On Choice, Richard Dawkins, and Sarah Palin

Sarah Palin is not pro-choice. This is well publicized and well known position, backed up by her actions as Governor of Alaska and, some would say, by her decision to carry to term a pregnancy later in her life for a fetus diagnosed with Down syndrome. But we understand that Sarah Palin would not support termination for Down syndrome or any other reason. She is not pro-choice, and we know this about her.

Some people seem to be under the mistaken impression that Richard Dawkins is pro-choice. After his recent statements on pregnancy and Down syndrome, I think there is compelling evidence that he is not pro-choice. You see, just as Sarah Palin thinks it is immoral NOT to continue a pregnancy with positive genetic testing for Down syndrome, Richard Dawkins sees it as immoral TO continue such a pregnancy.

Neither respects individuals to make this particular pregnancy choice for themselves. And it’s important to mention that Dawkins went on to clarify his position and say that fetuses on the autism spectrum were okay to not terminate because they could contribute to society. This is not an argument from morality, try as Dawkins might to frame it in moral terms. This is an argument from utility, as selfish as anything Ayn Rand had to say. Dawkins declared it immoral to bring a child with Down syndrome into the world, not from some paternalistic concern for quality of life or suffering borne of ignorance of Down syndrome and life for people with it, but from a belief that some people do not contribute enough to be worth being born.

Please understand this point: Dawkins does not think people who will not contribute to society *according to his standards borne of ignorance or bigotry* should be born. He believes their mothers and fathers made mistakes by having them. He believes Sarah Palin made an immoral choice when she had Trig. He gives me a pass for having my autistic son, because he ranks autism as a more “useful” condition, and because I didn’t have prenatal testing to tell me about it. I didn’t know better, so he absolves me of my sin. How magnanimous.

Choice means just that – more than one option. Neither Palin nor Dawkins supports choice for parents expecting a child with Down syndrome. But at least Palin managed not to deny the humanity of disabled people in her public statements. Dawkins has not met that low standard.

Much like Dawkins’ attempt to construct a hierarchy of better and worse types of rape, overwhelmingly based in his personal experiences and not listening to the experiences of anyone else, he has tried to create a hierarchy of better and worse types of disability, and better and worse types of people to let live in the world beside him.

Dawkins argued that this is what happens to the majority of fetuses with Down syndrome; they are aborted. This is true. But why is this true? Is this true because Down syndrome is the kind of disability where a fulfilling and happy life is impossible? No. Is it because Down syndrome is associated with a severely shortened lifespan? Not these days. It’s largely because our culture doesn’t deal well with disabled people and it’s  damn hard to bring into the world a child you know will be bullied and will be told they are a mistake by people like Dawkins.

Richard Dawkins is a product of his culture as much as Palin is a product of hers. He devalues disabled life because he has been taught to; she over-values fetal life because she has been taught to. I really want to make this clear: Neither holds my position. Neither respects the importance of choice, and neither simultaneously feels the sting as a disabled person to know so many of my maybe brothers and sisters will never get a chance to be. Neither respects the moral decision making capacity of pregnant people, to decide for themselves what is moral and not moral for their own pregnancies.

Dawkins declared continuing pregnancy immoral. Palin has declared terminating pregnancy immoral. Both are biased by their cultures, by their upbringing, and by the books they read and the people they respect. I wonder if Dawkins realizes that his views on disability are not objectively moral nor rationally derived. If anything, Dawkins’ position has less claim for morality, since it does not consider the input of either disabled or pregnant people (and lord help the man if he ever finds out disabled people and pregnant people can be the same people!)

As a pro-choice advocate, as a woman who has had an abortion, as a mom of a disabled child, and as a disabled person myself: Dawkins does not speak for me, nor does Palin. I believe in choice informed by accurate understanding. The National Down Syndrome Society is a great start for learning more about what life with Down syndrome is like for people today.

In recent years, life expectancy for people with Down syndrome has tripled, from about 20 to 60. While all people with Down syndrome have cognitive impairments, those generally range from mild to moderate. And even if the impairments were severe, that would not make the people with them less worth welcoming into families who want them. In a set of recent surveys performed by the Children’s Hospital of Boston showed that parents and siblings both appreciate their family members with Down syndrome, and that individuals with Down syndrome themselves are happy with their lives, their appearance, and themselves, despite the broad cultural ableism they deal with.

Dawkins was wrong and he didn’t know what he was talking about. This seems to happen often when he strays into moral territory. I wish he would stop.

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