Politics & Policy

Surprised by Joy

Life is more than survival of the fittest: a response to Richard Dawkins.

Every once in a while people let their guard down and say what they really think. For Richard Dawkins, Wednesday was one of those days.

In an extraordinary moment of public honesty, Dawkins, the British evolutionary biologist and militant atheist, wrote on Twitter that “it would be immoral to bring [a child with Down syndrome] into the world if you have the choice.” It was a statement that no doubt delighted the utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer, his friend and fellow traveler, who has advocated the killing of disabled infants on the grounds that they are not rational and self-conscious beings. “We have begun to think in terms of quality of life, instead of all life equally being sacred. That’s why it is logical to now start thinking about severely defective babies, and whether it is always wrong to kill them,” Singer told a journalist in 2004. 

Does such talk frighten you? It does me. My eight-year old daughter Magdalena has Down syndrome. She falls into the category of people Peter Singer would like to see dead. I fall into the category of people Richard Dawkins considers immoral. How upside-down these guys are. It’s like an ethical Bizzaro World, where all the cold, heartless, smart guys with the fanciest degrees and the most fashionable eyeglasses look with utter disdain on the slightly different, slightly imperfect, slightly vulnerable people. God save us from utilitarian philosophers and evolutionary biologists.

Richard Dawkins is a man of logic, and his tweet makes sense if you view babies as personal accessories or interchangeable units of economic utility. But logic has its limits. Life is more than survival of the fittest. Sometimes it’s a mysterious and beautiful ballet. Other times it’s a painful and confusing crawl through the darkness. There is sudden despair and surprising joy. Logic can explain only so much.

Do you remember the late Robin Williams’s joke about the duckbill platypus? He said it was God giving Darwin the finger. We humans are more like duckbill platypuses than we are the homogenous and genetically perfect robots that Richard Dawkins wants us to be.  

No one can say with certainty exactly how many unborn children with Down syndrome are aborted every year in allegedly civilized countries, including our own, but the estimates are shockingly high. Shocking, that is, if you are like me and don’t think it immoral to bring a baby with Down syndrome into the world. Shocking, that is, if you think we live in a society that places a value on human life that other societies — societies we consider barbarous — don’t.   

In 2008, shortly after the Summer Olympics were held in Beijing, Sky News reporter Holly Williams interviewed the director of a Chinese maternity hospital who admitted that her facility counseled expectant mothers to abort babies with “serious deformities,” such as a missing arm or leg. “We don’t let them have the baby,” said the hospital director. “If they have it, it’s a burden to the family, to society, and to the country. We want healthy babies because they make families happy and our society happy too. We’re working to improve the quality of the population.” 

You should seek out and watch the video if only to hear the hospital director’s girlish giggling as the interview concludes. You may have heard that evil can be banal. See for yourself just how easily a moral society can be corrupted by ideas similar to those of Peter Singer and Richard Dawkins. See for yourself just what kind of an ethical universe you get when the evolutionary biologists are in charge.

Mr. Dawkins, you’re welcome to come to our house and meet Magdalena. I think you’d really like her, if you could see past her imperfections — if you could see what we see, if you could hear her laughing. But you probably won’t come. You’re probably too busy. We’re probably too simple-minded for you, with our sky God and our ritualistic religious hocus-pocus and our weird belief that even children with Down syndrome should be allowed to live.

So, go ahead and call me immoral, Richard Dawkins. Call my wife immoral. Call the dozens of families around the world we have met and befriended over the last eight years immoral. Many of us had a “choice,” as you call it, and chose life over death. We chose the joy of love over the pain of abortion. We chose the happiness that radiates from Magdalena’s soul over the darkness that must cloud your every, empty day.

We chose Magdalena, and we’d do it again. We’d do it again because your scientific morality is cold and dark. It illuminates nothing.

— Matthew Hennessey writes from Connecticut. Follow him on Twitter: @matthennessey

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