Richard Dawkins’ tweets have caused controversy yet again. Photo: Getty
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Why Richard Dawkins’ “abort it and try again” comments about Down’s syndrome babies are so harmful

Parents receiving a pre-natal diagnosis of Down’s syndrome are faced with an awful dilemma and need our care and support. They do not need pseudo-morality and outdated stereotypes.

Another day, another hurtful Professor Dawkins tweet with the tact of an online troll.

In response to a lady asking about aborting a foetus if it was screened to have Down’s, he replied:

“Suffering should be avoided. Cause no suffering. Reduce suffering wherever you can”, which does has a superficial appeal until you realise that the logical extension is – have no kids; breed no more.

Another tweet, sparking so much anger and anguish among parents of those with Down’s said, “Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have a choice.”

Immoral? Why? With so many people with Down’s syndrome living joy-filled lives, denying them life would surely not be saving them from suffering, it would be denying them what each of us seeks.

Yet this story is not about abortion, or at least it doesn’t have to be. It’s about “difference” and our artificially constructed perception of what is “perfect”.

If you are born with Down’s syndrome, you are considered by many to be “different” or “imperfect”. Yet these supposedly “less than perfect” people are just like the rest of us: they work (yes, they do), they play, they make friends, they cry, they get depressed, they laugh and they joke.

They may look different, they may learn at a slower pace and they may live slightly shorter lives, so what?

If I was to compare myself to Usain Bolt, does the fact that I could never run 100m in 10 seconds make me somehow “imperfect”?

Down’s syndrome does not follow a single pattern. Although some face very difficult and challenging times, many others lead lives filled with joy and laughter. Most children with Down’s go to mainstream schools, are capable of work in some form and are some of the happiest, most life-enhancing people I know.

If you don’t believe me, then a little net surfing should convince you. The first stop is Albuquerque, New Mexico and the restaurant owned by Tim Harris, who just happens to have Down’s syndrome but serves breakfast and lunch with hugs. This video is a must-watch if you want to see how much joy those with Down’s experience and how much they bring to others.

The second is an article in our local paper featuring one of the students from the charity I work for, Action For Kids. Hisba Brimah is a young woman with Down’s syndrome. She works hard, has always wanted to achieve and has done so with a smile on her face.

What she told the local paper says it all, “My job and the people I work with make me happy and joyful.” And since then she has started a paid job – real work for real money. Is that any “different” from you and me?

I don’t know where Dawkins gets his views of disability but it feels like he has watched the film Rain Man too many times.

Then, in one of his more bizarre intellectual contortions, Dawkins asserted a non-existent “difference” between people on the autistic spectrum and those with Down’s syndrome.

For a man so fond of reason, it is rather dubious to suggest that, “People on the spectrum have a great deal to contribute, maybe even an enhanced ability in some respects. [People with Down’s Syndrome are] … not enhanced”.

I would be the first to argue that most people on the autistic spectrum have a great deal to offer – far more than society will allow them to give. Yet, for some, autism cannot, in any way, be described as “enhancing”.

Their families go through hell just to provide them with a loving, caring home through a lifetime filled with aggression and intense frustration at not being able to engage with the world.

Contrast that with the fulfilled lives lived by so many people with Down’s syndrome.

Through all of this, I am left wondering whatever happened to the old, iconoclastic Dawkins who made a virtue of standing up for the unpopular, the unfashionable? Now he justifies himself by tweeting “Apparently I’m a horrid monster for recommending what actually happens to the great majority of Down syndrome foetuses. They are aborted.”

The same argument was used 225 years ago to justify slavery. It would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic.

The Dawkins’ thesis appears to be based on the assumption that having Down’s syndrome is always so unutterably awful that it merits a future person being automatically deleted from the future of the human race. Yet that just does not reflect the facts.

Parents receiving a pre-natal diagnosis of Down’s syndrome are faced with an awful dilemma and need our care and support. They do not need bullying with pseudo-morality, pseudo-philosophy and outdated stereotypes.

Lots of parents take the decision to keep their baby and live to reap the rewards. Have another look at Tim’s video and tell me if Dawkins is right.

Update: 22 August, 6pm

Richard Dawkins has published a fuller version of his remarks on his website, in which he explains his position at greater length, and says he regrets “using abbreviated phraseology which caused so much upset”.

Graham Duncan is chief executive of Action For Kids, a national charity working with young people with disabilities. He has spent much of the last 15 years working for and with charities in the disability and health sectors. He is on Twitter @GrahamatAFK.

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.