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 They do not need pseudo-morality and outdated stereotypes.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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Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA