Atheist writer and activist Richard Dawkins has come under fire this week, after a tweet calling Ireland “civilised, except in (the area of abortion)” morphed into a conversation about the ethics of bringing children with Down syndrome into the world. Dawkins believes it is immoral to do so. A user called Aidan McCourt replied “994 human beings with Down syndrome deliberately killed before birth in England and Wales in 2012. Is that civilised?” Dawkins responded that it was, since “(these) are fetuses, diagnosed before they have human feelings.” Are feelings what make us human?
If Dawkins is concerned with the “feelings” of humans with Down syndrome, why not able-bodied humans … or animals, for that matter? Why doesn’t Dawkins recommend abortion for everyone, given the state our supposedly “overpopulated” planet is in? When I took an activism course from the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform two years ago, Stephanie Gray gave a basic defense of human exceptionalism. “Why don’t we put babies in barns and calves in cribs?” Some ethicists, such as Peter Singer, like to pontificate about the capacities of newborn animals. If their independence and ability to act on their feelings far outweigh those of human babies – able-bodied or not – shouldn’t we give them greater value? I am sure that’s where a view like Dawkins’ would eventually lead.
Dawkins has issued an apology, posted in part by The Independent, in which he attributes the controversy to “a wanton eagerness to misunderstand” on the part of the public. Like any good relativist, he “wouldn’t dream of imposing his views” on others. Yet “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 from the point of view of the child’s own welfare.”
Suzanne Fortin of Big Blue Wave sums up the situation perfectly: “You can’t create a moral system based purely on a functionalist goal of increasing happiness and reducing suffering without a corresponding respect for the human individual. (Morality) is made for the individual, not the individual for morality. Any moral system worth its salt must begin with the premise– the axiom– that all human beings have intrinsic self-worth(, otherwise) you’re making ideas more important than people.”
Never mind Richard Dawkins’ condescenscion towards religious believers and countless other groups. How does this man still have a platform?