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:-
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.