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 They do not need pseudo-morality and outdated stereotypes.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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.