long as you keep your position vague and fuzzy it is far easier to defend (and live with).

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  • 179
    Andrikzen says:


    You are so spot on. Humans have railed against nature, shielded ourselves from the ravages, no, the strengthening and self correcting hand of nature, but by doing so we take on the responsibility of guiding our own evolution. We have rested responsibility from the gods; we’ve eaten the fruit from the forbidden tree, and now we tremble in fear of the responsibility. How can any humane person, knowingly allow a child to be born with a debilitating defect, yes, defect! Human value is determined on human terms, not by nature, not every attempt at creating a human being is going to be successful, errors abound and nature aborts to try again, but we intervene instead. How selfishly cruel!

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  • 180
    Andrew says:

    The problem with Dawkins is that he talks with such confidence about things of he knows so little. Moreover his arguments are at best simplistic and at worst fallacious.

    According to a myriad of research papers people with DS are amongst the happiest in the world (see http://thetribalway.com/?p=273 ). Perhaps he ought to read Voltaire’s “The Good Brahmin” on this. For a more thoughtful and balanced view I suggest he read the Preference Utilitarian Peter Singer’s “Practical Ethics” in which Singer argues that from a Utilitarian viewpoint it is immoral to abort a foetus with DS. So, if as he says, his philosophy is driven by a desire to increase happiness he is has reached a perverse and irrational conclusion.
    If you actually speak to mothers who have had children with DS, while they admit they probably would have likely had an abortion if a prenatal test has signified DS; most if not all also admit that this reaction would have been made out of ignorance, fear and pressure from the medical professionals. (See the article http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/once-i-would-have-agreed-with-dawkins-then-my-daughter-was-born-with-downs-syndrome-9684199.html ) .
    A real worry is that the ignorant views of Dawkins will give fuel to the social and moral pressures on parents to have an abortion if their pre-natal screening identifies an abnormality. A consequence of this could be that we achieve a less tolerant society-with parents of such children being condemned by society for agreeing to see the pregnancy through. Remember Dawkins argues that to abort IS the morally right thing to do. Not to have an abortion would therefore be immoral. It is not hard to imagine that if this stance were adopted people with Down’s will be treated as a burden. Dawkins argues that parents of children with Down’s Syndrome have wrongly (and emotionally) argued and taken offence, saying that he is not suggesting that their children do not deserve to be alive. That he cannot see the implications and consequences of his views if adopted by society as a whole is staggering. He either has not thought about it or does not want to think about it. Either of which demonstrates a lack of intellectual rigour: something he regularly accuses those with whom he disagrees. Moreover, to say that the fact that most people choose to have an abortion proves his point is completely nonsensical. Would he argue that when most people kept slaves, slavery was proven to be moral? This is ethical relativism gone mad. I suggest he reads James Rachels (Elements of Moral Philosophy) on this point.
    His views were shared by the English geneticist, Francis Galton, (a relative of Darwin, whom Dawkins admires to the point of worship). His views heavily influenced the Nazis. Of course blind Dawkins supporters will cry outrage and exaggeration at this association. Nevertheless, Galton proposed negative eugenics- which is exactly what Dawkins is proposing, as the moral right choice – which is exactly how the Nazis argued. This was enacted upon by the Nazis with at least 350,000 people with disabilities being murdered. Euthanasia practiced by Nazis was practice because they believed they were acting morally.
    Of course it could be argued that it is irrational to suggest that people want to be born disabled. In response to this I am reminded by a disabled man who told me that people who were not disabled get this argument the wrong way around: “If I was asked ‘do you wish you had not be born disabled?’ The answer is yes, I wish I had not been born with a disability. But if you ask me ‘Do you wish you had not been born?’ The answer is no, I live a rich and fulfilling life and am glad I am alive. The problem is that people without disabilities get this the wrong way around.” Sums it up perfectly, Mr Dawkins.

    Finally, perhaps we have an instance here where religions proof their worth. Dawkins sounds rational and many of his supporters will be sold by his rhetoric. Almost all religions would oppose the ethical stance Dawkins proposes, and perhaps they possess a wisdom of the past which embodies compassion.

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  • Mr. Dawkins, how about to update your knowledge of Down Syndrome – the real thing we live and see everyday, not the lab and microscope stuff?
    “older mothers who are more likely to have a child with the condition”. That’s not what we SEE in fact, most mothers of DS children we know are around 30yo, not on mid 40s and even less around 50yo. What is the definition of older mother used as reference, the same from 40 years ago?
    “Life expectancy is reduced, and those who survive through adulthood often need special care as though they are children”. Things changes through time. New techniques, therapies and educational standards are contributing to a better development of those individuals. Today we see DS people as journalists, politicians, athletes, graduating on universities, etc, living their lifes with considerable autonomy. The main factor for this is how much stimulation the parents of a DS individual can provide since the first months of life. The more received, the more can be developed.
    “to increase the sum of happiness and reduce suffering, the decision to deliberately give birth to a Down 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”. Well, who said that a family with a Down Syndrome individual can’t be happy, and more important, that a DS child will live a hell on earth if allowed to come into this world? What could you tell us about hundreds of thousands families with “normal” born children who beat them, rape them, etc? And how about those families whose “normal” sons and daughters get lost to drugs or crime. Are you sure that allowing only “normal” children to born will be some guarantee for a happy and joyful life and that in any way this can happen with a family with a DS child?

    I’m not talking about the abortion matter, but to think twice before write about something you don’t have full knowledge. I can’t talk about Science as you, a master on this field. In the other hand, I think you shouldn’t talk about how is to LIVE with a DS individual, having no deep experience on it as fathers and mothers of a DS children have. That’s the point I had the obligation to express after saw what you’ve written about DS.

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  • You have repeatedly demonstrated that you misunderstood the concepts that Dawkins has carefully and concisely written. Not just once, but multiple times after multiple corrections. Yet you have no problem with repeatedly criticizing him for it.

    Then after mention that you are making the implication that Dawkins thinks a non-abortion in this case is “evil” you agree with my assessment then you have the audacity to blame me for bringing the term into conversation. Which you admit was what you meant.

    You are quite something.

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  • 183
    Joseph says:

    Actually, I happen to like inconvenient truths, I just don’t sit in front of the computer all day responding immediately, so please excuse the delay. To answer your question, I happen to think that nature produces the “right” number of Downs, just like as an economist, I think capitalistic forces impart the right amount of income to any given businessman. I don’t think that anyone should centrally plan anything, not your income, not your education, and certainly not your life if you happen to be “undesirable” at a given moment in time. So to me, taking a pill that kills Downs children smacks very much of central planning or social engineering. I don’t think human beings should go about the business of killing someone based on a subjective determination of what is considered good. Again, my example if we killed all the Warren Buffets in the stone age for their inability to hunt woolly mammoth.

    So to answer your question, I would neither take a pill that kills a Downs kid nor would I take pill that produces a Downs kid. I think the probability of Downs mutation occurs at the right level as determined by nature. We don’t need more. We don’t need less.

    By the way, you should also read some of my other posts.


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  • 184
    Joseph says:


    Please don’t put words in my mouth. Who said I was saying I want more unhappiness in the world? Also, what is the unit of happiness that you use? If each Downs kid had an iota of happiness, isn’t that a good thing? And what if those kids also bring joy to their parents and caretakers? Isn’t that a good thing?

    Now, certainly, some unhappiness may be brought with a Downs kid, but why stop there? Why not put everyone who has more unhappiness than happiness (whether as an individual or as an aggregate to society) out of their misery and kill them? That would be wrong, in my view.

    I get the sense that you didn’t even really read what I said. Hit the reset key, and please read again.


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  • 185
    Joseph says:

    I might add that when I refer to treatment, I am simply stating that treatment can increase the ratio of happiness to unhappiness placing that individual back on the “no kill” list, per this philosophy espoused by Mr. Dawkins, as I understand it.

    Yet by eliminating these kids from ever being born, we are not giving treatment and future treatment a chance.

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  • I think I see your confusion. The terminal illness in question is not caused by the smoking, it is unrelated; smoking comes after the diagnosis and is part of palliative care.

    What in your philosophy would make smoking in that instance “bad?” If it’s not bad then how could someone possibly determine that and know what the consequences of their actions would be (in future lives)? Is it still bad if someone has a gene that makes cancer a very low risk? If you are going to make such judgements anyway why bother bring in the whole karma concept

    The only value then is to make people feel better about their miserable lives or to feel better that others who have committed moral crimes will get punished. (Even though they won’t.)

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  • 188
    Joseph says:

    It’s funny how you, post after post, try to make a delineation between emotion and logic, and yet Dawkins moral philosophy is about bringing greater happiness, an emotion, to the world. Kind of a disconnect, huh?

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  • Joseph, I suggest you hit reset and read what you wrote yourself.

    You have suggested that we would be better off with more people with rare diseases so that we would be more motivated to find a cure. While that is no doubt true, I can’t imagine that you can’t see the absurdity of that. To test the boundary conditions we should give DS to as many people as possible, right?

    I’m not putting words in your mouth. These are the implications of what you have said whether you see it or not.

    Terminating an already living person is a completely different situation, but even then it doesn’t fail your test. If killing a person adds to the overall long term happiness of the world then who are you to say it is wrong? Once again, you are advocating for decreased happiness in the world. The fact that you’re fine with that means that you are a cruel person, IMO.

    Do we need to worry about you spreading disease (HIV, Ebola, …) in a Twelve Monkeys type situation because you think the world would be better off?

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  • Not in the least.

    Dawkins uses logic to bring more happiness to the world. Issues can be discussed rationally, research can be done and problems can be solved. Relying on emotion (or religion) to try to achieve the same result is at best a short term solution.

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  • How is that life philosophy working for you? Have you looked into Christian Science, because I think that might work well with your philosophy of non-interference in the will of the creator.

    Your philosophy on letting nature decide is pretty much downright crazy. Nature also gave us polio; are you longing for the days when science and medicine upended the natural balance? Once again, we’re talking Twelve Monkeys type crazy.

    You are totally missing the lesson from the Warren Buffett example. They did try to kill the Warren Buffetts in the stone age, if they hadn’t tried then the Warren Buffetts would never have evolved to be as smart as they (we) are today.

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  • If the treatment is cheap and effective enough so that the total unhappiness is not increased by DS then there is no issue, is there?

    Will it ever get there? Maybe, but probably not, so why take a chance that is unnecessary?

    “No kill” list, eh? If you want to try to distort the discussion into something it’s not then don’t insult us by being so obvious about it.

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  • 193
    Nicholas says:

    After reading this article and some of the comments, i have no one to argue with. The only thing i want to say is that, in reference to an increase of happiness and decrease of suffering, i only wish the determining factor in the decision was the child’s future, if he or she was born, rather than the parent’s. I understand the decision lies in the hands of the parents, and i am not saying yes abortion or no abortion, but if your reason for aborting the fetus is YOU will be unhappy, then YOU are selfish and your justification is nothing more. The only happiness or lack there of that should be considered is the happiness of the child. Will he or she live a life of apathy? of self-loathing? of social outcast? Will they wish they were never born as everyone stares at them in the store? as their classmates pick on them? as they are forever treated like someone who can never amount to anything or as they are treated like they can do anything when they know they will struggle with most everything? as they are treated differently? NOT all of these hypothetical outcomes will happen or maybe none of them will as there are different levels of severity with the syndrome (hopefully none but through personal observations i have seen these struggles in schools i have attended and places i have been) The reason i am only describing the possible sad life of the child is because i am not the parent making the decision and so i can not evaluate the good i can do for the child or the ways i would work for his or her happiness in my personal situation. It is up to YOU as to how hard you work for their happiness. The only factor you should consider when it comes to YOU is will you be so selfish that you can not give that child an actual life? A life worth more than the struggles of both you and them. If so, i recommend not having a child in general because with any child these situations are possible and by assuming the role of caretaker in the life of another human being, you should make their happiness worth more than your own as it should be the source of your happiness.
    This message was not directed at anyone in particular and i am not accusing Mr. Dawkins or the comment writers of not valuing the child’s potential future. I only wish more people wrote about it. I was only commenting on the one aspect of this article and am in no way encouraging you to spoil your child as a means of happiness or to make them happy only so you feel happy.
    All i am saying is, people are not a means to an end but an end in themselves.
    Thank you for reading

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  • I admire RD for expressing views based on rational thought rather than religious dogma. I don’t find it contentious. I find it refreshing.

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  • 195
    Andreas says:

    A copy of what I replied on Facebook after being confronted by Dawkins Tweet (to lazy to re-write…):

    Personally I would never have sex with a girl who would take an abortion. That’s a personal thing with me, but only that. I’m not trying to impose my decision on others and even though I’m personally against abortion, I would not dream of repealing the abortion law. It must be as it is today.

    I’ve also worked with people with Downs and I absolutely loved every one I met. They are lovely people and I don’t want to be without that experience. It happened at a stage in my life where a lot of who I am today was created. If I change job in the future that is something I would love to go back to.

    All that said, the fact is that Downs is one of the first things they look for now and it usually results in an abortion. I don’t judge those parents, not at all! But I hope I would have personally chosen differently (easy to say, right?). Dawkins is just mirroring what most people actually do. I often think we are cowards and say one thing while we in real life do another. Nobody wishes for a baby with illness, nobody believes a child with Downs is a good thing. It is a tragedy, but like all tragedies it also can bring out the best in us. And personally I like that diversity in our society.

    That’s why I support Dawkins on this, not on all his personal opinions, but in the same way I would have supported a good friend who had taken an abortion when Downs was detected early in the pregnancy. His opinion on this subject is no different from the actions of most people today. And that is what I love about Dawkins! He could have chosen to sit back and protect his position as one of the most admired atheists today, but he does not care about that. He believes we should be able and allowed to discuss everything – even when it is controversial. And I love that!!! That is why I respect him highly.

    I really hope Dawkins keep stirring up debate and controversy, we really need that to keep the debates and our grey cells alive!

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  • James,

    ..By Professor Dawkins’s measure it would be immoral not to terminate the pregnancy if the foetus is a girl.

    That is exactly the logical fallacy and moral dilemma I was trying to point out in the “happiness equation” in RD’s post. You got the crux of my argument. Thanks for putting it so succinctly 🙂

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  • I’m amazed at the vitriol in this thread.
    The decision to abort or to keep a foetus is a personal question. If you find yourself in that situation, you either make the decision or it will be made for you. Regardless if you let emotion or calculation guide your decision, it is yours, and only yours.

    When nonpregnant people are asked if they would have a termination if their fetus tested positive, 23–33% said yes, when high-risk pregnant women were asked, 46–86% said yes, and when women who screened positive are asked, 89–97% say yes.
    This shows how radically different the situation appears when you are faced with the situation rather that just speculating about what other people ought do.

    Some people in this thread have Down Syndrome children have taken it upon themselves to criticize everyone with a different opinion. Presumably because they feel they have more experience in the matter. I find this remarkably silly since regardless of their experiences, the decision to abort is still mine and my spouses alone.

    I understand, and strongly support Prof. Dawkins position. Advice was sought and advice was given. End of story. Prof. Dawkins was not forcing a abortion. Prof. Dawkins was not unduly pressuring the woman. And yet we have the klaxons of righteousness howling about how uncaring he is.

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  • danny,

    you are running away from the discussion rather than engaging in it. If we couldn’t discuss the difficult issues, why discuss at all? I emphasize with your situation, but you should nor be an apologist for Prof. Dawkins, neither should you run away when his opinion offends you.


    PS. Thanks for the “Dawkins the Vulcan” image. It gave me many little snickers throughout the day.

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  • 200
    Barry.M says:

    …nature produces the “right” number of Downs

    I think Sedan’s description of this as “downright crazy” is a nice concise way of expressing the many reasons why this is such a ridiculous statement.

    I’m afraid you’ve also taken Quine’s ‘imaginary pill’ out of context too. The idea was that the pill could reduce the chances of having a DS baby. It wasn’t “a pill that kills a Downs kid” as you so unfairly put it.

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  • I agree this question of the decision not to abort being “immoral” is the part I have most difficulty with. I’m still trying to think that one through to see if there is any justification for saying that. I was making the point that a decision or recommendation to abort a Down Syndrome foetus or any other foetus with a health issue is definitely not immoral, and should bring absolutely no cause for shame or guilt.

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  • 202
    Barry.M says:

    The problem with Dawkins is…ignorant

    You are an almost perfect example of one of the ‘haters’ that Richard describes in his five-point description above. And then you nicely finish off with

    Almost all religions would oppose the ethical stance Dawkins proposes

    There we go then. The answer is simple – if one is against ignorance, slavery and mass euthanasia of the disabled then one needs only to embrace religion. Would you recommend a particular one..?

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  • Having read Richard’s explanation again, I note that he does accept that the opinion that it would be immoral not to abort “is contentious and needs to be argued further, possibly to be withdrawn.” He also “regret[s] using abbreviated phraseology which caused so much upset.”

    So I am satisfied that he has already explained his position satisfactorily and accepted his misjudgement in the initial phraseology of his tweet.

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  • 204
    maria melo says:

    This is being an interesting discussion (more than one head think better) and those that commented here should be kind of glad that Richard Dawkins always put aside his pen to communicate and hear others, otherwise, no one would be commenting here, including so emotive and reasonable views on the subject.
    If you’ d know me, you d probably notice that I early developed interest on alike/aside subjects (by the way I had a cousin with a Nazi tattoo, that died recently, and that tattoo when observed by me as a child or teenager was a motive for reflection, and as far as chosen to course anthropology and eugenics was/is a strong subject within social sciences.)
    When it comes to emotions, I think I cannot make good decisions and in difficult times, I ve benefited more than once from psychological support, so I would never dare to think that my reason would overcome my emotional difficulties (or immaturity).

    So I care for every comment in here. and could reply or comment myself, when I decided just to reply this one, not that I haven t read all comments carefully either.

    Not only Germans responsive for eugenics actions, of course (you could yourself read the book The Mismeasure of Man for instance (or the book from where I had to study which resumed all of them).

    I just leave some video and new link(s) here:

    – video: Nazi Germany and eugenics, James Watson

    -video: Campaign against Indian infanticide

    On the news: Indian boy berried alive-because he is son of a non married mother- dreams to going to school

    Can science, not free from ethical duty of course. -for ethics means exactly that no one is free from participating in a largest social duty, not that science does nothing for ethics and religion does it better- help to think if this behaviour has so far genetic predisposition, I mean could socio-biologist as E. O. Wilson help here? Is this a behaviour typical from males/females mammalian brain? (a male kills offspring to assure his progeny, or that the female could reproduce again, rather than expecting the female nurture the offspring with milk, inhibiting her ovulation?)

    The discussion held in here was however worth , this is only my silly wondering.

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  • There is nothing sociopathic or hedonistic about the utilitarian philosophy. This is a misunderstanding that has been repeated countless times on this page and I will no longer repeat my clarification.

    You seem to be willing to endure suffering (and impose it upon others) for the infinitesimally small chance that you happened to pick the one true religion and that you happen to guess right on all of its subtle and arbitrary rules and prohibitions (smoking good/bad? who knows, homosexuality? throw a dart).

    I am not willing to make such an impossible gamble. Not with my one and only life (and the lives of those I care about).

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  • 206
    Katy Cordeth says:

    “The problem with Dawkins is…ignorant views…slavery…euthanasia…Nazis”

    You are an almost perfect example of one of the ‘haters’ that Richard describes in his five-point description above.

    I have to say I didn’t detect any hatred in Andrew’s post. It was well-argued and dispassionate.

    You could get a job at Fox News with those editing skills though, Barry.

    Allow me to do with your comment what you did with Andrew’s.


    So you’re saying Richard is of below average intelligence and we should despise him for it?

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  • 207
    maria melo says:

    uhhhhhhhhh, it takes time to appear a reply with links. when my other comment will be published, I will have no chance to edit it.

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  • On the subject of a morality based on a desire to increase the sum of happiness and reduce suffering, which Richard apparently adheres to, I am reminded of the Autobiography of Bertrand Russell. In his teenage years (in the 1880’s) he was a convert of this philosophy, also known as Utilitarianism. By 1902, at latest, he was rejecting it. Among his arguments is that we pursue things that are not likely to increase happiness either for ourselves or anyone else, but which we feel drawn to as something that must be done. You may be able to think of personal examples, but Russell quoted the study of philosophy as something that, aside from some small instances of increased happiness, is largely painful and depressing. Yet he felt it needed to be done. Some other examples he quotes are those involving themselves in thoughts of death.
    In his writings to Gilbert Murray in 1902, Bertrand states that there are certain valuable moral principles that are not deducible from Utilitarianism and are therefore inconsistent with it. He cites virtue among these (patience maybe an example.)
    So, coming to Down’s syndrome, I would not want any judgement made on the abortion/ no abortion question if that judgement was solely based on Richard’s views of morality.

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  • I simply adopted your own language. You decided to equate 'immoral' with 'evil'. There's actually nothing wrong with that in itself: you will find 'immoral' defined as 'evil' in respectable dictionaries. If you don't like the usage, don't use it. 'Immoral' (like 'evil') is a derogatory term, so Dawkins should take care before using it in public. His defence is that he is using his own personal definition, and that people needed to understand this definition in order to properly understand his tweet. This is a bit odd – rather like using your own personal definition of 'dickhead' and then being surprised when people take offence – but if he could at least demonstrate convincingly that under his own definition of the term 'immoral' he was using it correctly, then we could put the whole thing down to a misunderstanding. He can't. Let's try one more time to see why. A woman discovers at 12 weeks that she is pregnant with a foetus that has Down's Syndrome. Let's say she has two possible choices Continue with the pregnancy and have a child with Down's Syndrome Terminate and have another, healthy child (let's leave aside the possibility that she might not be able to). You are very certain that choice 2 will result in more overall happiness than Choice 1, but you have offered nothing to support this position. Or to put it another way, using your own words, 'not terminating a DS fetus causes statistically more unhappiness than happiness'. I'd ask to see those statistics but of course you don't have any: to you it is simply self-evident that the life of a child with Down's generates less happiness than the equivalent life of a healthy child. In adopting this position you are making some very big assumptions about 1) the nature of happiness 2) our ability to measure happiness and compare it between individuals and circumstances 3) the amount of happiness a person with Down's syndrome is capable of experiencing compared to a 'normal' person and 4) the amount of happiness experienced by a family and those others in the life of the person with Down's Syndrome relative to the hypothetical happiness the same group of people would have achieved with a 'normal' child (or vice versa).

    **Last sentence removed by moderator to bring within Terms of Use. **

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  • 210
    Andrew says:

    You cannot claim an argument is nonsense without offering critical analysis of the position to draw the conclusion. You commit exactly what you condemn this contributor of doing: being irrational. I have noticed that a lot on this website. I was expecting more thoughtful and informed debate, but I see that anyone who dares to criticise the views of ‘the leader’ is rounded on by his pack of hounds with attacks on their reason or being biased. You all resemble something of a religious cult to me. Do you ever look in the mirror. (By the way, I am not a theist or atheist. I am not religious- I know what you were thinking!)

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  • 211
    paulovatt says:

    Richard. Do you have time to spend a week looking after Down’s children? I think it’s time. Your point has been made but you messed up making it in the way you did. Think of it as a conditional discharge, with an element of community service.

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  • Hi, I’m from Austria, would you please excuse my incorrect English.
    I’m quite embarrassed about this shit storm that’s going on here.
    In the law of my country abortion is legal till the 12th week of pregnancy, but in case of disability – for example DS – even till the 20th week. I can understand a woman’s wish to have a normal child and also agree with Mr. Dawkin’s realistic and rational view of this problem – he is a biologist, so what.
    Gloria Steinem: Women’s bodies are not a public property – so please let the decision to whom it concerns.
    Thank you.

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  • In Austria 97% of DS-fetuses are aborted, and every abortion has it’s own story, I agree with you, its always an individual decision and nobody can make any rules for a woman what she has to do in a problematic situation.

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  • 215
    maria melo says:

    I would edit my comment, but once I dont have that chance anymore, you ll have to excuse my bad English.

    When I say I decided to reply, I mean Leila s arguments and points.

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  • If I was asked ‘do you wish you had not be born disabled?’ The answer is yes, I wish I had not been born with a disability. But if you ask me ‘Do you wish you had not been born?’ The answer is no, I live a rich and fulfilling life and am glad I am alive.

    But this is poorly said. The adult is not the pre-conscious foetus without the choice, or a need of one. Another slightly younger person possibly fully abled could be standing in the available family slot. Nor are the nature of disabilities to be ignored.

    We are a species that have a capacity to make the best of things, sure, but that is actually part of the point of RD’s assertions.

    The Godwin really does deserve a cry of outrage also. The discussion is about least harms to all. What will it take to trigger your Nazi sympathies? Foetuses with neural tube defects? Anencephaly? If you are concerned about misery in the here and now there should be a little vestige of the eugenic Nazi (as you would have it) in you…

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  • 217
    Massimo says:

    Dear Dr. Dawkins, if you really wish to use Twitter to convey such easily misinterpretable messages, I strongly suggest that you use services such as “TwitLonger” that allow to exceed the (idiotic) 140 character limit imposed by standard Twitter.

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  • Interesting that anyone would consider destroying a human life in the most violent way possible as a way of preventing suffering. How horribly ironic.

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  • First time here and to set out my credentials I am sure I am in a minority of one on this site as a committed follower of the Jewish faith and also the parent of a severely disabled son.

    Unfortunately it appears there isn’t much debate here rather just a posting of views, which is interesting but one dimentional
    . It would be more helpful if we could engage in debate with Mr Dawkins. Maybe that is possible elsewhere if anybody would like to let me know.

    I do not intend to comment about G-d and faith (my views being obvious), nor about the use and misuse of social media and consequent perils if not careful (we are in the early days of this medium, so care is needed) , nor to explain my own incredibly positive and life affirming experiences with a handicapped family member.

    I just want to pick up on 3 words, and ask a question, not as a Jew, nor a parent, just as a curious human. What is your definition of the ‘Sum of happiness’. If I would be able to have an answer to that then an interesting debate could result of which I would seriously like to participate.

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  • 221
    Andrew says:

    Perhaps you ought to read my comment again and offer critical analysis of my position instead of this unthinking, emotive, unstructured dribble. Are you saying that Dawkin’s views are not almost identical to those of Francis Galton? Are you saying that the Nazis were not influenced by this pseudo-science? How would you say Dawkins views differs from Galton? If adopted by society do you think it would have a negative impact upon the lives of those people with DS and their family or not? Why? I don’t know, because you make no argument about it. It is as if you have some trigger words which send you off on a rant (which is ironically effectively what you accuse me of doing!).
    You assume anyone who does not agree with ‘the leader’ is wrong and you make all sorts of assumptions about them. I am genuinely disappointed by the lack of critical debate on this site. For the record, I am not a theist and follow no religion, so cannot recommend one. If that is at all relevant! You seem to make assumptions about those who disagree with ‘the leader’ and reject their arguments out of hand without thought or reflection- “No one can disagree with the leader”. Reflecting on many of the contributions on this site reminds me of a religious cult I studied while doing my dissertation.
    I knew the point about religion would get some of you going. As soon as the word is mentioned emotive words like “irrational”, “emotional haters” are banded about as you are the guardians of all that is rational. Indeed, the way you round on those of us who happen to disagree with your leader is akin to a religious cult: you have all the answers, but offer little in the way of critical analysis to support your prejudices. Maybe, just maybe, there is wisdom in (some) religious teachings/ethics, which we would do well to heed. Perhaps if you could take off your blinkered glasses you might concede this point.
    I am pleased that because many of us hold more enlightened views about those with SEND than ‘the leader’, the barriers and low expectations, which have formerly existed for such people are being removed. I had a girl with DS in my last tutor group. Her parents and I placed no limitation on our expectations for her. She achieved 8 GCSEs, the highest was a D (-higher than a lot of other students in the group). She went on to college and now lives an independent life, working in Sainsbury’s and has an active and varied social life. She is also learning to drive. She is a much loved and valued member of her family and community, and was an example to us all in kindness and compassion. She is not the exception. It is about time people such as ‘the leader’.

    Finally, can I say I am happy to be challenged on any of the above points. I am not so attached to any of them (perhaps I am Buddhist!) that I am not prepared to accept a better argument when presented. I try to have a intellectual humility which seems to be lacking in Dawkins and his followers.

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  • 223
    Andrew says:

    Final sentence in third paragraph should have said, “It is about time people such as ‘the leader’ becomes more informed about the potential of people with SEND. Placing barriers and labels on individuals becomes a self fulfilling prophecy.” Don’t know where rest of sentence went!

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  • Sorry, my last sentence was perhaps a bit strong. Let me rephrase: you appear to be unable to see that you are making these assumptions, or that they are problematic.

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  • Thanks, Joseph, for answering my question. The questions I posted were in the form of what Dan Dennett calls, “intuition pumps,” that are intended to get folks to think through the implications of the issues at hand. I asked them in the rough order of the natural biological development stages where genetic errors are detected and either repaired or result in either defects that go to birth or spontaneous termination. The sensitivity of that last part is also dependent on genes, such that, any given couple will have a greater or lesser chance of producing birth defects as a trade-off against the chance of getting pregnant and carrying full term. As a thought experiment, it is reasonable to imagine a pill that adjusts the trade-off such that fewer birth defects are achieved by increasing the natural biochemical mechanisms that halt development when genetic repair mechanisms can’t do the job.

    Setting personal rights at conception makes an easy point in time, but makes no biological sense. The odds that a fertilized egg will develop enough to attach, and then develop all the way through to live birth is something between 25% and 50% across the human population. With a world live birth rate at about 11 million a month, that means there are between 11 and 33 million spontaneous abortions every month. If those are all persons, that would be a major genocide every month, just from nature itself. It is not evenly distributed, such that some couples end up with babies on the first try, while others have to “keep trying” for years because of carrying problems. If a woman produces healthy eggs, but can’t carry at all, is she guilty of homicide every month she has unprotected sex?

    Although you would not do so, many reading my questions would choose to take a pill that boosts their chances of avoiding birth defects. The much harder choice is to effect the same result by choosing to end a pregnancy based on genetic testing. That one, often, pits emotion directly against reason.

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  • 227
    Jessica says:

    Firstly, I think you may be using the word ‘unjustified’ in a different sense from me. In my view an assumption is unjustified when it is a) controversial, in the sense of being open to reasonable doubt, and b) unproven. Hence I stand by my claim that both R. Dawkins’ original and revised statement rest on unjustified assumptions.

    Secondly, it appears that you confuse objecting to an assumption with endorsing its opposite. However, pointing out that someone else’s moral judgement is based on an unjustified assumption (such as that DS children deplete the overall amount of happiness in the world) does not imply that I am myself committing to the opposite assumption.

    What I am advocating is not that we replace one unjustified assumption with another; but rather that as rational and humane thinkers, we should temporarily hold back from pontificating on such important issues until we are in possession of sufficient evidence and experience to make an informed moral judgement.

    Indeed, it seems to me that it is this ability to hold back from committing oneself until one has built up a more complete knowledge of the relevant facts/situations – resisting the pull of one’s initial prejudices and partial impressions – that constitutes the kind of objective impartiality to which R. Dawkins purportedly aspires.

    Thirdly, as a final point, I would say that assessing a person’s (and hence a population’s) overall level of suffering vs. happiness is a highly subjective business, and there is therefore room to doubt whether the amount of suffering experienced by one person in a given circumstance can be meaningfully generalised to apply to others in the same situation.

    For example, many elderly people have physical conditions that make their lives difficult and painful in various ways to various extents; however they may still feel overall that their lives are happy because of things like strong emotional relationships with their family members, remembering things that they have achieved in their lives, and simple pleasures such as gardening. Therefore it is even more imperative in this case not to jump the gun in making an overly-simplistic broad brush judgement about the morality of aborting or bringing to term a DS child.

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  • Some of Richard Dawkins information is out of date and on one essential point he is flatly wrong. The core of his argument is this

    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 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

    In other words, it is immoral knowingly to bring a child with DS into the world because of the intolerable burden of suffering that child will bear. This is factually wrong. A recent study conducted in the US found 99% of people with Down syndrome are happy with their lives. You can read the study here: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3740159/

    A few other points raised either by Dawkins or commenters here:

    Ill health in people with DS – there are health problems that occur more commonly in people with DS than in the general population but most of these are easily manageable with modern medicine.
    Short lifespans – the life expectancy for people with DS has increased dramatically in the last couple of decades and a person with DS can now expect to live to 60. So yes, there is some reduction in life expectancy but much less, I would guess, than most commenters here realize.
    Lifelong care – this is another aspect of DS that has changed dramatically, and is still improving. With the right educational and social support, most adults with DS will hold down jobs, make friends, be able to take care of themselves and live at least semi-independent lives. The picture has changed drastically in the last 3 decades, and there is every prospect of further improvements.

    Dawkins’ argument fails not because of faulty reasoning but because he has started from bad information.

    I do not think he was being malicious in his statements, and I’m in overall sympathy with his ethical outlook, but given his public profile I do think it is incumbent on him now to inform himself a little better.

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  • 233
    Malessa says:

    People with down syndrome have parents, siblings, nieces/nephews, grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends who love and adore them. They don’t need your pity.

    The International Down Syndrome Coalition (IDSC) posts photos daily from such families – including heaps of photos and links to stories of siblings that obviously adore their brother/sister with down syndrome: https://www.facebook.com/InternationalDownSyndromeCoalition
    While they don’t deny the challenges they face, they would not be without them in their family.

    Maybe your neighbours family appeared to suffer to you, but to make abortion “advisable” if faced with a child with DS is wrong. I get you are “pro-choice”, but to advise abortion in this case would make you “pro-abortion” (at least in cases of DS). Surely, a truely pro-choice position should be to give them parents information including links to organisations like IDSC, to support groups, to more information about the condition, to adoption options, etc. so they can make an truely informed decision.

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  • Please understand, it’s a touchy subject for those of us who have close family members with disabilities. I have a daughter with DS and I find myself repeatedly having to justify in public forums the fact that she exists at all, and I believe that my experience is typical. No other parents have to do this.

    As far as this particular row involving Richard Dawkins goes, it’s very ill-informed. I’ve tried to provide some factual clarification in my comment below. (Further down the main comment thread)

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  • Craig W. Aug 22, 2014 at 11:34 am

    Mr. Dawkins, what is the basis for your assertion that a child with Down’s syndrome experiences less happiness or suffers more than a typically developing child? You say, after all, that it is immoral not to abort “from the point of view of the child’s own welfare.” That sounds like a naive and prejudiced view to me.

    The level of unhappiness or suffering depends on the level of disability and the various possible medical complications.

    Bandying words around without researching the subject is a fairly pointless procedure, when evidence and facts should be discovered as a basis for making decisions.


    There is no specific treatment for Down syndrome. A child born with a gastrointestinal blockage may need major surgery immediately after birth. Certain heart defects may also require surgery.

    Behavioral training can help people with Down syndrome and their families deal with the frustration, anger, and compulsive behavior that often occur. Parents and caregivers should learn to help a person with Down syndrome deal with frustration. At the same time, it is important to encourage independence.

    Mild cases of Downs can be managed. The more serve cases can seriously adversely affect both the individuals and their families.

    Possible Complications

    Airway blockage during sleep
    Compression injury of the spinal cord
    Eye problems
    Frequent ear infections and increased risk of other infections
    Hearing loss
    Heart problems
    Gastrointestinal blockage
    Weakness of the back bones at the top of the neck


    Experts recommend genetic counseling for persons with a family history of Down syndrome who wish to have a baby.

    A woman’s risk of having a child with Down syndrome increases as she gets older. The risk is significantly higher among women age 35 and older.

    Couples who already have a baby with Down syndrome have an increased risk of having another baby with the condition.

    Tests such as nuchal translucency ultrasound, amniocentesis, or chorionic villus sampling can be done on a fetus during the first few months of pregnancy to check for Down syndrome.

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  • This kind of attitude increases intolerance towards disabled people and teaches people that they are ‘less than human!”
    It doesn’t matter where your morality lies, when you teach people that other people are less valuable than themselves, you create a world of intolerance and hatred!

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  • Malessa Aug 23, 2014 at 10:53 am

    Maybe your neighbours family appeared to suffer to you, but to make abortion “advisable” if faced with a child with DS is wrong. I get you are “pro-choice”, but to advise abortion in this case would make you “pro-abortion” (at least in cases of DS). Surely, a truely pro-choice position should be to give them parents information including links to organisations like IDSC, to support groups, to more information about the condition, to adoption options, etc. so they can make an truely informed decision.

    To present this as a false dichotomy of “pro-choice”, V “pro-abortion” is just plain silly, and would appear to be based on dogma!

    A proper assessment of the mother’s, family’s, and potential child’s prospects, needs to be made to see what qualities of life, are likely to ensue from informed decisions, – made about levels of disability and supporting resources.

    This should be standard medical procedure in countries where religions are not allowed to intrude into medicine.

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  • On the contrary, I have a daughter with DS and she is a very good thing. Her existence is not a tragedy but a source of joy to others and to herself.

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  • 240
    maria melo says:

    Today on the News:

    “Jessica’s success is proof people with Down’s Syndrome can live
    successful lives and I have no doubt she will work in the future and
    have a happy, independent and full life.!”

    Down’s Syndrome girl passes six GCSEs as dad calls Richard Dawkins ‘an ignorant idiot’

    And Andrew that mentions himself that he knows a girl that achieved an academic degree, just let me add that although people with Down Syndrome may have a different degree of malformation of the extra crossome, what makes them more or less fit, I know that because in my professional life I had a time when it was me that used to go to an Institution of very deep disabled people, and afterwards, in the presence of a judge and a psychiatrist too, and I remember that one day the judge himself, that explained the psychiatrist that he had a cousin in this condition and asked the psychiatrist: why are some more/less fit than others, some are not fit at all” and that was the psychiatrist answered: “people with Down Syndrome may have a different degree of malformation in the extra chromosome, what makes them more or less fit.”
    So Jessica s sucess -or other people with Down Syndrome- is not exactly the proof that Richard Dawkins is an ignorant I am afraid, it is not either a motive for such a great generalization.

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  • Gil Aug 23, 2014 at 8:41 am

    Interesting that anyone would consider destroying a human life in the most violent way possible as a way of preventing suffering. How horribly ironic.

    Vacuous rhetoric adds nothing to a reasoned debate!

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  • Excellent observation’s denonde and Diana.

    Despite its risks there are two moral opportunities that arise from RDs position and argument here. One is that the great majority of women who when faced with it choose termination; they are the ones that are bolstered in the moral decency of their choice. (How I wish for such bolstering to have been around thirty years ago.)

    And two, those with trisomy21 will know that they are possibly some of the most wanted and treasured off-spring ever sprung. And we outside shall know that about their parents too…

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  • Paulo Aug 22, 2014 at 9:52 pm

    Mr. Dawkins, how about to update your knowledge of Down Syndrome – the real thing we live and see everyday, not the lab and microscope stuff?

    It is amazing, but I suppose not surprising, that some posters ASSUME professors of science have not carried out the basic research, to find expert advice on information on subjects they speak on. – referring to available information from those specialists who are up-to-date in the study across a wide selection of cases!

    (Scientific research 1.01 :- Check on previous research by other specialists, and check on published expert opinion!)

    “older mothers who are more likely to have a child with the condition”.

    That’s not what we SEE in fact, most mothers of DS children we know are around 30yo, not on mid 40s and even less around 50yo.

    It took me less than 5 minutes to find basic expert advice for this linked earlier comment on what is meant by “older mothers”, {The risk is significantly higher among women age 35 and older.} and other issues which need to be considered. by families and doctors.


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  • denonde Aug 23, 2014 at 3:31 am

    I’m amazed at the vitriol in this thread.
    The decision to abort or to keep a foetus is a personal question.

    I agree that an informed choice is the best option.

    Unfortunately in some countries those infected with the dogma memes of ignorance, have legislated to obstruct individuals from managing their own and their family’s lives.

    Why do I use the term “ignorance””?
    That is because when some turn up to debate (as many have done in the past), with nonsense like, “zygotes are human beings at conception”, it is obvious they haven’t a clue what they are talking about!

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  • I don’t think Dawkins is being purposefully insensitive or offensive. It is a matter rather of a bad choice of wording, both in his tweet (understandable given the 140 char. limit), but still I think in his post here, which reflects I feel that his reasoning is confused around this issue.
    To lay my stall out – I agree that generally speaking abortion is not immoral; I agree with Dawkins’ views on the difficulty of “personhood”; I think it is generally speaking immoral to deny a mother’s right to abortion.

    My concerns with Dawkins’ post involve some comments in section 5 and in his “preferred” >140char tweet.

    “There’s a profound moral difference between ‘This fetus should now be aborted’ and ‘This person should have been aborted long ago’.” I would never dream of saying to any person, “You should have been aborted before you were born.”

    I totally disagree. I think this is badly worded, to say the least.
    To say ‘This fetus should now be aborted’ is tantamount to saying to that person in later life (obviously should that abortion not take place) “You should have been aborted before you were born.” There is no profound moral difference here. Worded in this way, it is offensive.

    Where a profound moral difference does lie is between saying “it is not immoral to abort this fetus because it has Trisomy 21” and saying “it is immoral not to abort this fetus because it has Trisomy 21″. The first statement is not IMO tantamount to later saying “You should have been aborted […]”; in just the way that saying “it is not immoral to abort this fetus” of a fetus without Trisomy 21 is not IMO tantamount to later saying this to that person. The latter statement is tantamount, and it is offensive, just as it would be if said of a fetus without Trisomy 21.

    the decision to deliberately give birth to a Down 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.

    Firstly, this is just nonsensical to me. If we agree, as I do, that “[a]n early fetus, before it develops a nervous system, should not […] be granted the rights of a person” then we shouldn’t attribute it with the term welfare, as one would to a child with personhood. It doesn’t have a welfare; if it did it would be immoral to abort. (Of course those against abortion would argue that it does have a welfare; which is a reasonable argument, but not one I agree with.) To teleologically talk of the child’s welfare that the fetus would later have is also nonsense if the fetus is aborted. There will be no child, no welfare. Ending the life of anything ends its welfare, if it has a welfare – it is nonsense to say it is or it isn’t in the interests of its welfare.

    So following from this, it is meaningless to justify the immorality of not aborting by using the notion of the child’s welfare in this way. It isn’t a utilitarian question, it’s a question of sense and nonsense.

    Ceteris paribus it is not immoral to abort a fetus with Trisomy 21, nor is it immoral not too. It is though, at best, ill-thought through to argue it is morally wrong not to abort.

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  • You are introducing into the discussion risk factors associated with Down syndrome. I am well aware of this; my son, who has Down syndrome, had leukemia, a congenital heart defect, and Hirschsprung’s disease. He is an extraordinarily happy kid with an indomitable spirit.

    If the morality of the decision to have an abortion or not is conditioned on the comparative likelihood of health complications, then there are many more immoral women out there having babies than just women who have a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome. Dawkins’s invocation of a moral litmus test is overly simplistic.

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  • 248
    Barry.M says:

    Ah Katy. Your delicate sarcasm never fails to delight.

    My extremely short summary of Andrew’s views were partly a result of time constraint (for which I apologise) but mostly due to the fact that he walked straight into the stereotypical role of the ‘hater’ described in Richard’s article above. This isn’t to say that I thought his article contained hatred – I hope you see the difference.

    As for Andrew’s post being “well-argued and dispassionate”, do you really think it’s reasonably arguable that there’s a connection to be made between Richard’s position on Down Syndrome and the mass murder of disabled people by Nazis? He also described Richard’s views as “ignorant” and “fallacious” – hardly dispassionate. Similarly, the fact that he knows nice, happy disabled people is still not relevant to the emotionally difficult but straightforward choice facing people who have had a positive amniocentesis test:

    A. Do you wish to terminate the pregnancy?
    B. Do you wish to continue and have a DS baby?

    Richard has made it clear that he (along with most people) would tick box A and thinks it “might actually be immoral” to tick box B and deliberately bring a DS baby into the world.

    As I have previously stated, I don’t completely agree with Richard’s position, but it has nothing to do with slavery or Nazis. Andrew’s long-winded rant, very much along the lines of Richard’s ‘5-point hater’ description, sums up all that is wrong with people who respond in such a predictable and irrational manner. This is the reason I felt compelled to respond, even though I concede that the brevity of my response was perhaps unfortunate.

    Just finally, my wife used to work with adults who had learning difficulties and I have met many wonderful, happy people who were born with this syndrome. I think there needs to be a clear distinction drawn between people who have already been born and a fetus with the potential to be born, should the parents so choose.

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  • You cannot claim an argument is nonsense without offering critical

    I can’t? I think I just did.

    Some “arguments” are so muddled in their analysis, riddled with factual errors, make absurd claims, introduce straw men, and poorly written that they are not worthy of a response.

    If you think the arguments made in this post are so worthy of a response and you are willing to stand behind them, then please clean them up and make your own case. I suggest you read through the rest of this forum first, however, because this post introduces nothing new that hasn’t been addressed thoroughly elsewhere.

    If you don’t agree with and stand by the poster completely then you should spend the time on your own analysis and contribute something rather than complaining.

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  • 251
    Barry.M says:

    I shall try to offer critical analysis of your position:

    The influences of the Nazis has no relevance here. Nobody is advocating mass murder and there is no reason to think that this would happen as a result of the comments made by Richard Dawkins.

    Richard Dawkins is not my leader and nor do I completely agree with him. However, I believe that he has a well-deserved reputation for sound logic and clear arguments. This obviously doesn’t mean that he is either always right (if there is such a thing as right wrong!) or that everyone in his ‘cult’ will automatically agree with everything he says. That much should be clear from the comments here.

    If there is ethical wisdom in some religious teachings then I believe that would be a coincidence. Humans are perfectly capable of deciding their own ethical standards, which will obviously vary considerably from topic to topic and person to person. This is partly what makes it so difficult to discuss such matters but the ‘teachings’ in an old book are barely relevant, if at all.

    I also fail to see the relevance of the girl with GCSEs who works at Sainsbury’s and is learning to drive. Are you saying that this has a bearing on a woman faced with aborting her DS fetus? I have also met happy DS individuals who attend day centres, go on holidays and hold down jobs. Even so, in addition to the potential health issues (already mentioned by others), the parents are normally facing the prospect of a dependant for the rest of their lives. This isn’t something with which everyone would feel comfortable and Richard’s stark option of “abort it and try again” must surely be appealing to many people facing the choice of whether or not to continue with a DS pregnancy.

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  • 252
    Vernon says:

    Many great points have already been made in these comments, so I just want to share a video my brother with Down Syndrome made addressing this issue:


    Also search “Congratulations Project” on YouTube for more examples of people with DS sharing an uplifting message with expecting parents.

    Of course, one person’s experience does not prove that in general people with Down Syndrome experience more happiness than suffering, but there is ample scientific evidence for this, such as the study by Shotko et al. indicating that 99% of people with Down Syndrome are happy with their lives. Prof. Dawkins has severely miscalculated on this point, and it was irresponsible of him to make bold statements about an issue that he is relatively uneducated about. I have no doubt that if he made an effort to get to know some people with DS and their families, he would understand the joy that these people bring into the world and reconsider his conclusions.

    To be sure, raising a child with DS is more difficult than raising a child with no disability, and it could be financially challenging for some (although when the nearly $200,000 my parents spent on my college education is considered, raising my brother was certainly cheaper for them!), and it is true that the child will most likely need parental support far beyond the usual age of 18–however, as with many things in life, pursuing a challenging path often ultimately leads to the greatest emotional rewards. Furthermore, in my personal experience interacting with many people with DS, they truly do make the world beyond their immediate families a better place through their kindness, openness, and humor (it also seems that people with DS generally tend to lack certain negative emotional traits that are all too prevalent among the general population, such as the capacity for jealousy and manipulativeness).

    Clearly, I am a member of Group #5 mentioned in the post above, and thus Dawkins discounts my arguments as being based on emotion, and not logic. But how does he define morality? … by weighing the balance of happiness and suffering, which are themselves unquantifiable emotional measures! This is clearly flawed logic–one cannot argue that maximizing happiness is the goal, and then say that whatever happiness a child with DS experiences or creates for others does not count, because this is based on illogical familial love.

    I respect the right of parents to decide whether they are up to the challenge of raising a child with a disability, but it is not immoral to allow the child to be born. On the other hand, it surely is immoral to callously tell a group of people that the world would be better off if they did not exist!

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  • Richard,
    With respect, people with Down Syndrome usually do not have a ‘mental’ disability, but rather a learning or intellectual disability, and the level of disability overall can be mild (some have passed a driving test and have married), to profound (i.e. physical as well as intellectual). Most now also live well into adulthood, some achieving 65 years of age and beyond.
    You say that ‘When Down Syndrome is detected, most couples opt for abortion and most doctors recommend it.’ This is certainly not the case in Ireland ( and not just because of Irish abortion law) , and I wonder if you have evidence that it is as generally the case as you imply? Maybe in the UK, but I wonder…

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  • 254
    maria melo says:

    Hitler may well have been aware of what the great Greek philosopher
    had said on this subject 22 centuries earlier
    “A tyrant needs to put on the appearance of uncommon devotion to religion. Subjects are less apprehensive of illegal treatment from
    a ruler whom they consider god-fearing and pious. On the other hand,
    they do less easily move against him, believing that he has the gods
    on his side.” – Aristotle

    I have observed from TV news that some pedophiles that were on trial, for instances, a doctor (he was useful because before using children to be abused, AIDS tests were prescribed by him) had his consults room full with saints, as had a serial killer his garden filled with angels statues, or an assassin that on his blog compared his innocence with Christ, not that the catholic church did nor fear Hitler (evil shadows were over his him, as an evil presage), perhaps the arrow that trespassed Christ was even hidden by the RCC at that time, sense it inspired Hitler (I guess), nor was he catholic I think, moreover, considering the wise sentence of Aristotle.

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  • I can imagine a dystopian novel published in 1955 which gives an account of a global society in the not too distant future which invents an electronic means of communication limited to 140 characters called “Twitter.” The story tells how humanity falls into a self-destructive form of mass hysteria obsessed with dangerously limited yet ubiquitous messaging. Spawned by “misunderstandings” erupting from the ambiguity endemic to sound-bite Twitter feeds nearly everyone succumbs to virulent paranoia in a vicious cycle of escalating recriminations. Inevitably the war of all against all breaks out. Human populations are decimated and the Earth becomes a wasteland. Yes, Twitter as we know it, is a bastard but it is our bastard. We love it and love to hate it.

    Red herrings aside, Dr. Dawkins brilliantly and bravely addresses a crucial issue in this revised, amended, and clarified post about “the morality of abortion following screening for Down Syndrome.” ( I believe that Dawkins could have dispensed with the dissonant and inflammatory term “moral/immoral” in a context which affirms a woman’s unconditional right to choose. Language referencing science, matters of fact, and pragmatic concerns more than carry the day for his argument.)

    Dawkins addresses alarmist scenarios, which I would term “fallacies of imagination,” raised by some comments by refuting them in the list numbered 1 through 5 above. I would especially recommend re-reading number 5 which refutes the predominate fallacies more pursuasively and eloquently than I could hope to do.

    Some brief observations.

    Though reluctant to admit it, abortion is a morally problematic issue because conception followed by fetal
    development occurs on a temporal/physical spectrum. Obviously we do not kill newborn babies because we feel justified in calling them “persons’ for plausible reasons of development usually measured by viability.. But how many would feel justified in aborting a healthy fetus at 8 months carried by a healthy mother who simply declared that she had changed her mind about having the baby and ordered her doctor to abort it?

    We have provisionally resolved the dilemma by choosing a defined “early stage” on the spectrum of development where abortion is permissible because a social consensus grounded in scientific findings has convinced us that the fetus is “not a person” or, if we are inclined toward ambivalence, “not yet a full person.” But no such simple consensus exists in nature. The pro-life and the pro-life factions justify their opposing positions by identifying “personhood” at different points on the spectrum.

    Setting aside the pro-life position, most of us in America and more so in Europe participate in the majority consensus that a pregnant woman has the unconditional right to abort her fetus within a defined “early stage” period in the pregnancy. Firmly committed to the reproductive rights position, Dr. Dawkins makes it clear that he is not arguing with the woman who asks for his advice about her deliberations to abort or not abort a fetus in the early stages if diagnosed with Trisomy 21. She asks him for advice and he gives it. Period. “OBVIOUSLY THE CHOICE WOULD BE YOURS.”

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  • Mary Aug 23, 2014 at 2:51 pm

    You say that ‘When Down Syndrome is detected, most couples opt for abortion and most doctors recommend it.’

    Some figures were quoted in these earlier posts.



    This is certainly not the case in Ireland, and I wonder if you have evidence that it is as generally the case as you imply? Maybe in the UK, but I wonder…

    The issue of abortion in Ireland, generally has the backward politics of dogmatic Catholicism to thank for the dreadful abuses of women needing abortions for any reason.


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  • Dear Richard

    Having read your more nuanced statement regarding the termination of downs syndrome children/ foetuses (please cross out whichever word you find less agreeable) and I could not find an apology anywhere. I think you owe an actual apology to the millions of families who are coping with intellectual disabilities because you are making our lives harder by preaching intolerance from your 140 character pulpit. I am the father of a three year old boy who is at the autistic end of the autistic spectrum. Where do you stand on pre-emptively aborting that sort of child/ foetus?

    You decided to make your original statement on twitter knowing full well the character limit so you can’t really blame the forum you chose for constraining sentiment. And quibbling about the @ symbol is beneath you; either you believe that bringing certain humans into this world is “immoral” or you do not, the size of your audience matters not. Your more nuanced version does little but bookend your original sentiment in a veneer of “its your choice” but you also make it very clear that you are not supportive of that choice and all the Drs (authority figures) you know are on your side. For the vast majority of families like mine it was not a choice and your words do nothing but add to the enormous burden of failed social expectations that many of us feel. The last thing we need is for snide views on our morality to become the norm in our society.

    How about children/ foetuses with heart defects, should we abort those too? Couldn’t the resources these infants require be better spent elsewhere? What makes a heart condition less scary than a brain condition in your book? My wife and I discussed your comments at length, not as radicalised parents but as university educated adults and we agreed that your general sentiment is a slippery slope towards eugenics. If some families with foetal abnormalities have to abort where should we draw the line? Who should decide?

    I don’t know if you have ever spent much time with people who have cognitive disabilities but you might be surprised to learn that they have the capacity to feel sadness and joy, to love the good parts of life and hate the bad, to laugh at a good joke and to marvel at a snowy day. They might not be “worth” as much to society in capitalist utilitarian terms, but If you consider yourself to be but a tiny offshoot of the vast genetic tree please realise that people with cognitive disabilities are also each unique and we will never see their like again. Who are you to prune that tree?

    My wife and I also talked about our positive feelings towards you and your impressive contributions to human knowledge. I must warn you that you have the power to wreck all this good work, to taint your legacy in the minds of the public, if you go on making Prince Philip level gaffs. Your twitter statements are gradually becoming more antagonistic, so perhaps it is time for you to run some of your snarlier comments past a literate loved one before you post. Let’s hope they show you more compassion and empathy in your dotage than you are showing to millions of families who are already in pain.

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  • 258
    Barry.M says:

    It’s always useful to have such statistics. Diana’s figure of 97% in Austria is consistent with both the 89-97% in the survey and the apparent 92% average across the whole of Europe.

    Just because statistics indicate that something is common does not necessarily make it morally right of course, but it does put the position of Professor Dawkins into context. The media reports would have you believe that he is advocating some kind of extremist behaviour when, in reality, it appears that the majority of people would be in broad agreement.

    It’s a shame that the whole thing has blown up into such a “feeding frenzy” but it’s not really surprising with such an emotive topic. I do feel for the people with DS children who feel attacked and criticized but I’m sure that this wasn’t the intention.

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  • 259
    Erin Brauns says:

    This topic is of great interest to me because my husband and I chose to adopt two girls with Down Syndrome while none of our four biological children have any special needs. We believe that happiness and suffering need not and can not be seen as mutually exclusive to one another and, at times, it makes sense to choose temporary suffering in order to achieve maximum happiness. I do not advocate a martyr complex, but rather that there are times when suffering can lead to greatest happiness whether for us or others. [Link removed by moderator.]

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  • Absolutely agree. 140 characters is not enough to present your case. Keep away or you may be accused of courting the media whatever the cost.

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  • So, let’s see how this goes. I have a five year old son who has DS. There are plenty of serious problems with Dawkins’ faux apology. His case seems to revolve around the idea that DS decreases happiness, perhaps for the person with DS and his or her family, friends etc. However, Dawkins does not provide any evidence of this. This is very unscientific. There is plenty of research on happiness and – well, never say never – but, as far as I know, none of it says that DS decreases happiness. In this context. Dawkins’ main contention becomes merely a matter of personal opinion or speculation, and – in the context of the available evidence – ignorance. Given that it is a negative view, we might also call it prejudice, perhaps akin to racism or sexism. As you might expect, we know a lot of families with a child with DS. There are plenty of ups and downs, for sure, and it’s not easy (and it’s not made easier by nasties like Dawkins), but I see no more or less happiness in these families than I do in other families we know. Indeed, among the DS families (if I can call them that), there is a very special and meaningful bond that is impossible to experience or even explain to outsiders. Downs World is just fine, thank you. Of course, I realise that some people in Downs World may feel different, but that’s how it is for me.

    Further, Dawkins seems to take it as read that logic trumps emotion. However, Dawkins case is all about increasing happiness, which is – the last time I checked – an emotion. I think this might be illogical, though I am no philosopher. Given that one of Dawkins’ favourite criticism of anyone who does not happen to share his worldview is that they are ignoring the evidence and being illogical, I think we can add hypocrisy to the charges. Let’s be clear: Dawkins’ view is eugenicist and his wriggling around that point is extremely disingenuous (of course, this is not to say that Dawkins is like Hitler; Dawkins is less dangerous, but Hitler was more honest).

    Dawkins blithely states that because most (it’s about 92%, Richard) parents abort when given a positive diagnosis, most people seem to agree with him. However, this overlooks the fact that the context in which people make this decision is almost entirely framed by the highly negative portrayal of DS that is peddled by Dawkins, and almost the entire medical profession. Take another look at Dawkins’ description of DS: it focuses entirely on a highly medicalized and negative picture. It ignores any possibility of anything positive in living with DS or having someone with DS in your family. I would suggest that it is this that explains the very high levels of termination. Oh, BTW, these diagnostic tests produce some false positives. My wife talked about DS with a class of trainee midwives a few years back and I took our son to meet them; they were astonished at how this amazing little boy in front of them contradicted everything they were being taught about DS. Dawkins and the medical profession have a lot to answer for. We suggested to the hospital that they introduce a system in which people who are facing a positive diagnosis are put in contact with groups and families who know about DS. We didn’t get a response!

    I am also concerned by the way in which Dawkins seems to turn himself into the vulnerable victim in his dodgy apology; pity poor me, with all these ‘haters’, these ‘dogs of war’ (I ask you) attacking me. Come on, Richie, take some responsibility. Oh, yes, it’s this truncated medium that is to blame. No, come on Richie, take some responsibility. As Rambo said, you drew first blood. Seriously, it is people with DS who are vulnerable and need our support. It is prospective parents who are faced with a difficult decision who are vulnerable and need good and balanced advice.

    Finally, Professor Dawkins, I would like to extend an invitation to you to come and meet my son and maybe some other young people with DS, and their families. You might learn something (then, again you might not!).

    I hope that helps.

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  • Marcus,

    Commentators in this thread fall in to two categories; those who want to tell people what they ought to do and think, and those who support an individual in making their own choices.

    Some have made the choice to carry Down Syndrome babies to term. Others have adopted Down Syndrome children. Some seem happy with the consequences of their choice. All have done it for their own reasons.

    I for one have a strong bias for left handed redheads. So while some people would prefer to abort redheads, I wouldn’t mind picking up a few more.

    Hitler like so many other people, including some commentators in this thread, suffered from the insatiable urge to tell people what to do. If we stop telling people what they should do, and start supporting people for making difficult choices all on their own, even if we wouldn’t make the same choice, then the world would be a better place. Don’t you agree?

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  • Diana Aug 23, 2014 at 7:33 am

    In Austria 97% of DS-fetuses are aborted, and every abortion has it’s own story, I agree with you, its always an individual decision and nobody can make any rules for a woman what she has to do in a problematic situation.

    The civilised countries regulate abortions restricting late ones. The brain-dead dogmatic legislatures (such as Ireland), make life more difficult for those already in difficulty.

    Some on this thread seem to be incapable of distinguishing a zygote or embryo from a sentient human.

    If we had discovered we had a Downs embryo or foetus, we would probably have had an abortion and tried again for a healthy child. However our near neighbour had a (slightly) Downs son of the same age my younger son – who often played with him (and his brother) or they jointly minded him to give his mother a break.

    The Downs lad, now in his 20s, is fairly happy, but will never have a fully normal life. He usually needs to be accompanied by family or a social worker if he goes out very far from home – where he lives alone with his mother.

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  • I think you have may have somewhat misunderstood my comment. I have clearly stated that it is up to whoever’s choice it is to make that decision, just that it may not be the same for everybody, clearly. Your reply is rather aggressive and I’m not entirely sure that we actually disagree on anything at all! Unless because I’m male I am allowed not even a thought on the issue…..

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  • 265
    Shannon1981 says:

    I have personal experience when it comes to what happens to the siblings of people with severe disabilities. I have twin cousins. One suffers from severe autism and mental retardation. Her twin brother isn’t all that bright either, but functional enough. He has been forced to devote his life to being his sister’s keeper. They are 2 years younger than me, and, here they are, at age 31. The functional twin has never had a steady job, still lives with his mother, and has been guilt tripped about caring for his sister every time he tries to get a girlfriend/move out/get a job/have any sort of life of his own. His only income comes from the state for taking care of a disabled person. My aunt and her husband are in failing health. It will inevitably fall to the functional twin to care for his sister once they are gone. I’m sorry, but it just isn’t fair.

    I have to agree with Professor Dawkins. After growing up so close to a situation with a severely disabled person and watching the effects on the kids around her, abortion is the kindest solution to these things for all involved. Do I love my cousin? Of course I do. However, to this day, I still remember the humiliation I was forced to endure when I had to invite her to every birthday party I ever had as a kid, only to have the noise and excitement upset her, have her throw a tantrum and ruin my parties. I know this seems selfish to bring up, but it is just ONE example of how disabled kids negatively affect their siblings and the other kids who grow up with them.

    Am I saying they should not exist, or advocating for eugenics? Not at all. However, I think the responses from parents and other family members of folks with DS and other disabilities are emotional rather than logical. These people will never have a decent quality of life, and, at least in the case of my cousins, neither will those around them.

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  • 266
    Katy Cordeth says:

    The Downs lad, now in his 20s, is fairly happy, but will never have a fully normal life. He usually needs to be accompanied by family or a social worker if he goes out very far from home – where he lives alone with his mother.

    The poor sod. If you tell me where he lives I’ll turn up with my captive bolt pistol and put him out of his, um, fairly happiness. I’ll do you a twofer and take out his mother as well if you like, as I’m sure she’ll be bummed if she’s left all on her own.

    Do you know anyone who is completely happy? And don’t lots of people need to be accompanied by carers when they leave the house? Should we put you to death when you get old and a bit forgetful, Al?

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  • I think of these things whenever I read the syrupy comments such as some of those above. Scenes like this emerge from my own childhood. I was never one participating in the taunting of children with disabilities I hasten to add, but it happened. Perhaps the world was more cruel in the fifties?

    The whole concept of suffering as a noble endeavour causes mental discord for me. This can’t be true! Perhaps I’m too cynical for my own good.

    No one is advocating that children, human beings already out of the womb, should be dispatched! ( how many times does this need to be said)Quite the contrary. The bulk of the population is quite happy with the concept of abortion and this is just one factor that could influence a decision for yea or nay!

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  • @Malessa
    No doubt any number of testimonies to counter your positive examples could be called into existence if need be. I suggest you read the comment by Shannon 1981 in order to read a real life scenario. In any case, the discussion was not about children who have already left the womb and are here among us. No-one would countenance any treatment that was not humane.
    Regarding your comment on ‘pro-abortion,’ I detect a note of disapproval. I am unapologetically pro-choice. I’m not in the business of telling people what they can or can’t do with their unborn foetus, though I have a sneaking suspicion that you would like that power.
    I support the thoughts of Alan4Discussion ( above).

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  • So why go out of your way to pick a fight in a forum where nobody is saying your daughter doesn’t have the right to exist?

    As for informing people of the facts, please start by informing all the hysterical DS advocates here. Their facts are horrendously wrong yet they are only getting support from others in the DS bubble.

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  • Elective early abortion causes the death of a fetus and never the death of a person. Some people on this thread who have close ties to persons with DS understandably yet incorrigibly insist that Dr. Dawkins is calling for the killing of persons afflicted with this disability. No, no – a thousand times no. The woman who seeks Dawkins’ advice via Twitter frames the special circumstances of her “hypothetical” pregnancy as carrying a fetus in the early weeks that has tested positive for Trisomy 21. Dawkins makes a case grounded in a growing medical and social consensus for removing the products of conception. Again, ladies and gentlemen, NOT FOR KILLING A PERSON or denying choice.

    I believe Dawkins cites a preponderance of empirical evidence that justifies aborting a fetus known to have Down Syndrome. The justification connects with an inter-subjective agreement prevailing among humans about the needs and purposes of parenthood. Most parents hold expectations, ambitions, aspirations, hopes and dreams (if you will) about the traits and achievements of their offspring. Knowing early in advance that a pregnancy if brought to term will produce a child whose potential will fall far short of these expectations provides compelling motivation to abort.

    Finally a reminder that raising a child is hard work, a challenging job despite its satisfactions. A child with serious disabilities that impair cognitive functioning, shorten life expectancy, and promote dysfunctional behavior will necessarily demand a redoubling of effort to cope with these extra challenges. Of course there are actual and potential parents out there who will eagerly -even cheerfully-welcome these challenges. I would blame no woman so disposed for choosing to bring a Down Syndrome pregnancy to term. To the contrary I’m inclined to admire her, support her, and wish her the best outcomes. May her child bring delight to her and others. Understandably, however, most women will not follow her course of action because of the considerable risks of hardship, burnout and regret that often ensues from the irrevocable decision. Casting no aspersions on the minority , most women (and their partners) find themselves a poor match for the job. They will choose abortion.

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  • The philosophy of utilitarianism does not imply that at every second you should do that which makes you happiest, nor that you should be selfish and maximize your own happiness. It is quite reasonable under that philosophy for someone, say Russell, to make the selfless choice of pursuing some dreary profession (say philosophical research) in order to make the sum total of happiness greater. Which is what we’re talking about here. Russell was smarter than me, so I can’t help but think you’re misrepresenting his opinion.

    So let’s be clear. Are you advocating for the mother to make the selfish choice of having a DS baby to make herself happy, even though it causes greater suffering in the world? Or are you asking her to make a sacrifice in her life to bring that happy DS baby into the world, which still creates greater suffering in the world.

    You clearly think there should be greater suffering in the world, but I’m still struggling as to why.

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  • @Melvin


    It does not seem to be getting through, does it? No matter how often it’s repeated we are constantly assailed by images, clips, testimonies of the wonderful, wonderful people with DS. That’s not the point folks!!
    Perhaps I could take another tack? Once upon a time the birth of a child showing any physical flaw was considered to be cursed, or displeased by god. Yes… The good, the faithful were the ones responsible for weeding them out. This means you good Christian folk! ( not you Melvin ).
    It took advanced thinking and empathy by human beings to put a stop to this abhorrent practice.
    An attempt is being made to recapture the moral high ground but it won’t work. Superstitious thinking is always bad, though sometimes causing less harm than at others.

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  • Sadly, this story is far from unique. For every parent who cherishes their DS child there are many others who are adversely affected. It is a scientific and medical (and perhaps social science) victory that DS children live much longer than they did in previous centuries, however this does mean that many who did not make the decision to take care of a DS child end up with that responsibility.

    (FWIW, I don’t consider it the responsibility of the twin in this case to care for his sister. It is society as a whole that is responsible and if the parents had a choice at the time, they made the selfish, immoral choice.)

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  • I completely reject your proposition that we can’t make assumptions, have opinions, state opinions and discuss subjects for which we don’t have complete evidence or exhaustive research. We do have to be clear that our conclusions are not final, but that is exactly what Dawkins (and almost every reasonable person here has done; I exempt the DS supporters as they are arguing emotionally and anecdotally and not logically or statistically).

    It is especially important that we have this discussion now, rather than waiting indefinitely as you suggest, since this is an ongoing issue for which people need to make immediate decisions that will affect their lives (and ours).

    Every bit of data we have supports the position that Dawkins has made and nothing that has been posted here has shaken that. Should we really just call it a toss up and say we just don’t know because there is a hint of uncertainty (e.g. the possibility that DS children will develop superpowers as one poster has suggested).

    Suffering and happiness are subjective and personal, which is all the more reason we should discuss them openly. Once again you make an appeal to ignorance, that we should ignore even discussing the topic because it is somewhat fuzzy. Can happiness be measured perfectly? Of course not, but if that were the criteria then all social science would be out the window and all of us would be far worse off. We can make reasonable assumptions, test those assumptions and ultimately act on what we’ve learned (even if it’s not completely certain).

    I can honestly say that I have no idea what your point is regarding the elderly, unless you think that Dawkins or I would euthanize them because in our opinion we think their lives are not worthy. That would be an insane assumption, but like I said I have no idea why you would bring that up.

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  • 277
    Barry.M says:


    You’re obviously just being sarcastic again but too many people on here really are making the illogical assumption that agreeing with the choice to terminate a DS pregnancy is somehow akin to advocating the execution of all people with Down Syndrome.

    They then move on (as you know) to expand upon this flawed argument and quickly assume that the next step will be state-sponsored negative eugenics and the mass slaughter of everyone deemed to be anything other than ‘completely normal’.

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  • 278
    Elizabeth says:

    Exactly, Jessica.

    Sedan, you can only argue statistically over quantifiable entities. So it is not logical to say that because people with DS are likely to be net sinks rather than net sources economically (something you might be able to demonstrate “statistically”), it is immoral to bring a person with DS into the world, if the grounds for your argument is that they do not contribute to the “sum of human happiness”. In fact, it’s logically fallacious. “Sum” as in “sum of human happiness” is a metaphor. Sum as in “net sum of GDP spent) is not. So the fallacy of equivocation is lying right there at the heart of the argument.

    In fact “sum of human happiness” is far too vague a concept to base any morality on – it needs to be very carefully unpacked. Do five happy days cancel 10 unhappy ones or more? Less? Whose days? How many smiles from a DS person does it take to transmit as much happiness as is transmitted back in the form of what they buy with their disability allowance? Does the health and happiness of people not yet born trump the health of those alive now? And, in the point Ursula le Guin makes so beautifully in “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”, does the perfect happiness of many outweigh the utter misery of the few? Statistics won’t tell you the answer to these questions, because you can only do the statistics on what you can measure, and you can only measure things once you’ve decided what it is you want to measure. And sometimes what you want to measure are precisely the emotions and anecdotes you dismiss as irrelevant.

    I would describe myself as a “utilitarian” but to assume that what is “useful” can be readily identified by simple application of logic and statistics is to risk logical inconsistency, at best, and moral imperialism at worst. In his tweets, and no less in this “apology” piece, in my view, Dawkins has committed both.

    Logic and statistics are good servants but bad masters. In fact, without a good master they don’t even work on their own terms. Which is why Dawkins’ so often these days has so many atheists’ toes curling.

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  • Let’s assume for a second that those who have come here to criticize this article are correct that those who have DS are happier and that their families are also better off for the experience.

    Isn’t that basically a call for reducing funding for DS research and for scaling back public funding in general (health care, schools, work programs, caregiving, …)? We certainly don’t need research to prevent something that is a benefit and isn’t the point of supporting the disabled (or disadvantaged or …) to bring their quality of life up to that of the average person, not to make it better than average?

    Of course, I don’t believe for a minute that the premise is true (and no one outside the DS bubble should either), so I am not lobbying to reduce support for DS. I’m just pointing out the obvious contradiction.

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  • 280
    Barry.M says:

    No one is advocating that children, human beings already out of the
    womb, should be dispatched! (how many times does this need to be

    I couldn’t agree more and it clearly needs to be said several times. There are hundreds of posts on here and I haven’t seen any that suggest or even infer that existing human beings should be murdered. To say otherwise is grossly unfair and unrepresentative of what Professor Dawkins has stated.

    A very positive outcome from all the discussion here is an increased awareness that there are clearly many families with DS children who love them very much and are very happy with their situation. However, the example from Shannon1981 is extremely poignant and I would imagine that for every super-happy family posting here, there are several not-so-happy elderly parents struggling to look after a demanding adult well into their final years. I’m not saying that any struggling parent doesn’t still love their children (obviously), but it does put the choice of ‘abort and try again’ into context.

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  • Elizabeth, your philosophical position is disingenuous. If you followed it as you say you could never make any practical choices and any public policy would be paralyzed.

    It is not a perfect science and there are philosophical extremes that can never be resolved (as you pointed out). But with open debate, a little science and a little math we can reach some reasonable conclusions. Does 5 happy days cancel out 5 or 10 sad days? That is a decision each person can make for themselves, but it is also something that needs to be considered for public policy (when making choices that affect others).

    Should we build a new park or should we fund an after school music program? Does the unhappiness of a year of construction outweigh the benefits of a new public service? Under your philosophy nothing would ever get done because you believe it is impossible to make any such evaluations.

    I personally think that the happiness gained by 600 children having healthy meals in Africa outweighs the extra happiness that supposedly comes from one extra child with DS. Can I scientifically prove that? No. Are you welcome to the opposite opinion? Sure. Just please don’t pretend that we can’t and don’t make those decisions every day.

    If a public official were to make such a decision without evaluating the happiness of the public (as you would do) then I would consider him immoral (in the sense Dawkins used it).

    Btw, the health and happiness of people not yet born is a serious concern. The health and happiness of the imaginary person that doesn’t exist because their mother had an abortion is of absolutely no concern.

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  • 282
    Elizabeth says:

    Nobody here is arguing that “there should be greater suffering in the world”. What some of us are arguing is that it isn’t at all obvious that bringing a DS child into the world will increase it. Therefore there are no ground for the absolute statement that “it would be immoral” to do so. Dawkins has retracted that, but nonetheless still seems to think the problem lay with his readers, not his words. And frankly, his follow up tweets about the difference between autism and DS (“DS not enhanced”) were even more unfounded and offensive, and revealed just how narrow his calculus of “happiness” actually is, and thus how ill-founded his brand of utilitarianism.

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  • I’ve thought this issue through at some length now.

    I will say that I have concluded that RD is right in claiming that not to abort a foetus with DS is immoral, but only if the mother were to hold the same view that I understand he holds of an early foetus, for it would be effectively the same as deliberately wanting a child to have DS.

    That is very different from wanting a child that happens to have DS.

    I think the problem with using the term “immoral’ here is that many people do not view an early foetus in the same way. Many people view an early foetus as already being a person in some sense. Although many of us would consider them technically wrong on that issue, because we don’t view an early foetus as a person, we must respect the fact that they choose not to abort because they already feel bound to this “person” and morally obliged to care for them. They are doing the right and humane thing in their opinion, so it should not be classified as “immoral” in that context. If we say someone is doing something immoral, it implies that they are deliberately trying to reduce happiness/wellbeing.

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  • That is a very dangerous redefinition of the word immoral, IMO.

    Is an Egyptian mother not immoral for forcing her daughter to have FGM?

    Is a Muslim extremist not immoral for decapitating an apostate?

    These people (often) genuinely believe that what they are doing is right and for the overall good.

    Certainly we can evaluate the circumstances when passing judgement on an individual case, but I think the morality is still the same. A slaveholder in 18th century America was not acting morally even if he truly believed that his slaves were better off.

    That is part of the disconnect people have with this topic. The fact that most women who knowingly kept a DS child acted immorally is not an absolute judgement on their character or permanent condemnation. Yes, they caused harm, but in many cases it was from misinformation, peer pressure, or other mitigating factors.

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  • That is patently untrue. Anyone who is not following the principles of Utilitarianism is advocating for more suffering.

    Utilitarianism == less suffering

    !Utilitarianism == more suffering

    John did that here, which is why I called him on it.

    I think it’s a valid question to ask people who are not Utilitarians why they want more suffering in the world. I have yet to hear a coherent answer (and anything religious is de facto not coherent).

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  • 286
    Barry.M says:

    This is an interesting clarification on the word immoral, the use of which is clearly part of the problem because, as you say, it depends so much on someone deliberately doing something they know not to be moral. Because morals are such a subjective topic, I would have avoided the word altogether. The use of ‘illogical’ would have made much more sense in my opinion.

    I mostly agree with you but would point out that if someone regards a fetus (or foetus) as a person, then they would probably be unlikely to have the test for Down Syndrome. Simply having the test infers that you would consider a termination, which probably accounts for the very high percentage of terminations (in Europe) following positive test results.

    There are undoubtedly a few exceptions and I’m sure there may be a small percentage of people who ‘just want to know’ and wouldn’t consider having a termination following a positive test result. Similarly, there are probably many who have had the test and then feel under pressure not to have a termination. However, the evidence would surely indicate that people are, on the whole, having the test carried out so that they can abort the DS fetus and ‘try again’.

    Perhaps if Richard had used the word illogical rather than immoral and also avoided the word it, then the sentence may well have been better received, For example:

    Have a termination and try again. It would be illogical to carry out the test and then continue to have a Down Syndrome baby.

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  • 287
    Elizabeth says:

    You won’t get a “coherent answer” because the question itself is incoherent – it’s the equivalent of “have you stopped beating your wife?” – i.e. it’s a “loaded question”.

    And that’s because it’s based on a fallacious bit of reasoning, that if Utilitarianism is the moral principle that we should seek “less suffering” in the world, that any moral principle other than utilitarianism is the moral principle that that we should seek “more suffering”. You just excluded a middle!

    There can be many moral philosophies that do not have “less suffering” as their goal, but nonetheless do not have “more suffering” as their goal either. The goal of “more happiness”, for example rather than “less suffering”, might or might not entail the reduction of suffering (many would argue that the greatest happiness follows the overcoming of adversity).

    And that’s before you even start to address the question of how you quantify happiness or suffering, or even what they mean. Can you, for example, experience both at the same time? Most poets (and most parents!) would say yes!

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  • 289
    Elizabeth says:

    Sedan, nowhere in my post did I say we shouldn’t, or couldn’t, make ethical choices, nor even that they shouldn’t be based on some kind of calculus of human suffering and happiness.

    I do not even say that we cannot quantify these things – what I said is that

    …you can only do the statistics on what you can measure, and
    you can only measure things once you’ve decided what it is you want to
    measure. And sometimes what you want to measure are precisely the
    emotions and anecdotes you dismiss as irrelevant.

    That means that you simply cannot dismiss, as you do, the “emotions” and “anecdotes” of those who have tried to convey the happiness that a DS person has brought into the world from their PoV. Far from being not “rational” or “statistically invalid” – it’s the very data you need in order to do your statistics!

    Where Dawkins was illogical IMO, was in basing his moral stance on an apparently simplistic idea that utilitarianism should maximise “contribution to society” (in which an autistic’s person’s contribution can be “enhanced” but a DS person’s “not enhanced), then, in his “apology”, changing horses to the quite different calculus of the “sum of human happiness” and the minimisation of suffering.

    As you will know, as you appear to be knowledgable about statistics, you can’t compare apples with oranges. If you want to maximise something, you need to decide what it is, and how you will measure it. I’m not saying you can’t, or shouldn’t (I think you can and should). But you do need to know what you are trying to measure, and what your measuring instrument is. Otherwise, all you have is [emotional] rhetoric.

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  • James Aug 22, 2014 at 7:38 am

    Firstly, Dawkins is effectively saying that not terminating a Down’s foetus is evil, because he is describing the decision as ‘immoral’. If he had said ‘inadvisable in most cases’ we would not be having this discussion.

    While we should look after any child which is actually born, I would also consider the choice to have a severely disabled child which will struggle through life and place a burden on his/her family, to be a poor or immoral choice, when it is possible to abort and produce a healthy child in its place.
    In many instances nature spontaneously aborts defective foetuses, so the concept is nothing new to those who understand the biology.

    Secondly, I am not saying that every answer is equally good in the absence of 100% certainty. What I am saying is that a high degree of confidence is required before condemning people’s decisions as ‘immoral’, as Dawkins does.

    There is abundant evidence available from previous studies and medical records.
    Your uncertainty from a lack of research, in no way reflects the information others use as a basis for their decisions.

    If he wants to make such absolute value judgements then I think that the burden of proof is on him.

    I would suggest that the responsibility to seek and look at the available proof is yours, rather than expecting others to spoon-feed you information.

    The proof of the range physical outcomes and disabilities, is available in available scientific and medical data. – I linked some of it earlier.
    While specific predictions about living individuals can be uncertain, the general range of possibilities is well mapped.

    If you were buying a new car, would you deliberately pick one with a bent chassis, a cracked gearbox, and running on three cylinders, so you could spend your life tinkering with it?

    Some people might claim to be happy doing this, but it is a burden, which makes no contribution to the well-being of the family or community.

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  • Sedan Aug 24, 2014 at 6:23 am

    Your semantic distinction between “more happiness” or “less suffering” is a meaningless tangent. I am not going to completely define Utilitarianism every time I want to refer to it.

    Likewise your repeated attempts to invalidate the concept by saying it can’t be measured or evaluated in any way is still disingenuous and frankly trolling.

    It is pretty consistent across a range of denials, (YEC, AGW denial, etc) that individuals in denial, having made no study of measuring techniques, claim science cannot measure, or that some small percentage doubt in an error bar, invalidates a whole prediction!

    The effects of producing a child who may need a series of operations just to stay alive, and then exist with a mental and/or emotional disability, are known, regardless of doubt-mongering.

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  • 293
    Elizabeth says:

    Alan, a child with DS is not a “severely disabled child”.

    And that’s the problem. I don’t suppose anyone would have minded (well few) if Dawkins had said: I would argue that it is immoral to bring a severely disabled child into the world. And it would have been under the tweet character limit.

    But not only did he specify DS, he went on to make it clear that he really did single out DS as “not enhanced” (i.e. not “severely disabled”) and contrasted DS with autism (“enhanced”) even though there is at least a viable argument that a disorder that affects social communication may be less conducive to “happiness” than one that doesn’t (and indeed may “enhance” it!)

    It’s important not to move the goal posts here. Most critics of Dawkins’ tweets and the blogpost above on this topic have a lot of sympathy with the broad view that the knowledge that your pregnancy is likely to result in a “severely disabled child” raises serious ethical issues. It’s the categorical statement that it is “immoral” specifically, to knowingly bring a DS child into the world that seems at best high-handed and at worst, both illogical and ignorant about DS.

    And, indeed, betrays a very shallow understanding of what constitutes “contribution to society” or “happiness”.

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  • 294
    Andrew says:

    Well argued! A measured and clear response, from someone with a real insight into the issue.
    I am however interested in know how you respond to the argument, which is presumed by many of the contributors on this site and (indeed) by Dawkins himself, which is sometimes called “the replacement person” argument. Very basically it argues that by aborting a feotus with DS (or whatever), this allows for another child to be born without the condition. That “new” person would not have been born had the termination not been carried out. There are various versions of this argument, but basically that is it. (see a reply to one of my posts below for one example). From your informed perspective how would you respond to this?

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  • 295
    Andrew says:

    I really enjoyed reading this. Thank you for taking the time to share it with us. It was extremely enlightening from someone with real first hand experience.

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  • Joseph Aug 22, 2014 at 10:11 pm

    Yet by eliminating these kids from ever being born, we are not giving treatment and future treatment a chance.

    A bit like limiting the development of surgery and medication for treating gun-shot wounds, by restricting the availability of guns!

    All those people “deprived” of their gun-shot wounds and treatment!

    I think that “deprivation”, is what is known as “an elegant solution” to the problem!

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  • “The plural of anecdote is not data.”

    Listening to 5, 10 or 100 people tell us how much they love their DS child or how happy that child is tells us nothing that we don’t already know and gets us not one inch closer to making informed decisions on DS. This “methodology” is why boneheaded parents are not giving their children vaccines and we have a resurgence in childhood diseases.

    I don’t know how better to explain that to you so I suggest you do some independent research.

    Dawkins did not say that “contribution to society” was the sole measure of Utilitarianism, although it is true that ‘contribution to society’ could be defined as ultimately increasing happiness. You misunderstood him and his position is perfectly logical and consistentl.

    You also misunderstood his comment regarding autism. First, he hasn’t ever said (to my knowledge) that a DS person can’t make a contribution to society. He was saying that DS is not an enhancement; that taking a person without DS and giving them DS will not produce an individual who will make a greater contribution to society.

    However, adding autism to some individuals may cause them to make a greater contribution to society. Another way to say that would be that some people who made great contributions might not have if their autism were “cured” at birth.

    Summary: no major downside to permanently eradicating DS from the planet; possible, but unclear, downside to eradicating autism.

    (How many people are going to read that as calling for a “genocide” of all living DS persons, I wonder.)

    Does Dawkins still have that opinion (re: DS and autism) or make that claim publicly? I don’t know, but it is a perfectly reasonable opinion that I happen to agree with given current knowledge.

    You absolutely can compare apples to oranges and it turns out that they are both fruit. If the goal is to feed my family I can make an informed decision based on the cost and nutritional value of apples vs. oranges. People who use that phrase usually don’t understand it or misapply it.

    The arguments you make can be just as easily used to argue against eradicating polio.

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  • Thanks for your response. I expected this question to come up, including the example of FGM.

    I want to be clear that what I’m claiming is not the same as moral relativism. I believe we can make objective conclusions as to which actions increase the wellbeing of conscious creatures and we should pursue that. But we’re still working out the answers; none of us can claim always to make the right decision, but that doesn’t mean we don’t try. We are not all immoral people. I don’t believe most Egyptian mothers knowingly force their daughters to undergo FGM in the knowledge that it is all for the worst. If they did think it was all for the worst, that would make them immoral. They need to be better educated and I’m pleased to see progress is being made in some parts of the world on this.

    Someone not indoctrinated in the FGM culture who held down a child and mutilated them for their own satisfaction would unquestionably be immoral.

    I don’t think an Islamic extremist who decapitates an apostate can seriously be thought to be doing so for that person’s wellbeing. Such a person is also definitely immoral in my view.

    So to get back to the point of abortion, I think we need to be very careful about calling people immoral because there is a chasm between the way different people regard a foetus. Calling someone immoral is a charged term. It’s a term that implies that they are deliberately trying to decrease the wellbeing of others, which I don’t think any of us would agree is the case. We are all seeking the most humane outcome on a very difficult subject. Some of us may technically be in the right, and maybe it is right to try and educate the others to think the same, but there is no doubt that the vast majority of us, including RD and those who fundamentally disagree with him, are all pursuing what they consider the most humane outcome and we should all respect that.

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  • 299
    Elizabeth says:

    Actually, the plural of anecdote can easily be “data”. One anecdote can be a datum. In this case, a highly relevant datum, because it includes information on the very phenomenon you want to measure – human happiness.

    This “methodology” is why boneheaded parents are not giving their
    children vaccines and we have a resurgence in childhood diseases.

    Absolutely not. You are mistaking “data” for “methodology”. The happiness DS people bring to the lives of those they encounter, and experience themselves, is the relevant data you need if you want to estimate whether the “sum of human happiness” is increased, or diminished, by their presence in the world. And the “methodology” you need to apply to that will be vastly different from that required to answer the question as to whether or by how much vaccines raise the risk of autism. The latter can be addressed fairly simply, because we have an easy measure of vaccine (derived from vaccination records) and an easy measure of autism (derived from diagnostic records). By “fairly simply” of course, I mean using established epidemiological methods, which can be quite complex, but the data themselves are simple. In contrast, trying to quantify how much human happiness DS people bring into the world isn’t even a relevant question, because taking some global mean as your yardstick may ignore key factors that change the calculus in a specific instance. So the relevant methodology is likely to be more like a study that estimates what factors predict a good and happy life for a DS person and those around them, and are these likely to be present in this instance? For which the relevant data are, you guessed it, anecdotes.

    I don’t know how better to explain that to you so I suggest you do
    some independent research.

    What hypothesis would do you suggest I test?

    As for the rest, I simply disagree that Dawkins “apology” is consistent with his tweets. His tweets carried the clear implication that terminating a DS pregnancy is a moral imperative on the grounds (given in subsequent tweets) that a DS person does not contribute to society while an autistic person does. That implies that he quantifies “contribution” as the difference between a DS person’s capabilities and an autistic person’s – I have little idea what he was thinking, but the implication is that something to do with cognitive capacity. Which is a value judgement, not “logic”. Last time I checked, cognitive capacity was pretty orthogonal to happiness.

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  • Alan if you can point me in the direction of a scientific study that shows that:

    People with Down’s are always (or at least a significant majority of the time) less happy than ‘normal’ people, and/or
    The families of people with Down’s are always (or at least a significant majority of the time) less happy than they would have been had they chosen to abort the foetus and have a normal child instead

    Then I will accept that Professor Dawkins was justified in using the word ‘immoral’ in accordance with his own definition.

    Of course you can’t do that, because there are no such studies. Happiness is a difficult concept to define, let alone measure. People are notoriously unreliable even when reporting their own happiness.

    As Elizabeth says above, I am aware that there are serious ethical issues surrounding a decision to abort or not to abort a foetus in this situation. It’s the absolute certainty of Professor Dawkins’s position that I object to. He acknowledges that women in this position face a ‘dilemma’ but then adopts a moral stance that does not allow that it is a dilemma at all.

    My last few comments have been deleted by the moderators for some reason so I expect the same may happen to this.

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  • Joseph Aug 22, 2014 at 9:58 pm

    I happen to think that nature produces the “right” number of Downs, just like as an economist, I think capitalistic forces impart the right amount of income to any given businessman.

    So you have no idea about planning for life but have opinions on others who do?

    I don’t think that anyone should centrally plan anything, not your income, not your education, and certainly not your life if you happen to be “undesirable” at a given moment in time.

    I would have to ask if you live as a hermit in splendid isolation in a remote location? – Or if you actually use transport systems, the electric grid, internet, hospitals, modern medicine, or public water-supply? – which are centrally planned systems.

    So to me, taking a pill that kills Downs children smacks very much of central planning or social engineering.

    Nobody suggested killing Downs children. Quine asked about a pill to prevent them developing Downs or another actually causing Downs. After rambling around off the point in a long side-tracking post about homosexuality, you now show you have misread the question.

    So to answer your question, I would neither take a pill that kills a Downs kid nor would I take pill that produces a Downs kid. I think the probability of Downs mutation occurs at the right level as determined by nature. We don’t need more. We don’t need less.

    So! No idea at all about planning anything, and no understanding of embryology! – Just ducking the issues, and hiding behind the fallacious appeal to nature!

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  • See moderators’ message posted earlier today. We removed a number of comments on both sides of the argument that were aggressive, bad-tempered or rude towards other users, and were therefore in breach of our Terms of Use. The comment you have posted here is thoughtful, courteous and rationally argued so we have no quibble with it whatsoever.

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  • 303
    Elizabeth says:

    Well, let me give you my own direct experience.

    When I was pregnant, I had a screening test for DS. It came back as “screen positive” which means that the risk was higher than some arbitrary cut-off for “screen negative (IIRC, it was 1:300, and “screen negative was “1:500”. Because of the positive screen I was offered an amniocentesis, which has a much lower false positive rate. However, it carries the risk of spontaneous abortion. As circumstances were such that I was unlikely ever to be pregnant again (it was a freak pregnancy after many unsuccessful IVF attempts, and even more early spontaneous abortions), I opted not to have the amnio. In other words, I was more willing to risk having a DS baby than I was to risk not having a baby at all. Had I been offered a test with a low false positive rate that did NOT carry a risk to the pregnancy, I would have accepted it. However, I do not know, and did not know, whether I would terminate if the test was positive. What I did want, was as much information as possible, including information concerning my own emotional reaction to the a positive test.

    Some here regard that as “illogical” – merely “emotional” and “subjective”. But that, I would argue is because they are mistaking data (the emotion we want to maximise/minimise) for process (the means of maximising/minimising the emotion). Had I received a positive test, and found myself appalled by the prospect, I would probably have terminated, judging that given that reaction, I probably wasn’t going to be a good mother for a DS child, nor be happy myself. Had I, on the other hand, found myself thinking “oh, well, DS isn’t the end of the world, could be a challenge, but one we could easily rise to, and DS people are often joyful and loving people”, then perhaps not.

    The dichotomy, in other words, isn’t between Spock-like “logical” thinking and mere “emotional” anecdote-telling as opposing approaches to abortion and pre-natal testing for DS. It’s between the reality we want to affect (the happiness of people), and the decision that will affect it (abort or not), and both are independent parts of the moral calculus.

    In my case, my baby did not have DS. But I see nothing immoral in my decision not to ensure that he did not.

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  • Craig W. Aug 22, 2014 at 5:16 pm

    “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 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.”

    Dawkins is presuming less happiness and more suffering for a child with Down’s syndrome.

    I think it is widely accepted that spending time in operating theatres involves suffering, as does struggling with disabilities!

    Having done the former, and while recovering from injuries, done the latter, denial of this makes no sense!

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  • 306
    AfraidToDie says:

    No, do not abandon the Tweety. I would prefer a comment stating your feelings require more than 140 chars and to check out your take on your website. Something like “Although my personal choice would be to abort, I understand the dilemma and controversies surrounding such a decision. I will be providing a more thoughtful response on my website”. But then again, hind site is 20×20.

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  • 307
    Elizabeth says:

    Can I make it clear (not the first attempt!) that I do NOT say that we cannot measure such phenomena as human happiness and suffering!

    That is not my argument. My argument (well, one of them) is that you can’t do “statistically valid” (to use Sedan’s term) arguments without measurements, and you can’t measure something until you’ve decided what it is you want to measure. That’s why, in quantitative methodology it is so vital to operationalise your variables. I have no problem with the concept of the “QUALY” – its crude, but it’s a reasonably informed way of weighing up duration of life against quality. If someone wants to make the argument that it’s immoral to bring a child into the world if their probable QUALY number is below some threshold, feel free. But be honest about it – don’t pretend that it is self-evident that it is immoral not to abort a DS person because “sum of human happiness”. Or “contribution to society”. Or “not enhanced”.

    The reason It’s Complicated is because all those things require careful thought and measurement and the parameters used ultimately reflect value judgements.

    Qualitative methods underlie quantitative methods, in other words, when it comes to measures of well-being. Pretending it’s all a matter of math is, well, not logical.

    ETA: and FWIW, I have made a study of “measuring techniques” – ironically perhaps, it’s what I do.

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  • Craig W. Aug 23, 2014 at 1:52 pm

    You are introducing into the discussion risk factors associated with Down syndrome. I am well aware of this; my son, who has Down syndrome, had leukemia, a congenital heart defect, and Hirschsprung’s disease. He is an extraordinarily happy kid with an indomitable spirit.

    The relevant question, is:- “Would he lead a fuller life and be happier without these problems?”

    As I said in an earlier comment, I have a close neighbour who has a Downs syndrome son who played with my children.
    However, if I was to evaluate if this son or his brother have the better and less frustrating life, the answer is unequivocal in favour of his brother!

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  • In my case, my baby did not have DS. But I see nothing immoral in my decision not to ensure that he did not.

    There are always exceptions. You were under the pressure of thinking this could be your last chance to have a baby. In these circumstances, having a DS child could seem better than not having a child at all. You were thinking of yourself. But that’s hypothetical. In reality, you took a gamble and it paid off.

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  • 310
    Elizabeth says:

    No, I was thinking of the whole family. And society, for that matter.

    And yes, it was a gamble. All decisions are gambles – we have to base our decisions on what is most likely to turn out for the best, and least likely to turn out for the worst. And deciding which carries the most weight – maximising success, or minimising risk – is a value judgement, not something you can reduce to a simple equation.

    Having any child is a gamble, and not necessarily for the good of society. There’s a strong argument to be made that until the world population starts to fall, it’s immoral to have any child at all. And a valid counter-argument.

    Take home message: it isn’t simple. Pretending it is – that it can be reduced to a tweetable moral imperative, or even a bloggable paragraph – is not the kind of objective moral honesty that Dawkins in principle supports.

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  • Thank you, Theo. very well said, and I hope Richard Dawkins and others read what you have written. I had been struggling to know where to begin with this debate – feeling offended, and wanting to write something sensible, logically argued. I also think Richard Dawkins and some of the followers of the site might be well-advised to consider a social model of disability rather than purely a medical model. It seems to me that most people operate mainly from the latter perspective. Richard Dawkins should reconsider and withdraw his opinion that a person with Down’s Syndrome is likely to suffer more than they will experience happiness, especially if society is more tolerant, more accepting and more valuing of difference. Unfortunately there often need to be some brave pioneers before society begins to appreciate the value of people who have unusually different abilities, skills and qualities. As well as a child with Down’s having the potential for a very happy life, I also think that, while raising a child with an intellectual disability must certainly be very challenging, it can bring far more happiness than suffering. I would not criticise anyone for aborting a foetus where tests show that the child would be likely to have a significant disability. I am also certain that, given the right commitment and supportive circumstances, a decision knowingly to continue with such a pregnancy should not be considered immoral.

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  • 312
    Barry.M says:


    Some here regard that as “illogical”

    No, I think you’ve laid out a very clear and logical argument actually. Your decision not to have the amnio (in your particular circumstance) makes complete sense and I’m very pleased that it worked out for you.

    I had a friend in a very similar situation to yours and, when she finally became pregnant at the age of 37, she wasn’t sure if she wanted to have the amnio test (because of the risk) but eventually decided to go ahead because she couldn’t bare not knowing how she might react if she gave birth to a DS baby. As it was, the result was negative and she now has a lovely little boy (with a very odd name!).

    However, I still believe the message is to think it through logically, regardless of how ‘Spock-like’ that may seem. All of the anecdotes here about how happy people are with their DS children are very interesting/informative but they could easily offer an unbalanced overview, especially if there is a tendency (perfectly understandably) for unhappy parents to remain silent.

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  • 313
    Elizabeth says:

    All of the anecdotes here about how happy people are with their DS
    children are very interesting/informative but they could easily offer
    an unbalanced overview, especially if there is a tendency (perfectly
    understandably) for unhappy parents to remain silent.

    Yes indeed. And that is where it might be worth turning anecdotes into statistics – by soliciting anecdotes from a representative sample of parents.

    But that just underlies the original problem with the original tweet – it is not self-evident that the “sum of human happiness or not” is increased by bringing a DS person into the world, and thus “immoral” – whether it is or not will depend on circumstance. What people need in that situation is information – how have other people coped, what factors predict success etc. Then people can make an informed, evidence-based decision as to whether, in this instance, going ahead with the pregnancy, knowing the risk of grief as well as the probability of love and joy, is the right choice. Not something to which there is a blanket “statistically valid” answer.

    I’m all for thinking it through logically. I’m just insisting that that logic is applied to relevant data, and trying to make the point that far from rejecting “emotional” responses as a denial of logic, they are the very data that need to serve as input to logic.

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  • Does critical thinking allow but one answer to the question of whether to abort a Down Syndrome fetus?

    I’m not knowledgable enough about either Down Sundrome or critical thinking to offer further thoughts, although of course I have a bigoted opinion.

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  • Prof. Dawkins was not forcing a abortion. Prof. Dawkins was not unduly pressuring the woman.

    I agree he was not forcing anyone into having an abortion. I disagree that his remarks do not put undue pressure on the woman, nor anyone else for that matter. I don’t think it is Dawkins’ intention to coerce anyone into an abortion. I do think what he has said is at best very badly worded and reflects a moral stance that has been poorly thought through. I’ve given my reasoning behind my assertion in a post elsewhere on this page. It surrounds his claims that “the moral and sensible choice would be to abort”; “the decision to deliberately give birth to a Down baby, when you have the choice to abort it early in the pregnancy, might actually be immoral”; and others of this stamp.

    My own stance is that, other things taken into consideration, it is not immoral to abort a Trisomy 21 foetus. I’m of the opinion that this stance is morally defensible. I’m sure many of those not on the pro-choice side of the abortion issue would disagree with me; and I think many who are pro-choice would agree – but that’s another debate.

    Conversely, essentially Dawkins’ moral stance is that it is immoral not to abort a Trisomy 21 foetus. In my opinion this stance is morally indefensible, as is shown in his attempts to defend it. It is morally repugnant, offensive, and unduly coercive. It amounts to judging anyone who does not abort a Trisomy 21 foetus as, in some sense, bad, wicked, or evil. It is, in spite of Dawkins’ protestations, tantamount to saying of someone that it would have been better had they been aborted. The more I think about it, given the pre-eminent status Dawkins holds as a scientist and a writer, the more irresponsible I find his espousal of this stance, and that he attempts, wholly unsuccessfully, to defend it.

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  • 316
    Barry.M says:


    What people need in that situation is information – how have other
    people coped, what factors predict success etc.

    Informed decisions obviously need as much information as possible and your idea of soliciting anecdotes from a representative sample of parents would certainly help provide a better overall understanding of how people cope after having a DS baby and (potentially) the following 50-60 years or so.

    However, in a situation where the person in question can simply ‘try again’, logic would dictate that a termination (following a positive amnio test) completely removes the need to worry about coping at all – there’d be nothing to cope with. They’d simply hit the reset button and have another go. I know it sounds a bit dispassionate, but wouldn’t that be easier..?

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  • Hmm, I don’t think much of your maths. For one thing you’ve apparently done one side of the equation. You’ve pointed to the cost of caring for people with DS (although you haven’t actually bothered to research the figure involved), but totally ignored the flipside matter, that of value.

    Billions of $s of both public and private funds are spent globally on art ($66b in 2014 according to Bloomberg). According to your stunted logic, art is therefore a monumental burden upon society, a terrible drain on resources that could be spent on other things (albeit you would quickly be forced to accept that those other things constituted “burdens” as well).

    Of course we all understand that art, expensive as it is, is not a “burden”, because people regard objects of art as having a value. Art is seen as an end in itself – a fact borne out by the fact that people pay to experience it (not just to own it) and even donate money to the arts. For most people, the same is true of disabled people – ie they have a value which more than makes up for the expense of having them around.

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