It’s official: Down syndrome is not suffering

From George Takei's Facebook Page, 10/6/13

From George Takei’s Facebook Page, 10/6/13

Richard Dawkins’ tweet on it being immoral not to abort a pregnancy positive for Down syndrome generated many responses. A point of consensus emerged: a life with Down syndrome does not increase suffering. If anything, it increases happiness. 

If you missed it, Dawkins tweeted the following:

Responses rained down on Dawkins in his Twitter feed, compelling him to author a fuller explanation on his website. He explained,

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.

Meeting Dawkins on his own terms, though, the consensus of the responses is that Dawkins is wrong: that Down syndrome does not increase suffering, but instead increases the sum of happiness.

Scholars weigh in

In the New York Times, scientists took Dawkins to task for his assessment that Down syndrome increases suffering. In a piece titled, “The Truth About Down Syndrome,” James Edgin & Fabian Fernandez write:

But Mr. Dawkins’s argument is flawed. Not because his moral reasoning is wrong, necessarily (that is a question for another day), but because his understanding of the facts is mistaken. Recent research indicates that individuals with Down syndrome can experience more happiness and potential for success than Mr. Dawkins seems to appreciate.

Writing at the Daily Beast, Elizabeth Picciuto interviewed several ethicists and academics, and came away with this conclusion critiquing Dawkins’ position:

No empirical data support his claim that the birth of a baby with Down syndrome makes the world—or the baby—unhappier. In fact, all the evidence points to the contrary. “All he would have had to do was a quick search online,” observes Kohen. “The numbers don’t bear out what he says at all.” Indeed, as Kohen points out in a blog post, the numbers suggest the opposite. The vast majority of parents and siblings of people with Down syndrome believe their lives are better for it. The vast majority of people with Down syndrome also say they are happy with their lives.

Parents weigh in

Picciuto further notes that Dawkins seemed to ignore the response of parents of children with Down syndrome as being overly-sentimental and that their familial bond clouds their judgment. Picciuto rightly notes that for Dawkins’ expressed viewpoint, who better to comment on whether Down syndrome increases suffering or increases happiness than those who spend the most time with individuals with Down syndrome? Picciuto calls these parental viewpoints, “crucial data points.” Indeed they are. 

This mom (coincidentally in my hometown) writes eloquently of the experience of choosing to have her newborn son:

My son is about to turn 1. He wakes up every morning in a happy fit of babbling. When I pick him up he gets the biggest smile on his face. He loves music and sings along in the car. He enjoys exploring new things and marvels at his reflection in the mirror. When his dad walks in the door he gets the biggest smile on his face, because he knows daddy is coming to play. He is both patient and persistent which gives him a wonderful disposition for learning. He has been a little upset this week because he is teething, so in that sense, he is suffering a little. I think overall though, he is a pretty happy kid. My husband and I are thrilled to be his parents. He has brought so much joy to our home. I hear similar reports throughout the DS community.

Another mom let’s the phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words” serve as a challenge of whether the images of her son portray increased suffering or happiness.

And, this family, after also asking whether the images of their daughter displays suffering or happiness, concludes thusly:

You know a lot about being a professor and a writer, but you know NOTHING about Down syndrome.

There were so many parent responses on Twitter, that the aggregator site Twitchy collected many of them under the headline, “Dawkins gets owned by parents of kids who have Down syndrome.”

Invitation still stands

So, it is settled in the responses to Dawkins’ ignorant tweet: Down syndrome does not increase suffering–if anything it increases happiness. Dawkins clearly is ignorant of this fact, which is why I, and several other parents, have invited him to get to know someone with Down syndrome. While Dawkins has written a general response, he has yet to take up anyone on their invitation.

Too bad. One would think a scientist would choose to discover information, rather than remain in ignorance.


  1. If parents of children with Down syndrome believe their children are happy and do not suffer, then they should be refusing social security disability payments. As these payments are meant to reduce the financial impacts of the suffering caused by disability and since those with Down syndrome do not suffer, then they don’t need these payments anymore.

    • Meeting the criteria for disability for purposes of Social Security does not require showing suffering. Again, though, what do you know aside from visiting and observing a single individual with Down syndrome.

      • Some can only think in $. It is very hard to put a price tag on the joy and hapiness that people with Down bring to the world but perhaps we should think about doing just that. A dollar for a smile, two for a well-meant ‘Hi’ and five for a hug. It would mean they don’t need social security anymore.

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