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 They do not need pseudo-morality and outdated stereotypes.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.

Photo: Getty Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.