Against Using the “Happy” Down Syndrome Stereotype (No Matter What the Dawks Say)

Note: According to my research, “Down syndrome” is preferable to “Down’s Syndrome”. Also, all credit goes to my friend and her friend who is my new friend who came up with the Ylvis/Dawkins joke yesterday.

There has been a lot of conversation around a certain prominent atheist announcing, in a poor and nuance-lacking imitation of Peter Singer, that he believes it immoral to not abort a fetus with Down Syndrome. Although many of the non- and anti-religious types who differed with him on the matter are pro-choice, we took issue with the notion that not aborting was somehow morally inferior to aborting.

Dawkins responded in his usual fashion by claiming it was the fault of the medium rather than his message, yet somehow, also as per usual, making the situation worse by adding in more words. It is eugenics no matter how much he denies it, and why deny it when he’s already come out in favor of eugenics, anyway? Eugenic practices hardly have to be associated with Hitler to be considered bad when it was we Americans who inspired the Nazis to use societal notions of inferiority and superiority to coerce people into reproducing or not reproducing.

What would a “What the Dawks Say?” incident be without a little splash damage?

Some of those defending the choice to not terminate pregnancy where the fetus is diagnosed with Down syndrome engaged in the promotion of a  stereotype. More specifically, I saw a lot of people gush on and on about how cheerful, loving, happy, friendly, and caring people with Down syndrome are as an argument for their right to exist. While well-meant, I’m sure, the argument is more than a little disturbing.

Take the case of a young man with mosaic Down syndrome. Mosaic Down syndrome often means a later-in-childhood diagnosis and, sometimes, the possibility of “passing” as someone without the condition. His mother, capitalizing on the possibility, raised him with the illusion that he had just as much in the way of potential as his peers. He hit certain developmental walls, more and more over time, which frustrated him; his frustration led him to lash out against those around him. Around the time he graduated high school, it became abundantly clear to him that he would not be able to do many of the adult things those his age were starting to do. As he made his way into his twenties, he grew more unhappy. Today, whether it’s during or outside of one of his many depressive episodes, he is hostile and sometimes downright cruel towards people, especially those who care for and about him.

Does he have any less of a right to exist as those with Down syndrome who fit into the rosy stereotype? I’d say not, even though I can say with some authority that it is hardly easy to manage a filial relationship with someone like that. We don’t predicate those without disabilities’ right to exist on their cheerful demeanor or the ease with which we deal with them. It is, frankly, terrifyingly ableist to do so with those with disabilities.

“Positive” stereotypes are anything but. Those who more or less fit into them are pigeonholed, those who fit some but not all of the characteristics are identity-policed, and those who don’t fit them at all are thrown under the bus. Avoiding such splash damage is as simple as remembering that people with disabilities should not have to achieve heights of perceived “goodness” in order to be allowed to exist, heights that would never be asked of those without disabilities.

What it comes down to is reproductive rights. Pregnant people should have the right to choose whether or not to terminate their pregnancy for any reason at all, period. It would certainly be nice if they could make that choice without people who cannot get pregnant engaging in “thought experiments” about it on Twitter, but alas.

Against Using the “Happy” Down Syndrome Stereotype (No Matter What the Dawks Say)

20 thoughts on “Against Using the “Happy” Down Syndrome Stereotype (No Matter What the Dawks Say)

  1. 1

    “Pregnant people should have the right to choose whether or not to terminate their pregnancy for any reason at all, period. It would certainly be nice if they could make that choice without people who cannot get pregnant engaging in “thought experiments” about it on Twitter, but alas.”

    well said. exactly what I was thinking as well.

    1. 2.1

      Not at all. Anyone engaging in “thought experiments” about people’s lives, rights, and bodily autonomy and scolding us for caring about them when they affect us personally is doing something very vile.

      1. I apologize if I’m being obtuse, but these two sentences appear to me to conflict.

        By “not at all” you seem to be saying that whether or not a person can get pregnant does not alter how objectionable a statement from them about abortion might be. But your second sentence appears to say that it is vile to to engage in thought experiments if the topic doesn’t affect you personally.

        So I’m really not sure what your answer is to my previous post.

        Oops. Now seeing your next reply, I’m completely confused. Is the real issue that Dawkins can be obnoxious and smug, rather than his inability to get pregnant? Elsewhere I have criticized Dawkins for discussing the issue on Twitter; it is not the right place, in my opinion, to even raise this issue. If I were to make any negative inference about Dawkins from this, it’s that he seems to believe that the world so wants to know his opinion on things and/or that his opinion on anything is so valuable, that he should give his opinion in completely inappropriate places.

        1. Erm, it was a throwaway bit of snark at the end of the post. Here’s all I meant by it:

          • Pregnant people shouldn’t have to deal with people turning their real-life situation as a “thought experiment”. It’s unnecessary and trivializing.
          • Such “thought experiments” are extra egregious when the person in question uses their lack of personal involvement with the issue to claim superior objectivity in the matter.
          • In this particular case, Dawkins’s lack of personal involvement with the matter is due to his inability to get pregnant.

          Does that clear it up?

          1. Yes, that does clear it up. Thanks.

            I think that I wasn’t understanding what you were saying because I didn’t (and still don’t) see any evidence that Dawkins was using his inability to get pregnant to claim superior objectivity. Projecting, as usual, because I didn’t see this, I didn’t realize that you did. I have seen him claim superior objectivity over others, but I didn’t see that he was using his inability to get pregnant to justify this claim here.

            As to value of thought experiments, which I define as walking carefully through the implications of a hypothetical claim or case, I believe that anyone and everyone should do this for any and all situations. One needs to be especially careful about how one expresses oneself – even more than usual – when it’s on a topic where feelings are strong and/or there’s a history of social ills, but it should still be done, even when the hypothetical could never apply to yourself. If more folks would think things through a bit more carefully and deeply, we’d have a lot more atheists running around, for example.

          2. He didn’t specifically call on his inability to get pregnant as the reason that he is more objective, but he did dub those of us speaking from a more personal perspective as not objective enough and irrational and emotional. If he’s saying that those whom it does not personally affect are more objective, he is making that argument.

            I understand the importance of thought experiments, for sure. They definitely helped me to open my mind. I’ve done so in philosophy classes, private conversations, and so on. I’d say people ought to conduct thought experiments on incredibly important topics that don’t affect them but do affect others to more appropriate venues than Twitter. This goes double if you are seen as a thought leader of any kind.

    2. 2.2

      The reason I pointed out that he can’t get pregnant is because he uses “objectivity” as a shield to smugly lord over those of us who have the audacity to personally care about someone talking about reproductive rights in a way that is hardly pro-choice because said rights actually affect us.

  2. 3

    Why did Dawkins feel a need to say anything at all? Why not just say something reasonably neutral like “That’s a tough one, I’ll just have to leave it to the parents involved and respect their decisions either way.”

    And I agree that it is often irritating that people use their lack of being affected by an issue as justifying their position as more “objective”. We have an old saying around these parts: “I don’t have a dog in this fight”, meaning that you are going to refrain from taking a position and pay attention to the views of those who do have interests at stake.

  3. 4

    I notice men are always talking about how “objective” they are about women’s bodies; since they can’t experience rape or pregnancy therefore they are the experts. Because they are so “objective”. Funny how “objective” and “misogynist” always seem to be the same thing.

  4. 5

    I’ve already said more on this than I care to, but I agree wholeheartedly with the OP that the meme of “happy Down kid” is a myth. Those “kids” represent a small percentage of Down syndrome–and then they grow up.

    In reality, Down syndrome is a chromosomal abnormality that results in a whole plethora of birth defects, including severe heart defects and many, many other “bad” things in addition to intellectual disability (not ‘developmental delay’ — they NEVER catch up). Bringing up the one “happy” Down kid you know who cleans the toilets at McDonald’s is patently unfair to the families whose Down child is institutionalized or otherwise imprisoned or worse.

    If the hypothetical had been put to Dawkins about Tay-Sachs (an always fatal birth defect), and he had give the exact same answer, I wonder if anyone would be condemning him? Or anencephaly? Or any of the hundreds of severe birth defects such as epidermolysis bullosa which are not immediately fatal but which are severe, unrelenting, and untreatable?

    Down syndrome, with this horribly wrong perception of being a “good” birth defect, is apparently the third rail of abortion politics.

    Dawkins is right. If you have pre-natal testing and it shows Down syndrome, the moral/ethical thing to do is abort. No matter how much you liked Corky on that TV show.

    (OT and FWIW: Just about every disease which is named after someone is using the non-possessive form these days. Parkinson not Parkinson’s. Down not Down’s. It’s just the “house style” of the prominent medical journals. Don’t make too much of it — it’s not an insult if you don’t get it right.)

    1. 5.1

      Would you condemn someone who chose to carry a fetus with Down syndrome to term as immoral?

      I can’t say I’m unsympathetic to your point, since I don’t have the overly-optimistic all-sunny view of Down syndrome that a lot of people have. However, I’m skeptical of attempts to vilify reproductive choices. There’s too much of that going around, especially in the United States, for me to feel comfortable with it.

      1. It’s still the woman’s choice, of course. But honestly, if one cannot make ethical/moral judgments for abortion, how in the world can we condemn those who make moral/ethical judgments against abortion? It this topic some amoral or valueless zone? I hardly think so.

        It is “more moral” to abort a fetus with severe birth defects, which includes Down syndrome. And, compared to other reasons why women might have an abortion, I’d say this ranks pretty high on the list of reasons why abortions need to be made freely available.

        I don’t think anyone — Dawkins included — would advocate for coerced or forced abortion. But there’s a pretty wide difference between saying “fetuses known to carry severe birth defects should be aborted” and “fetuses with severe birth defects must be aborted”.

        Frankly, I think the “happy Down kid” myth impedes women from making the moral choice by laying a guilt trip on them for not wanting a “special” child. And then when the kid is 40-years-old, unemployable, living at home with behavioral issues that would land lots of people in prison — the parents are completely abandoned. It’s their fault for bringing that child into the world or for not having a “Corky”.

        It’s the woman’s choice — but you can place value judgments on choices. There are good choices and bad choices. People make some of each every day.

        And I’m going to make the good choice of separating myself from this issue.

  5. 6

    Speaking as a disabled person:

    We’re not special.
    We’re not here to inspire you.
    We’re not sideshow freaks or novelties to be ogled at.
    We’re not your props for money-grabs or sympathy-pleas.
    We’re not a “blessing”, nor a “punishment for sin”.

    We’re people.

    And this old “Happy Down Syndrome Patient” trope is, from my perspective, using people as a prop. That isn’t cool.

  6. 7

    I can’t help feeling that in this case it’s not so much the ability to be pregnant which is at issue, as the ability to be facing the possibility of raising a child with a disability. It must inevitably be terrible if the parents aren’t in agreement on whether to abort or proceed and the less that happens, very much the better. We discussed the possibilities before I got pregnant and although this is no guarantee of how either of us might feel if the situation arose, it does mean some of the basic ground has been covered. There are all kinds of personal, emotional, familial and even economic issues which factor in.

  7. 8

    I think Dawkins has it right. Abortion is the correct and ethical path. There is no up side to Downs syndrome.

    Yes it is painful for the parents but it is the area of pain and suffering under the curve, not the individual loss, that counts. That said, I don’t think there should be any punishment, legal sanction, or even public discussion of any individual case. The choice should always remain with the woman in consultation with anyone, if any, she wished to discuss the issue with.

    This, of course, doesn’t imply that it in any way okay to kill, injure or harass people with downs syndrome. Once born they have the same rights as all other humans.

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