“Abort it and try again.”
Was this nasty comment made by a faceless internet troll? No. Immature teenage kid? No. This twitter gem comes from Oxford scholar Richard Dawkins in response to a woman pondering today whether or not she would continue a pregnancy if she learned the fetus had Down syndrome.
When I logged in to twitter to see how this great mind had responded to the ensuing backlash, I was hoping to see a well thought out, albeit misguided rebuttal. I was surprised to find this:
This is supposed to be one of the most intelligent voices of our time, and a champion for critical thinking and evidence-based logic. His defense is “everybody does it.”
Reading further down his twitter feed didn’t improve things. So far we’ve learned that Richard Dawkins not only doesn’t value a life with Down syndrome, he actually feels it is immoral to knowingly bring such life into the world. When met with resistance to this eugenic philosophy, he assures everyone that it is normal protocol for dealing with these sorts of things. How then would he handle other intellectual disabilities?
Dawkins implies that the value in a human life is in how much that life contributes to society. He implies it is immoral for me to bring a life with Down syndrome into the world because that life has nothing to contribute to the world. He implies that a life’s value is based in its ability. Congratulations Dr. Dawkins, you can now add “ableist” to your credentials.
It’s not as though I haven’t read or heard these type of thoughts before. This is just your garden variety ignorance. We’ve only in the past 50 years begun to stop marginalizing people with Down syndrome and start supporting them in a way that makes it possible for them to reach their potential in mainstream society. Many people simply don’t understand Down syndrome. Because Dawkins has no point of reference for ever having carried an unborn child inside of his body nor does he have a child with a developmental disability, I wouldn’t expect him to understand just how precious that life can be and how much someone with Down syndrome has to offer this world. But this is no average person. This is a self-proclaimed bioethicist. He’s devoted a great portion of his life to answering hard questions about human life. Many people look to him as an authoritative voice of reason on such matters. Clearly this woman did as she posed this question directly to him. I’m angry because he should know better, or at least know enough to know that he doesn’t and keep his mouth shut.
And he is wrong. He may be brilliant, but he is absolutely wrong. Good lord, if we had to provide a resume of what we could bring to the table to gain entrance into this world we’d all be screwed. How can you decide a life has nothing to contribute before it’s started and why is that an important pre-requisite for life in the first place? For that matter, how do you measure the value of a life and justify it’s existence? This is the part where I am supposed to tell you all the reasons why my son belongs here among the living, and honestly, I really don’t feel like I should have to. It really is ridiculous. No one ever questioned my mom’s decision to bring me into the world. No one’s ever checked in to see how much I have contributed to the world in regards to my right to life. I could rattle off all the reasons Owen is awesome. I could tell you all the things he might do someday, or list off all the accomplishments people with Down syndrome have made to date, but why should I have to justify anyone’s right to live on this earth with the rest of us? My son has a genetic condition that presents no obstacle to his living a long happy life. Everything else is really irrelevant. He’s not suffering. He’s not a burden. He’s not unhappy. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what life means for Owen. This isn’t blind optimism. I don’t assert these things lightly. I’ve done the research to make sure I can say these things with confidence. I’ve not spent a minute rethinking my decision to bring him into this world.
That’s how I would respond to Mr. Dawkins. But I’ve heard it stated more eloquently.
That’s you, Richard.
My husband shared this with me several years ago. What a beautiful tribute to the persistence and rarity of human life. Think about all the things that had to fall into place for us just to be here right now. The odds we beat. The obstacles Owen has already overcome just to be alive. Things we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of understanding. How can someone understand that and so casually dismiss a human life he knows nothing about? So what changed your mind, Richard? Why can’t my son consider himself lucky to be here with the rest of us? He smiles and laughs every day like he’s lucky. He laughs like he already knows what you once knew and seem to have forgotten.
Life is beautiful, and any of us should be overwhelmed just to be here.
It’s impossible not to take it personally when someone tells me my greatest accomplishment to date was an immoral choice. It is painful to carry the knowledge that many people in the world will not see the wonderful, beautiful, valuable life that I have had the privilege to watch over as just that. I see perfection. Many will see a mistake. A glitch in the system. They will totally miss a truly extraordinary life. And it’s really their loss. It really makes my job hard though as a mom to make sure my son never feels this way about himself. How am I going to hide this bullshit from him? Will he ever for a second believe it, because that thought just breaks my heart.
Please also read the follow-up post to this one: On Suffering and Down Syndrome
This is post of part of the Summer Blog Hop Series