Richard Dawkins Is Wrong About Down Syndrome
And why this problematic thinking has sinister roots in history
On August 20th, 2014, renowned atheist author and ethologist Richard Dawkins told a woman on Twitter she ought to hypothetically abort in the case her child happened to have Down Syndrome. More specifically, he told her it would be immoral for her to keep the baby. What followed was what Dawkins facetiously described as “a new feeding frenzy,” subsequently painting himself as the victim of unfair scrutiny.
Dawkins proceeded to blame the low Twitter character count for his distasteful advice, following up with a lengthy, half-hearted “apology” on his blog. To avoid being accused of taking anything out of context, I have included Dawkins’ statement below in full:
“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 I agree that that personal opinion is contentious and needs to be argued further, possibly to be withdrawn.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.”
Not only is this take extremely ableist, but it is also statistically incorrect. People with Down Syndrome are generally happier than the rest of the population. A 2013 survey found 99% of people with Down Syndrome are happy with their lives. The people surveyed overwhelmingly described being happy with their relationships and appearances, and had high self-esteems.
While the stereotype of people with Down Syndrome being perpetually happy can lead many to erroneously believe they are incapable of experiencing other emotions, this statistic disproves Dawkins’ claim. Moreover, if Dawkins’ main objective is truly increasing overall happiness, he would be encouraging more families to have Down’s babies. These findings include the families of people with Down Syndrome, disproving the idea that the aforementioned group brings significantly more negative emotional stress to their caretakers than any other child.
Even if Dawkins were correct about people with Down Syndrome being less happy on average, would this really be a reason to “eliminate” them? Suffering and pain are natural parts of the human experience. As a person with a depressive disorder, I know this well. And yet, I believe these difficult periods have challenged and shaped me into the person I am today. I have listened to the parents of children with Down’s Syndrome. I cannot imagine any of them declaring so callously like Dawkins they would give up their child to escape the stress that comes with parenting a person with special needs.
Dawkins would never say these things to a parent of a child with Down Syndrome, would he?
You might have already guessed the answer. On the Irish RTÉ radio station on May 11th, 2021, host Brendan O’Connor confronted Dawkins with his past claims. Identifying himself as a parent of a child with Down Syndrome, O’Connor asked Dawkins to explain why he believes it is immoral to bring a child with Down Syndrome into the world. Dawkins said much the same thing as he did in that blog post all those years ago, except he changed the word “immoral” to “wise and sensible.” He also admitted he had no facts to back up his speculation.
Dawkins is right about one thing, however. In North America and Europe, the great majority of Down Syndrome pregnancies end in abortion.
In Denmark, 98% of Down Syndrome pregnancies are terminated. Iceland recently boasted about having eradicated Down’s Syndrome altogether, while in reality, this statistic results from the fact that nearly 100% of Icelandic women who use prenatal testing terminate Down Syndrome pregnancies. One expert interviewed by CBS suggested the Icelandic government pushes women to terminate their pregnancies when they test positive for Down Syndrome and other genetic abnormalities.
Indeed, the previous study I mentioned suggests that the stigma surrounding Down Syndrome influences many parents in their decision to abort, including “medical” advice from physicians. While a very slim number of Down Syndrome children are still born in Iceland, the idea they have a disease that needs to be “cured” remains problematic, especially considering the sinister, historical roots of this philosophy.
Francis Galton and Eugenics
Francis Galton was the first to coin the term “eugenics.” An anthropologist and half-cousin of Charles Darwin, Galton became obsessed with the idea of creating a utopian society through “selective parenthood.” In other words, he wanted to promote the “desirable” traits of some people in the gene pool, while removing the “undesirable” traits of others.
Galton’s ideas spread like wildfire. Soon, the crème de la crème of European intellectual circles were embracing Galton’s philosophy by spearheading eugenics programmes. Using unfounded pseudoscience and white supremacy, many of these groups claimed the advancement of the human race required the eradication of racial minorities as well as people with special needs and mental illnesses. Many of these claims were connected to the now debunked theory of phrenology where higher rates of intelligence were attributed to certain skull sizes and shapes.
These harmful beliefs became so popular that they were adopted by governments. Mass forced sterilizations were administered under the guise of “bettering society.” Even with opposition, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that forced sterilization of people with special needs and mental illnesses did not violate the Constitution, with Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes saying, “three generations of imbeciles are enough.” Margaret Sanger, often praised for being a pioneer in feminism, was one of the most vocal proponents of eugenics — describing the “over-fertility of the mentally and physically defective” as one of the most pressing issues facing society in 1921.
Like the eugenicists of earlier generations and reminiscent of certain brands of thinking today, the Nazis erroneously believed that hereditary factors could be controlled to determine the health of society. Using bogus claims about racial purity, the Nazis enacted programmes to systematically murder the groups they deemed “undesirable,” including Jews, Roma, homosexuals, the mentally ill, the “criminally insane,” and those with special needs. They were deemed “unworthy of living.”
The resulting program, which came to be known as Aktion T4, murdered more than 300,000 mentally and physically disabled people.
As Germany’s next generation, children and infants posed an imminent threat to the Nazis’ plan for racial purity. Parents were initially coerced to surrender their children to the authorities, who were immediately registered when they were born with epilepsy, deformities, or Down Syndrome. At first, parents were under the impression their children would receive expert care from Germany’s finest physicians. But the truth was far more sinister. After these children were murdered at the hands of hospital staff, their parents were told they had perished unexpectedly. Eventually, the German Interior Ministry forced the seizure of disabled children and infants. Jewish children with special needs were specifically targeted.
I found a heartbreaking example of the Nazis’ plan in the life of Ruth Kirschbaum. Ruth was born into difficult circumstances. Her mother was Jewish and divorced from a non-Jewish man in 1929, though it is not clear who Ruth’s biological father was. Ruth’s mother was sequestered to an asylum until her death in 1942, which possibly resulted from euthanasia. Ruth was murdered at the “special children’s ward” at Leipzig-Dösen in 1941, because of an intellectual disability. She was only 7.
Richard Dawkins’ recent statements highlight a disturbing and often overlooked defect in our society. While we like to think of ourselves as having moved beyond the supposedly bygone days of racist nineteenth-century eugenicists and Aktion T4, the persistent belief that children with Down Syndrome and other disabilities are a burden to our society suggests we haven’t progressed as much as we would like to think.
People with Down Syndrome live meaningful lives. Like every human being, they encounter suffering and unhappiness, but they also experience joy, hope, love, and so much more. The immorality comes when we deem them unworthy of life.