Dawkins, Down Syndrome, and Dignity

Richard Dawkins might be the world’s most outspoken evangelist for atheism. He’s written a litany of bestselling books on unbelief and boasts legions of zealous acolytes who pay their dues. But lately, this Oxford biologist and high priest of doubt seems to only open his mouth to change feet.

After defending what he called “mild pedophilia” earlier this year, Dawkins has trained his attention on reproductive ethics. Responding to a woman on Twitter who said she’d have trouble deciding whether to abort a baby diagnosed in utero with Down syndrome, Dawkins told her she would be wrong to let the child live.

“Abort it and try again,” he wrote. “It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have a choice.”

It sounds outrageous, but Dawkins is far from alone in his opinion. Statistics tell us that 90 percent of American children diagnosed with Down syndrome in the womb are aborted. It’s a damning number, especially in light of an even higher statistic: 99 percent of respondents with Down syndrome say they’re “happy,” and the same percentage of parents say they love their “Downs” son or daughter. Just 4 percent express regret at having given birth to their disabled child.

Considering the foremost argument for ending “less-than-perfect” lives is that such lives aren’t worth living, these facts should give us pause. If life with Down syndrome doesn’t merit the trouble, a lot of kids with the disease, as well as their families, apparently missed the memo.

But what Dawkins said next offers an important glimpse into his worldview. Replying to the dustup that followed his first Tweet, the professor justified his comment as the natural conclusion of liberal views on abortion:

“What I was saying,” he explained, “simply follows logically from the ordinary pro-choice stance that most of us, I presume, espouse.”

If you believe, as Dawkins does, that humans have no objective value, then his utilitarian calculus makes sense. Not only does artificially preserving the life of a disabled child short-circuit natural selection, but it makes life harder for that child’s family. And if, as pro-choice dogma goes, preborn children lack personhood and a right to life, then snuffing out their lives should concern no one.

Princeton ethicist Peter Singer might suggest that Dawkins didn’t go far enough. Singer, himself a devoted defender of legal abortion, thinks there’s no reason we ought to consider newborn infants or even toddlers off-limits.

“We have begun to think in terms of quality of life, instead of all life equally being sacred,” he told a journalist in 2004. “That’s why it is logical to now start thinking about severely defective babies, and whether it is always wrong to kill them.”

While the gears of pro-choice logic grind toward ever more disturbing conclusions, Christianity offers an alien counter suggestion: that the value of human life lies neither in its usefulness nor its ease, but in the image of the God who created it, imprinted from conception to death on each individual.

Dawkins’ chilling logic becomes illogical and his morality immoral in the face of this truth. It’s a reminder that worldview matters, and that it has life-or-death consequences.

Further reading: