“Every child who a woman expects in her womb is a gift that changes a family’s history: the life of fathers and mothers, grandparents and of brothers and sisters. That child needs to be welcomed, loved and nurtured. Always!”
─ Pope Francis, World Down Syndrome Day 2021
In 2014, the famous scientist and militant atheist Richard Dawkins was asked by a woman on Twitter what she should do if she were to find out that she is pregnant with a child with Down syndrome. Dawkins is known for his blunt style. His response was breathtakingly caustic and inhumane. “Abort it and try again,” he shot back. “It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice.”
Despite significant backlash from pro-life and disability rights activists, Dawkins never apologized or deleted that Tweet. And now we know why.
In an interview a few days ago, Irish radio host Brendan O’Connor, who is himself a father of a daughter with Down syndrome, challenged Dawkins on his 2014 statement. Two things are noteworthy about the exchange. Firstly, Dawkins actually doubled down on his claim that a child with Down’s should be aborted (although he did waffle on the question of whether or not it is “immoral” to not abort a baby with Down’s). And secondly, the exchange exposed both the disturbing ignorance that motivates Dawkins’ position, and the equally disturbing shallowness of his moral worldview.
O’Connor began by noting that he didn’t want the discussion to be personal, and that the issue of his daughter should be put to the side. He then asked Dawkins, “[H]ow do you think it is immoral to bring someone with Down syndrome into the world?”
“I think that once you have a child with Down syndrome, you love it, you cherish it, everybody does, that’s well-known,” Dawkins replied. “I wouldn’t deny that for one single moment. But before it’s born, the vast number of people take an amniocentesis and is diagnosed with Down syndrome, as a matter of fact, do abort it.”
O’Connor replied by acknowledging that, yes, statistically speaking it is true that most people do abort a baby diagnosed with Down’s. However, he pressed Dawkins again, “[W]hy is it immoral not to abort it?”
“Well, that was probably putting it a bit too strongly,” Dawkins admitted. “But given that the amount of suffering in the world probably does not go down — probably does go up — compared to having another child who doesn’t have Down syndrome, then that’s what I meant.”
O’Connor continued to press, asking: “How do you know that it increases the amount of suffering in the world to bring in a child with Down syndrome into the world?”
To this, Dawkins simply had no response. “It seems to me to be plausible that … if a child has any kind of disability, then you probably would increase the amount of happiness in the world more by having another child instead,” he asserted.
This, I have to say, is an astonishing reply. Dawkins has publicly told mothers everywhere that they would be bad people if they failed to abort a child with Down syndrome. That is what it means when you say that failing to abort a child with Down’s is “immoral.” As one of the most prominent public intellectuals in the world, Dawkins’ words carry immense weight. It is highly likely that his suggestion that mothers who give birth to a child with Down’s are bad mothers has influenced some women to abort their children.
And yet, the only reason that Dawkins can give for his position, is that it “seems…plausible” to him that if a child is disabled, then this somehow will reduce the quantity of “happiness” in the world!
Happiness and Down Syndrome
It’s hard even to know how to respond to ignorance like that.
To begin with, if Dawkins had ever taken just a few minutes to speak with people who actually have Down’s, or to their caregivers, he would no doubt have quickly learned how mistaken he is. Not only are Down’s and happiness not incompatible, but there is a good argument that the exact opposite is true.
The fact is people with Down’s consistently rank themselves as among the happiest people on earth! Their caregivers too, while acknowledging the challenges associated with caring for someone with the condition, consistently say that their lives have been enriched by having a child with Down’s.
In an open letter after Dawkins’ 2014 comment, Catholic journalist J.D. Flynn, who has two children with Down’s, invited Dawkins to come have dinner with his family.
“I have two children with Down syndrome,” wrote Flynn.
“They’re adopted. Their birth-parents faced the choice to abort them, and didn’t. Instead, the children came to live with us. They’re delightful children. They’re beautiful. They’re happy. One is a cancer survivor, twice-over. I found that in the hospital, as she underwent chemotherapy and we suffered through agony and exhaustion, our daughter Pia was more focused on befriending nurses and stealing stethoscopes. They suffer, my children, but in the context of irrepressible joy.”
“I wonder, if you spent some time with them, whether you’d feel the same way about suffering, about happiness, about personal dignity. I wonder, if you danced with them in the kitchen, whether you’d think abortion was in their best interest. I wonder, if you played games with them, or shared a joke with them, whether you’d find some worth in their existence.”
Flynn concluded his beautiful letter, saying, “I don’t want you to come over for a debate. I don’t want to condemn you. I want you to experience the joy of children with Down syndrome. I want your heart to be moved to joy as well.”
Flynn’s family experience is not unusual, it is typical. In one study, a full 99% of those living with Down syndrome said that they are “happy” with their lives. Another study found that 99% of the parents of children with Down’s said that they love their child, and 97% said they “were proud of them.” And, most telling, 79% “felt their outlook on life was more positive” because of their child. (emphasis added)
Dawkins is supposed to be a great scientist. And great scientists are supposed to know that before making some claim, you should first look for empirical evidence to support that claim. Dawkins, however, has never bothered to actually investigate whether or not it is true that Down syndrome somehow reduces the amount of happiness in the world. And yet, this has not stopped him from advocating the wholesale, industrial elimination of people with Down’s.
Dawkins and the New Eugenics
However, the problems with his statements go far deeper even than this. Much deeper.
Dawkins clearly takes it for granted that if something reduces the amount of “happiness” in the world, then that thing should be eliminated – even if that thing happens to be an unborn child. This is classic “utilitarianism” – a moral philosophy that measures the moral value of an action by whether that action is useful or not for producing some practical end: in this case, increasing happiness.
Utilitarianism is an attractive moral philosophy for people who lack a robust metaphysics, or who assume that the only things that are real or that matter are the things they can touch and see. People, that is, like Richard Dawkins.
Dawkins is a brilliant scientist, but a terrible moral philosopher. I do not think that he set out to endorse monstrous moral ideas. But in his scorn for religion and tradition, combined with his naïve lionizing of “science,” he has ended up in that old refuge of highly educated elitists – eugenics.
In a speech in 2009 to the Pontifical Academy for Life, Pope Benedict XVI warned against the rise of a “new eugenics.” This “new mentality,” he said, rather than targeting people based upon race or class, as the old eugenics did, tends to “give priority to functional ability, efficiency, perfection and physical beauty to the detriment of life’s other dimensions which are deemed unworthy.”
He added, “The respect that is due to every human being, even bearing a developmental defect or a genetic disease that might manifest itself during life, is thus weakened while children whose life is considered not worth living are penalized from the moment of conception.”
A ‘Culture of Acceptance’ and a ‘Civilization of Love’
Clearly, Dawkins’ statements about Down syndrome typify this new eugenics. Pope Benedict XVI, however, went on to identify the fundamental flaw of this pernicious philosophy, and outlined the proper response to it:
“What must be strongly reaffirmed is the equal dignity of every human being… A person’s biological, mental and cultural development or state of health must never become a discriminatory factor. On the contrary, it is necessary to consolidate the culture of acceptance and love showing real solidarity toward those who suffer. It must break down the barriers that society often builds by discriminating against those who are disabled or affected by pathologies, or, worse, even reaching the selection and rejection of life in the name of an abstract ideal of health and physical perfection.”
In other words, rather than a shallow utilitarianism that will inevitably be used to justify atrocities in the name of some standard of “usefulness” – a standard that history shows will be arbitrarily decided upon by some group of powerful elites at the expense of the weak and vulnerable – we must recapture and forcefully defend the Biblical concept of the dignity of the human person. Of all human persons. Regardless of their “usefulness.” Regardless of their “happiness.” Regardless of any other consideration other than the fact that they are human beings – made in the image and likeness of God – with incomparable worth.
Rather than weighing human beings in the balance, deciding which ones are “worthy” and which are not, we must simply love humans. Love them the way God the Father loves us – selflessly, unconditionally, without calculation, without asking for anything in return. Simply because this is the right thing – not the “useful” thing – to do; because there is an objective standard higher than us, a law that cannot be seen or measured, but that is very real, transcending our petty and narrow short-sightedness.
Joy and the Dignity of the Human Person
The irony is that whereas the highly rationalist, “scientific” utilitarian eugenics has produced some of the greatest suffering and the greatest atrocities in the history of the world, the “irrational” Judeo-Christian faith in the dignity of the human person also has the “utilitarian” effect of increasing happiness. Not because happiness is the thing that is sought, but because God has so ordered His creation that following His law not only produces eternal happiness in the next life, but also tends to bring order and harmony and peace to this world.
This is demonstrated forcibly in the lives of those people who have gratuitously embraced and celebrated the lives of people with the very disabilities that Dawkins views with such suspicion and fear. People like the Flynn family mentioned above. Or like the McGarrity family, who not only have a son with Down syndrome, but whose experience with their son was so positive that they went on to adopt three more children with Down’s!
The McGarritys admit that life with four children with Down’s (in addition to four other children without Down’s) can be difficult at times. And yet, they say, the challenges are all worth it. “Each day is a new challenge—and an adventure,” says Jeff, the father of the family. “I watch our family, I watch the older kids take care of the younger kids, and I think to myself, ‘What a blessing.’”
This is a concrete, living example of what Pope Benedict XVI was speaking about when he emphasized creating a “culture of acceptance.” Pope St. John Paul II, for his part, spoke often of a “Civilization of Love.” As he wrote in his Letter to Families:
“[T]here is no true love without an awareness that God ‘is Love’— and that man is the only creature on earth which God has called into existence ‘for its own sake.’ Created in the image and likeness of God, man cannot fully ‘find himself’ except through the sincere gift of self. Without such a concept of man, of the person and the ‘communion of persons’ in the family, there can be no civilization of love; similarly, without the civilization of love it is impossible to have such a concept of person and of the communion of persons.” (no. 13)
“The Civilization of Love,” added the sainted pope, “evokes joy” in the face of new life: “joy, among other things, for the fact that a man has come into the world (cf. Jn 16:21), and consequently because spouses have become parents. The civilization of love means ‘rejoicing in the right’ (cf. 1 Cor 13:6). But a civilization inspired by a consumerist, anti-birth mentality is not and cannot ever be a civilization of love.” (no 13)
Joy is a form of happiness, but it is deeper than happiness. Happiness is fickle and fleeting. In the face of times of adversity, happiness can flee, but joy can remain. Richard Dawkins’ cold utilitarianism simply has no room for the kind of selfless love and joy embodied by the McGarrity and Flynn families. I hope you will join me in praying for his conversion of heart (and for all who share his view). My prayer is that one day soon, he will use his considerable public platform to advocate on behalf of the disabled, the unborn, and the dignity of all people. That’s an intention worth praying for!