An Apology by Richard Dawkins

Those intrepid enough to venture onto my Twitter feed will have noticed a new feeding frenzy yesterday (20thAugust 2014), for which I apologise. The issue is the morality of abortion following screening for Down syndrome.

Down Syndrome, or Trisomy 21, results from the presence of an extra copy (or partial copy) of Chromosome 21. Symptoms vary but usually include characteristic facial features especially eye shape, abnormal growth patterns, and moderate mental disability. Life expectancy is reduced, and those who survive through adulthood often need special care as though they are children. Parents who care for their children with Down Syndrome usually form strong bonds of affection with them, as they would with any child. These feelings are sincere and mutual, and probably account for some of the hate tweets I have been experiencing (see below).

Screening for the chromosomal abnormality is normally offered, especially to older mothers who are more likely to have a child with the condition. When Down Syndrome is detected, most couples opt for abortion and most doctors recommend it.\

Yesterday a woman on Twitter, one of our respected regulars on RichardDawkins.net, said she would be unsure what to do if she found a fetus she was carrying had Down Syndrome. I replied to her, beginning my reply with @ which – or so I thought (I’m told Twitter’s policy on this might recently have changed) – meant it would not go to all my million followers but only to the minority of people who follow both her and me. That was my intention. However, it doesn’t stop people who go out of their way to find such tweets, even if they don’t automatically pop up on their Twitter feeds. Many did so, and the whole affair blew up into the feeding frenzy I mentioned.

Here is what I would have said in my reply to this woman, given more than 140 characters:

“Obviously the choice would be yours. For what it’s worth, my own choice would be to abort the Down fetus and, assuming you want a baby at all, try again. Given a free choice of having an early abortion or deliberately bringing a Down child into the world, I think the moral and sensible choice would be to abort. And, indeed, that is what the great majority of women, in America and especially in Europe, actually do.  I personally would go further and say that, if your morality is based, as mine is, on a desire to increase the sum of happiness and reduce suffering, the decision to deliberately give birth to a Down baby, when you have the choice to abort it early in the pregnancy, might actually be immoral from the point of view of the child’s own welfare. I agree that that personal opinion is contentious and needs to be argued further, possibly to be withdrawn. In any case, you would probably be condemning yourself as a mother (or yourselves as a couple) to a lifetime of caring for an adult with the needs of a child. Your child would probably have a short life expectancy but, if she did outlive you, you would have the worry of who would care for her after you are gone. No wonder most people choose abortion when offered the choice. Having said that, the choice would be entirely yours and I would never dream of trying to impose my views on you or anyone else.”

That’s what I would have said, if a woman were to ask my advice. As you might notice, it takes a lot more than 140 characters! I condensed it down to a tweet, and the result was understandably seen in some quarters as rather heartless and callous: “Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice.” Of course I regret using abbreviated phraseology which caused so much upset. I never wanted to “cry havoc”!

[…]

To conclude, what I was saying simply follows logically from the ordinary pro-choice stance that most us, I presume, espouse. My phraseology may have been tactlessly vulnerable to misunderstanding, but I can’t help feeling that at least half the problem lies in a wanton eagerness to misunderstand.

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