No, That's Eugenics

In case you missed it yesterday, Dawkins had his say on Twitter about the morality of aborting fetuses with Down syndrome. More accurately, he stated that it was immoral not to abort those fetuses.

Today, predictably, comes the apology, though as usual, it’s mostly a defense. I appreciate Dawkins’ concern that something he tweeted to one person is being shared widely. I’ve certainly had that happen to me, though if the response to my situation is anything to go by, he won’t find much sympathy among online atheists for that.

Still, Dawkins is who he is, and who he is requires that comments like this be addressed when they become widely known. In his writing, he’s positioned himself as someone who should be listened to on questions of philosophy (most usually theology), and the best-known philosophers in the atheist movement have largely allowed this to stand. He has an immense audience that trusts him to be authoritative on these matters. If he isn’t, enough noise has to be made for people to notice.

The central issue around Dawkins’ position is and should be whether Dawkins is correct about the morality/ethics of giving birth to a child with Down syndrome. This, in turn, requires that he be knowledgeable about the syndrome and accurate in his assumptions about what happens when one fetus is aborted and another conceived. Other people are addressing those concerns well; Alex, bioethicist Iain Brassington, and the Down’s Syndrome Association all challenge his premises. These challenges remains valid even for those premises as restated in the long form.

I don’t want to go there. I have and have had too many kids in my life with significant disabilities, some of them far worse than what is generally expected from Down syndrome. I will not engage in mental math full of arbitrary numbers to calculate the net worth of their lives.

However, as a person whose public response to Dawkins’ tweet yesterday was, “Yay, eugenics”, I do want to address one thing Dawkins said in his defense of his statement. He categorized me in his fourth group of “haters”:

Those who thought I was advocating a eugenic policy and who therefore compared me to Hitler. That never entered my head, nor should it have. Down Syndrome has almost zero heritability. That means that, although it is a congenital condition – a chromosomal abnormality that babies are born with – there is very little tendency for susceptibility to trisomy to be inherited genetically. If you were eugenically inclined, you’d be wasting your time screening for Down syndrome. You’d screen for genuinely heritable conditions where your screening would make a difference to future generations.

While I have no doubt some people compared him to Hitler, as this all happened on the internet, Dawkins hardly needs to reach for a genocidal dictator here. It’s ironic that he did so, given that he’s argued in the past that the two shouldn’t be conflated. By suggesting he is in favor of a policy that constitutes eugenics, one is at least as much comparing him to Francis Galton and Margaret Sanger. More so, given that the policy Dawkins proposed is informal rather than state mandated.

From there, Dawkins goes on to be entirely misleading about what eugenics is and was. He does this by confusing the means that suggested eugenics (selective breeding of humans) with its ends (shaping humanity and society by controlling who is born.

Detail of a sign from an American Eugenics Society display. Via NPR.
Detail of a sign from an American Eugenics Society display. Via NPR.

Excerpted text of sign:

Some people are born to be a burden on the rest. Every 15 seconds $100 of your money goes for the care of person with bad heredity such as the insane, feeble-minded, criminals and other defectives. Less of these: Every 48 seconds a person is born in the United States who will never grow up mentally beyond that stage of a normal 8 year old boy or girl. Every 50 seconds a person is committed to jail in the United States. Very few normal persons ever go to jail.

The eugenics movement was not simply a utopian movement urging humanity toward an idyllic future based on a perfected genome. It was also, in its growth and promotion, about weighing the costs to society of each birth in the here and now, much like Dawkins did yesterday.

It doesn’t get much more explicit than that. The ethics of aborting a fetus with Down syndrome is less complicated because people with Down syndrome do not contribute. “To society” is implicit, particularly as Dawkins explicitly notes today that children with Down syndrome do contribute to their parents’ emotional lives.

However, even if we take Dawkins at his word today that his concern is for the “child’s own welfare”, that still doesn’t make his pronouncement about the morality of the choice anything other than eugenics. G. K. Chesterton, in his book Eugenics and Other Evils, explicitly (albeit ornately) identifies that framing within the eugenics movement of the 20th century.

Now the Eugenic moral basis is this; that the baby for whom we are primarily and directly responsible is the babe unborn. That is, that we know (or may come to know) enough of certain inevitable tendencies in biology to consider the fruit of some contemplated union in that direct and clear light of conscience which we can now only fix on the other partner in that union. The one duty can conceivably be as definite as or more definite than the other. The baby that does not exist can be considered even before the wife who does.

And Down syndrome, however heritable, has long been a target of the eugenics movement. In fact, well past the point where eugenics fell out of fashion in the mainstream due to its association with Hitler’s genocidal practices, people with Down syndrome were continuing to be forcibly sterilized. They were refused operations that would prolong their lifespans. Some of them were refused basic care, like feeding.

We continue to identify advocacy intended to keep people with Down syndrome from being born as eugenics today, whether we are talking about a politician who advocates for compulsory abortion or medical professionals who urge patients toward abortion, directly or by providing misleading information. Stating that the moral decision when faced with a fetus with Down syndrome is abortion is another form of advocacy. It is eugenics.

The decision of an individual or a couple to terminate a pregnancy when they discover Down syndrome or another genetic or developmental condition is not eugenics. It is a personal decision, based on people’s assessments of their individual circumstances. It is not a one-size fits all prescription for the rest of the world.

Dawkins’ tweets yesterday were. Even his statement this morning made the claim that allowing a child with Down syndrome to be born increases the amount of suffering in the world (with the implication that a different pregnancy without Down syndrome would not) framed the matter in such a way that abortion was the only moral choice.

That framing, in addition to relying on facts not in evidence, is coercive. The lip service paid to choice doesn’t matter when only one choice is presented as right. That isn’t some dispassionate investigation of logic, even if any such investigation were in evidence. It is advocacy for the abortion of fetuses with Down syndrome.

Such advocacy is eugenics. If Dawkins is going to do this advocacy, he should adopt the name, just as he did when he presented eugenics as a positive choice instead of a negative one.

No, That's Eugenics

17 thoughts on “No, That's Eugenics

  1. 1

    AH I know the tweeter that started all this.

    Anyway, that moment of weirdness aside… the tweets come off as heavily prescriptive of what other people *should* do, which is skuzzy in the extreme. Dawkins likes to play the ass for attention, or possibly just *is* that anti-social.

    That said, I think according to your definitions, I am firmly in favor of eugenics.

    Quite honestly, I think if we didn’t have cultural hangups about abortion, then in a typical situation (typical happiness and “sense of meaning” derived from parenting, typical resource constraints, typical options for “trying again”), we would view a decision to *not* terminate a DS pregnancy as morally equivalent to choosing to *intentionally select* a child with DS over another child (or perhaps two or more other children, as a child with DS may tap out a particular family’s resources faster; again, assuming typical constraints). As amazing and wonderful as people with DS can be, and as kind and rewarded and generous as their families might be, I think that if pregnancy worked by a vending machine with a red button “random” and a blue button “known DS”, and you had to push one button, there would be fewer children with DS.
    I am not in favor of telling people which button they should press. But saying it is a “personal decision” doesn’t *remove* the moral culpability all prospective parents face.
    I am in favor of telling people that choosing not to have an abortion is the moral equivalent of pushing the blue button. I accept it won’t *feel* the same as pushing a button. But it’s also true that pushing 1 person in front of a train to save 5 others doesn’t feel like rescuing 4 from a burning building.
    I want to make it extremely clear- I value the dignity of people that are here, both those with DS and those who are prospective parents. But decisions to bring children into the world are moral questions, which “personal decision” doesn’t quite cover (I think of a “personal decision” as whether you prefer the strong Charmin to the soft Charmin). They aren’t moral questions with clearcut right answers, but there are real factors of suffering and utility and happiness to try to take into account when you make those decisions.

  2. 2

    One of the big problems with this discussion has been been Dawkins’ abstraction (repeated by others) that by aborting a fetus with Down syndrome, one can simply substitute a healthy child. There’s nothing to support that as a general assumption.

    Additionally, all decisions to bring children into this world are decisions about imposing costs on society and on those children. We have two options, generally speaking. We can dictate those decisions for people facing them, either directly or through coercion, or we can provide access to the best information we have and trust prospective parents to make the best decisions they can. If you’re “for eugenics”, you’re for making those decisions for other people.

    Knowing you a bit, I don’t think you really are, though I’m sure you have strong emotions (and good reasons) behind how you would make those decisions for yourself.

  3. 3

    If you’re “for eugenics”, you’re for making those decisions for other people.

    Disagree. If you’re “for the eugentics movement of the 1920s” then OK, yes, you’re for making those decisions for other people. Instead, you could be for providing people with accurate information about disorders, and be for providing people with the option of safe and legal means of reproductive control, and be for encouraging people to think about the social cost and benefit of each particular pregnancy. I’d say that’s still being “for eugenics”, but not being for dictating behavior to other people. You can consider knowingly bringing a DS fetus to term an immoral choice, but also consider mandating abortion or misleading a person into getting an abortion to be a far more immoral choice–one as bad as prohibiting abortion or lying to a person to prevent them from getting an abortion.

  4. 5

    If you’re considering the probable benefit/burden to society, it’s a eugenics decision. If you’re considering the probable benefit/burden to yourself, it’s not. And any specific decision may of course be an amalgam of both.

  5. TM

    I think there are two choices when it comes to this topic:

    1. Give pregnant individuals abundant, factual information and access to adequate medical care, and then respect the choices that pregnant people make about their bodies and their pregnancies. Let people figure out for themselves the ethics or practicality of pregnancy-related decisions, assuming that they know best how any relevant ethical principles apply to their own situation.

    2. Try to convince pregnant people toward or away from abortion based on our own opinions about the characteristics of the fetus and the morality of aborting vs. not aborting.

    Choice 2 is eugenics and choice 1 is just basic respect.

    Basically, it does no one any good to use moral condemnation to stigmatise people’s choices about their own bodies. This is true even if these choices will affect a baby at some point in the future, or even if they will affect society. This isn’t a new idea – it’s what most feminist skeptics have been saying to religious folks about the anti-abortion/pro-choice conflict.

  6. 7

    @ #1 sciliz – the morality of choosing a DS pregnancy.

    “But saying it is a “personal decision” doesn’t *remove* the moral culpability all prospective parents face.
    I am in favor of telling people that choosing not to have an abortion is the moral equivalent of pushing the blue button.”

    I can’t tell if you are a parent or not – parenthood would make my comments something you’ve already firmly known and considered….so bear that in mind, I guess!

    Parents already address the question about the morality of having kids when they decide to try for a family. They probably address that question a lot more vigorously if the pregnancy is unplanned, especially if they don’t feel prepared for parenthood. If they already have decided that it’s morally sound to have a child, than the issue becomes ‘is it a healthy and sustainable pregnancy’. You get this discussion for sure with a medical professional if you are at least 35 at onset of pregnancy. Before they ran the genetic tests, I was asked if we’d considered termination in case of an abnormal pregnancy – anything from DS to the terrible chromosome disorders with organs outside the body. The moral question boils down, at this point, to whether the embryo can develop into a child with a healthy shot at life. That includes having parents who aren’t paralyzed by depression at the prospect of raising a highly special needs kid. Some DS kids do have terrible health burdens, and you get informed of all the likely combo’s that can affect them. Parents, in general, have a pretty good amount of information provided on risky pregnancies. They can judge whether they are capable of giving a special-needs kid a stable and healthy upbringing.

    The ‘burden on society’ does happen – parents get overwhelmed, or other family problems take place and a child may get put into foster homes. Or, something happens to the parents and the child needs to be in a county or state run facility. Down’s kids aren’t filling up orphanages though, so that tells me that the cost to society isn’t that stastically significant – I haven’t actually checked numbers. As adults, they can live in group homes if they have become high-functioning – and so do many other developmentally disordered people who are not DS. Many can live on their own with a case worker’s supervision.

    The ‘abort and try again’ rather than have a DS pregnancy (possibly precluding another possibly 2 or 3 kids) is kind of ridiculous – first of all, the age of the parents may preclude any further pregnancies – age is, after all, one of the prime risk factors for Down’s! You are actually increasing your risk of a Down’s pregnancy by having to wait an additional 3 months for trying for a healthier pregnancy. Down’s Syndrome may be familial (I know I was asked if we had a family history of Down’s) even if you are pregnant at a young age, the genetic risk is still there, so your odds aren’t magically better. Saying it’s immoral to continue with a DS pregnancy instead of trying for healthy ones discounts a hell of a lot of risk to the mother, and insults a hell of a lot of people who can’t fathom their family is ‘immoral’. This whole line of thought sounds….grotesque to me, ‘Does your family have a history of addictive behavior?’ You could probably wipe out a quarter of the US population if you determine families with addictive histories are a burden to society!

    So, I guess thinking it’s immoral to bring a DS child into the world, in my view, has more to do with ‘do the parents feel capable of raising a special needs kid.’ If they don’t feel capable, and still have the baby, then yes, that act could be viewed by some as immoral. Even if they are doing what they felt is right. But allowing parents the choice to raise the child they created is more morally sound to me than depriving them of that right, via eugenics policy.

  7. 8

    Wild, I was just writing on eugenics not too long ago. Locally, we have a rather sordid history on the topic. Here’s the key part of the original Sexual Sterilization Act of 1928:

    6. Such operation shall not be performed unless the inmate, if in the opinion of the board, he is capable of giving consent, has consented thereto, or where the board is of opinion that the inmate is not capable of giving such consent, the husband or wife of the inmate or the parent or guardian of the inmate if he is unmarried has consented thereto, or where the inmate has no husband, wife, parent, or guardian resident in the Province, the Minister has consented thereto.

    Theoretically, that isn’t eugenics; patient consent is explicitly required, which in modern terms would mean clear communication about what would be done and why. In practice, the state merely proposing that you should get sterilized is coercive, to some degree, and this is just begging to be abused by an authoritarian with power. Which is precisely what happened, thanks in part to an amendment in 1937 that changed that key paragraph:

    6. If, upon examination of any mentally defective person, the Board is unanimously of the opinion that the exercise of the power of procreation would result in the transmission to such person’s progeny of any mental disability or deficiency, or that the exercise of the power of procreation by any such mentally defective person involves the risk of mental injury either to such person or to his progeny, the Board may direct, in writing, such surgical operation for the sexual sterilization of such mentally defective person as may be specified in the written direction and shall appoint some competent surgeon to perform the operation.

    There goes the consent requirement. Dare I mention this law was only struck down in 1972?

  8. 9

    shari- yes I am a parent, and my thinking about this is extremely heavily influenced by that experience. And I am not so convinced as you that parents, in general, have the information they need to determine if they can give their children (neurotypical or otherwise, special needs or more average needs) a healthy and stable upbringing. I may have personal hangups about how unstable the world is right now though.

    Yes, there are germline predispositions to DS (indeed, women with DS apparently have a 50% of having children with the syndrome, while men with DS have an extremely low fertility rate to start with)… for what it’s worth, I think it’s unethical that assisted reproductive technology access is not equitably distributed and that not everyone would have the option to minimize their genetic risks if desired. That, in itself, is sometimes considered a pro-eugenic stance.

    As it happens, most children with DS are born to mothers 35 years old and younger, simply because younger people have more children. So the “abort and try again” is applicable to the average case, albeit obviously not to all cases. And we don’t have orphanages much nowadays (at least in the US), but we do have public funding that goes toward health care and education, and there are societal costs to taking good care of people- I would argue it’s more ethical to talk to pregnant women about the societal benefits of a termination than to have to tell people with DS in their 30s and 40s (who may be experiencing early-onset Alzheimer’s like syndromes) that there is no money to help them. No person is entirely a burden, and each person benefits extensively from our societal support, so it’s not reasonable to try to take a cost calculation literally for a particular actual person… but it is reasonable to point out there are economic costs associated with DS. Biomedical researchers work with economists all the time to justify researching cures using these kinds of calculations, so they are at least good for that.

  9. 10

    … Francis Galton and Margaret Sanger.

    Here, maybe, I might get an answer to a long-standing personal question. Lots of people bad-mouth Sanger as a racist/eugenicist; a few of them from the pro-choice side. Every time I’ve asked for substantiation, I get quotes taken out of context or outright fabricated.

    Admittedly, MS did publish in eugenicist journals and speak at eugenicist events – but typically as a dissenting voice, calling for voluntary individual birth control rather than state-mandated sterilization by social category. And when she spoke out for “a race of thoroughbreds” or suchlike, nothing I’ve seen so far indicates she meant other than the human race.

    Considering that she worked closely with activists such as Mary McLeod Bethune and W.E.B. DuBois, not to mention leading contraception advocates in places like India and Japan, it seems her non-white contemporaries did not consider her a net force for racism. Yet many modern progressives often lump her in with the likes of the Cold Spring Harbor gang.

    What have I missed?

  10. 12

    Anybody who doesn’t know how “try again” feels needs to shut the fuck up.

    That, a thousand times that. Dawkins is smart enough to understand that a guy should probably check privilege 20 times and ask their feminist friends then delete their tweet before they tweet something about what women should and shouldn’t do with their bodies.

  11. CC

    Some of these comments really upset me.

    I’m autistic. The only reason anyone would argue that I have no “value” is because very often, society doesn’t even give the disabled any chance to contribute. I could give you a thousand names of autistics who are non-verbal or minimally verbal who are denied AAC evaluations, who are denied any opportunity to try and communicate in any way other than speaking. And then society goes on about how the disabled are burdens. I say it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Talk to someone with ASD or with DS or another developmental disability and hear about the crap we go through.

    By the way, I’m a licensed attorney, with a doctoral degree, but I say that as proof of what autistics can do when given access to the right tools. NOT because I think I have to “prove my worth.” If you think I do, you may kiss the fattest part of my ass.

  12. 15

    more opportunities for – and more education about – those with developmental disabilities is clearly needed. The more people can focus on what people ‘can do’ – the more they can contribute on their own behalf.

    I know parents who are raising or have raised kids with developmental issues -autism and DS.

    The DS boy – Will – was a concern in school because he wasn’t learning division pretty well. His mother told the school his math grades were not the biggest issue – being able to live as independently as possible, learning to memorize necessary tasks, and being good at social interaction were his primary needs. He isn’t expected to outlive her – he was only supposed to make it to about age 10. He’s 34 now and is happy and well adjusted, living with his mom. His younger brother – Des – has two kids by two different mom’s and police record – he is only now at age 32 straightening himself out. Their father left their mother because he couldn’t handle a child with such special needs. Des decided his mom was too strict and he would have more fun living with his dad.

    Which child is the bigger burden?

    You can’t judge a life with actuarial tables. You can’t say that Des’ kids won’t be judges, artists, or doctors. You can’t tell me all the joy Will gives his mother is wasted time she would have improved on with a different child. Does Des’ jail time make him a bigger burden, and what he stole, cost more than his brother’s eventual care needs in a group home? Is it immoral for Will to use public funding resources that could go to….someone else?

    I am not reconciled with the morality of telling a woman to abort and try again. I have thought about sciliz’ very thought out response. But the one anecdote I raised above is not unique. Surely, anyone would have thought that Will would be at the recieving end of a troubled life. But….he’s not. And his mother was low income before her husband left, and she’s low income now. I’d never criticize a woman for aborting a pregnancy, but telling her it’s immoral Not to still sounds to me like judging a disabled human as undeserving of life.

  13. 17

    If you’re considering the probable benefit/burden to society, it’s a eugenics decision. If you’re considering the probable benefit/burden to yourself, it’s not.

    Or more to the point, the probable benefits/burdens to the child him/herself.

    That’s what I thought Dawkins was initially getting at, although it appears I was wrong. Thinking it immoral to bring a child into the world when he/she will experience lifelong extreme hardships is not eugenics.

    The response to that generally seems to be of the form of “But why would you deny this child the opportunity to live?” In which case, the discussion is really about the morality of abortion itself, and not Downs or any other disability. Thinking of abortion in those terms is manifestly not pro-choice. Only people (and arguably some non-human animals) have opportunities in the morally significant sense. A fetus is not a person. Having an abortion is not denying anything to anyone.

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