An invitation to Richard Dawkins: come meet my daughter

Richard Dawkins Twitter profile pic

Richard Dawkins’ Twitter profile pic

Richard Dawkins, in his words, “let slip the dogs of Twitterwar” yesterday with a tweet about Down syndrome, abortion, and morality. That tweet and his response since, demonstrates he is profoundly ignorant about Down syndrome. So, Prof. Dawkins, you’re invited to meet someone with Down syndrome to cure that ignorance.

Here is the tweet that launched the firestorm:

Understandably, people took umbrage at this statement that it would be immoral to give birth to a child with Down syndrome if the parents knew of the diagnosis prenatally. Dawkins didn’t make things better when he distinguished those with Down syndrome from those with autism:

More outrage rained down on Dawkins, criticizing him for expressing eugenic views, views that Hitler would agree with, and that he was saying people living with Down syndrome should not be born. In a lengthier post on his website, today Dawkins has responded to these critics and distinguished why they do not apply to what he said about aborting a pregnancy with Down syndrome. You can read his response at this link.

What I would like to address, however, is Dawkins’ further explanation that he believes justifies his personal position that it is immoral to knowingly bring a child with Down syndrome into this world and then one response that Dawkins did not reply to in his blogpost.

Dawkins’ justification

Dawkins blamed  Twitter’s 140-character constraints as keeping him from expressing his view on Down syndrome births more fully. Here is what Dawkins said he would have said if given more space:

“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.”

Let’s take his justification for why he believes the “moral and sensible choice” is to have an early abortion rather than deliberately have a child with Down syndrome.

Everyone else is aborting Down syndrome pregnancies.

That a great majority of women do indeed choose to have an abortion following a prenatal diagnosis does not justify Dawkins’ view that it is immoral to continue a pregnancy. The fact that “everyone else is doing it” doesn’t make it right. I believe we all learned that as children from our mothers. Women choose to terminate for any number of reasons, including in some cases not choosing but instead being coerced. It is not enough to say that since a bunch of people are making the same decision, then that decision must be the moral one. History is riddled with abuses against others by a majority, but that did not make those abuses moral (see slavery, denying women equality, discrimination for sexual orientation, and on and on).

Abortion will minimize the suffering of the child with Down syndrome. 

His second justification that having a child with Down syndrome will decrease happiness and increase suffering for the child born with Down syndrome is simply not supported by the evidence. Dawkins is simply ill-informed. Beyond anecdotal evidence, shared by several parents in tweets to Dawkins on the happiness of their children’s lives, a peer-reviewed survey of adults with Down syndrome found that nearly 99% were happy with their lives. You would not find that level of satisfaction among those of us without an extra 21st Chromosome. By Dawkins’ own ethical construct, it would be more justified to abort any child with just 46 chromosomes than one with Down syndrome because, odds are, the child with 46 chromosomes will have a greater chance of being unhappy with their lives than the child with Down syndrome.

Abortion will avoid the mother being condemned to caring for an adult child with Down syndrome.

Here again Dawkins’ position is not supported by the research–but it’s also not supported by medical ethics. The American College of Obstetrician and Gynecologists Ethics Committee cautions obstetricians on making predictions about any child’s life. This is because every life will have unexpected developments. A life with Down syndrome is no different, but the trend for the past decades has been to the extent there have been unexpected developments, they have been for the better: longer life expectancies, greater inclusion in the community, and more fulfilling lives. Further, in a companion study to the one referenced above, parents of children with Down syndrome were surveyed about their experience raising their children. 99% responded that they loved their child and 97% said they were proud of their children. Moreover, these responses were across all parents, regardless of how dependent or independent their adult children may have been on them.

An invitation

Dawkins is simply wrong in his justifications for why he believes deliberately giving birth to a child with Down syndrome is immoral. And, he is wrong, I suspect, because he is ignorant–he simply does not know what a life with Down syndrome can be like today. Indeed, I asked Dawkins:

But, I never saw a response. I suspect that he does not, for if he did he likely wouldn’t have said what he did.

study of physicians and of the public found that if you have a relationship with someone with Down syndrome, you invariably have a more positive view of the condition. By Dawkins incorrect bases for his view that choosing to have a child with Down syndrome is immoral, he is speaking from a position of ignorance. As an academic, such as Dawkins is, this should concern him greatly: drawing conclusions not supported by the evidence and without having done the necessary investigation into the underlying condition being judged.

It’s not enough to simply write a long blog post explaining his tweet. Instead, having judged Down syndrome as something morally compelled to be aborted, Dawkins should at least take a step towards understanding the kind of life he is judging.

Juliet, before her first dance recital

Juliet, before her first dance recital

So, this an invitation Prof. Dawkins: you are welcome to come visit my family and meet my daughter Juliet. I expect should you accept this invitation, many of my fellow parents would enjoy having the chance to meet you and more importantly for you to meet their son or daughter.

This is a standing invitation and I hope to hear from you.

Update: Prof. Dawkins has been extended similar invitations by fellow dads Matthew Hennessey and J.D. Flynn. As a side benefit, should Prof. Dawkins accept these invites, he’ll also get to visit the great states of Nebraska and Connecticut & the Commonwealth of Kentucky.

Update: Another dad, George Estreich, whose book I reviewed at this post, has an excellent column responding to Dawkins and sharing some interesting history about John Langdon Down.


  1. Let's go have some pancakes. says:

    You know he has a daughter named Juliet 😉

  2. If he does not connect with the Adams community I think he should be fired. It’s moral turpitude as a professor to not get basic facts accurate. A cursory look at DS material would revise his statements profoundly. His employer and students should picket him until he attends a local DS group.

    Hmmmmm how about us going to him. Flash mob.

  3. That’s DS community not a name silly autocorrect.

  4. I am surprised at how out-of-date his information is. And on the essential point – the utilitarian case for aborting fetuses with DS – just plain incorrect, as you point out. His views carry a lot of weight with a considerable number of people. I hope he will take the trouble to get better informed.

    • It does seem from his longer post that his views are based on an (incorrect) utilitarian calculation, rather than eugenics. If anyone could point out his error, he ought to change his mind. At least if he is as rational as he claims. (Replying to myself here. Bit like talking to yourself. Bad sign!)

  5. We can’t have facts get in the way of bigotry. That would be moral.

  6. Julie Dinkins-Borkowski says:

    I would also like to know for Dawkins sake, did the abortion of the person with down syndrome truly alleviate suffering in the lives of the mom and the family? Was there a measurable relief from the suffering that we can say that did the trick?

    • Julie–I know of studies with competing findings: one finds that a significant percentage of couples who have a selective abortion experience post traumatic stress and another finds that a majority of women are not impacted by their decision either way, i.e. either to continue their pregnancy or terminate it.

  7. mark mcnoe says:

    He has made a comment and is now trying to justify it. As a prof he should have known better.


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