David Shankbone, CC BY 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Last week Richard Dawkins of The God Delusion fame was on RTE’s Brendan O’Connor show to discuss his new book. In the course of the interview the two of them ended up discussing a tweet of Dawkins’s from 2014 in which he told a woman that it would be ‘immoral’ not to abort a fetus diagnosed with Down Syndrome in the early stages of pregnancy and ‘try again’.

O’Connor’s daughter has Down Syndrome, and the two had an interesting exchange. You can listen to it on the RTÉ Player here or on Spotify here. Hehmant Mehta has a transcript of the relevant bit of the conversation over at The Friendly Atheist. Dawkins ended up backing off his use of the term ‘immoral’, but committing to the claim that it would be more “wise and prudent” to abort a fetus diagnosed with virtually any serious disability, on the grounds that having a non-disabled child instead would reduce the amount of suffering in the world.

RD: “Well, I think deafness, blindness. It seems to me, to be … when you have the choice, when it is early in pregnancy and the foetus has started to develop, almost everybody as a matter of fact does abort a child if it has an easily diagnosable disability”.

BOD: “Okay but if we put aside what people do, do you believe if we can check for deafness or blindness or any other disabilities, that we should and I look I’m not again, I’m not criticizing here, you think we should abort those children? Those foetuses, I beg your pardon.”

RD: “Well, it is a choice that the pair have.”

BOC: “But do you think it would be immoral for them not to do it?”

RD: “Let’s leave out the immoral.”

BOC: “But you brought ‘immoral’ into it.”

RD: “Ok, I’ll take that back. I think it would be wise and sensible to abort a child who has serious disabilities early in pregnancy. That is what everybody does in practice.”

O’Connor has won a lot of praise for politely and clearly challenging some of Dawkins’s beliefs about people with Down Syndrome and their lives. Others have pointed out that Dawkins is quite right in his claim that aborting children with disabilities is what “most people do”, and that he might be stating out loud views that lots of people act on the basis of in private. It’s certainly hard to find a language to criticisise the choice to abort because of disability if you’re committed to general pro-choice premises, and it’s notable that O’Connor, who supported repeal, explicitly disavowed any such criticism.

Obviously it is possible to try to change people’s minds about aborting children with Down Syndrome by spreading more accurate information about them and removing some of the unfounded fears about what life with a disability, or caring for a person with a disability, is like. Sally Phillips’s excellent documentary ‘A World Without Down Syndrome’ was one attempt to do this. Phillips is pro-choice and says so in the documentary. But even coming close to suggesting that it might ever be a mistake to abort a child because they have Down Syndrome earned her a massive backlash, including from one of Britain’s leading antenatal specialists:

Jane Fisher, director of Antenatal Results and Choices, an organisation set up to support parents affected by foetal screening and its consequences, said she thought the programme – in which she is interviewed – was “not at all helpful” to people facing difficult decisions around a prenatal diagnosis of disability.

“Sally is a very compelling presenter,” Fisher told the Observer, “and – absolutely – it’s great to have the positive images of people [with Down’s] who are already here. But it’s very personal, and it’s an extra layer of difficulty for couples and families who might be making the decision now about whether to end their pregnancy. It risks offering the suggestion to those who have [decided to end a pregnancy] that they have made the wrong decision.

“It’s too problematic to have one individual representing that choice – one who is an advocate for not screening, who has a high-functioning, much-loved child. A woman who admits she has the resources for extra help with her absolutely lovely little boy.” She added: “No one is casting aspersions on Sally’s son. Or trying to invalidate his right to be here.”

Make of that what you will. It’s worth noting that the excellent work done by disability rights activists has lead to better treatment of born people with Down Syndrome in much of the world over the last few decades (though there is of course a very long way to go). But this hasn’t translated into a noticeable decrease in the extremely high abortion rates for children with Down Syndrome in every country in which the figures are tracked. What the next move is for pro-choice disability rights activists is unclear. Meanwhile Heidi Crowter, a disability rights activist who herself has Down Syndrome, is pursuing a legal challenge to the UK’s abortion law on the grounds that it discriminates against disabled people. Her case will be heard by the High Court in July.

Back in 2014 when Dawkins made the original tweet, our good friend Josh Brahm wrote a really thoughtful blog post at the Equal Rights Institute in which he tried to apply the principles that make for a good conversation to Dawkins’ view (as fleshed out in an article of Dawkins’s that followed and attempted to explain the tweet). Josh later returned to the subject in a podcast. As ever, Josh is a model of how to engage with people you have fundamental disagreements with. This is particularly important when a person like Dawkins is saying in words what huge numbers of people are endorsing with their actions: if the vast majority of people do not in fact think that it’s more “wise and prudent” to abort a fetus with a disability, it is difficult to explain why that is exactly what the vast majority of people do.