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 They do not need pseudo-morality and outdated stereotypes.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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle