Is disability grounds for abortion?

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Is disability grounds for abortion?

Recently Richard Dawkins argued there is a moral obligation to abort human foeti with any serious disability. But is there? How do atheist and theist voices respond? Anthony Buck explores this controversial ethical claim and responses to it.

This article was written by Anthony Buck and reflects his personal analyses and opinions, rather than those of EARS.

Famous atheist Richard Dawkins argues that every foetus with any kind of disability should be “screened out” through abortion and that a mother who fails to do so acts immorally.[1] But wait, is disability grounds for abortion? And doesn’t this sound an awful lot like eugenics? 

As various kinds of prenatal testing, genetic technologies, and prenatal care improve, this question will only become more relevant for Dawkins’ fellow atheists as well as theists to consider. For now, we can look closely at what Dawkins has actually said and see how both an atheist and theist respond. 

Some context
O’Connor prefaces his questions by revealing his personal interest and implying that his child has Down Syndrome. Dawkins explains that it is immoral because he thinks doing so will bring more suffering into the world. O’Connor asks how he knows having a child with Down Syndrome increases the amount of suffering in the world. Yet, Dawkins’ response ends up widening the question: “I don’t know it for certain. It seems to me to be plausible that if, if a childhas any kind of disability, then you probably would increase the amount of happiness in the world more by having another child instead.”[2] O’Connor checks if Dawkins has any evidence of this, but Dawkins admits he does not. 

Here Dawkins tries defending afresh a 2014 tweet he already ‘apologised’ for.[3] But in the process he makes several philosophical assumptions.[4] Yet, those assumptions also lead to other unanswered questions.[5]

Exploring Dawkins’ assumptions 
Helpfully, O’Connor follows up on these questions raised by Dawkins’ answer, starting most charitably with asking whether Dawkins, even if he does not have scientific support, might have experiential knowledge for his claims of the increase of suffering. O’Connor asks: “Do you know anyone with Down Syndrome?” Dawkins responds: “Not intimately, no.”[6]

O’Connor soon returns to Dawkins’ expansion from Down Syndrome to “any kind of disability”: “What other imperfections would you screen out?” “Well, um, I think deafness, blindness…”[7] He also pushes Dawkins on his argument that it is immoral to not abort a child with a disability. After which, Dawkins wants to take back his use of the term ‘immoral’, yet clarifies: “I think it would be wise, I think it would be wise and sensible, to abort a child which had a serious disability which was diagnosed early in pregnancy.”[8]

Thus, Dawkins adds qualifications. Yet, he is still making moral statements when he says “wise and sensible.” He is still saying this is what people should do, which is a moral statement. But he introduces an ambiguity to his argument, allowing it to be interpreted either as “If you abort, then you are moral” or as “if you are moral, then you abort.” The first implies that you can be moral but not abort. However, the second version implies the opposite, that you cannot be moral if you do not abort. Which version does he mean? In the context of this interview, it is clear that Dawkins intends the second. 

Finally, O’Connor questions whether the possibility of increasing suffering in the world and reducing happiness would constitute grounds for abortion and whether children are exchangeable goods: “You know children who are so-called perfect can cause terrible suffering in the world as well, but I suppose we have no way of checking, have we?” Dawkins replies: “Uh no, of course.”[9] O’Connor’s point, which Dawkins concedes, is that having or not having a disability does not guarantee that suffering will be reduced and happiness increased. But more fundamentally, O’Connor rejects Dawkins’ objectifying, dehumanising claim that children are exchangeable goods. One cannot substitute one child for another, each are truly unique individuals offering something unique to the world. 

An atheist and theist respond to Dawkins
Fellow-atheist, Hemant Mehta, provides a robust analysis of Dawkins and finds lots to critique in his brief 20-minute interview.[10] He objects to Dawkins’ defense of his comments as incredibly insensitive: “Dawkins chose to defend it – or at least the gist of it – while speaking to someone who has a child with Down syndrome.” He also takes issue with Dawkins’ moralising stance and his assumption that people ought to believe “a child’s genetic abnormality is some kind of giant imposition to the world.” Mehta finally complains that Dawkins’ self-defensive insensitivity hurts the cause of the “scientific, logical, rational mindset.”[11]

Similarly, theist Albert Mohler notes how Dawkins defends his insensitive 2014 comment, “doubles down” on its sentiment, and “now seems to be absolutely shocked that there would be anyone who would find his comments shocking, not to mention absolutely repulsive.”[12] However, Mohler also dissents to Dawkins’ utilitarianism, because it “puts human beings in the position of presuming we actually know what would lead to greater suffering and what would lead to lesser suffering.” Mohler objects that for Dawkins there is no inherent human dignity for a foetus with a disability nor accountability for one’s actions that come from outside society from God. Finally, he criticises Dawkins for an inappropriate use of his cultural power to moralise without sensitivity or ethical justification.[13]

However, neither of these commentators mention having personal experience with a person with Down Syndrome. But Bethany Dawson does.[14] Her brother Luke, she explains, “and everyone else I’ve ever met with Down’s – is a representation of why Dawkins’ argument is so wrong.”[15] Dawson criticises Dawkins’ argument “because, in reality, it’s just eugenics.” She contends: “It doesn’t recognise disabled people as individuals. It takes the horrible, inherently ableist view that a person with a disability is less-than, and thus judges them as not worthy of life.”[16]

In sum, the responses to Dawkins comments are fairly uniform. He has been insensitive, but worse, he has made a lot of assumptions about what gives people value, and more specifically assumptions about people he clearly knows nothing about. 

If you want to learn more about people with Down Syndrome and the work to overturn ableist and eugenicist approaches to foeti and people with it, check out

If you would like to listen to the whole Dawkins-O’Connor interview, click here.

This article was written by Anthony Buck and reflects his personal analyses and opinions, rather than those of EARS.

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[2] Emphasis the author’s. From mark 14:14, including O’Connor’s question.

[3] Abortion & Down Syndrome: An Apology for Letting Slip the Dogs of Twitterwar. This non-apology apology is objected to by both atheist H. Mehta Richard Dawkins: It’s “Wise and Sensible” to Abort Fetuses with Down Syndrome and theist A. Mohler Friday, May 14, 2021 –

[4] 1) Happiness is quantifiable; 2) happiness is contingent on whether or not a child has Down Syndrome; 3) children are exchangeable goods, i.e. that you can substitute one for another; 4) the morality of abortion in general; and 5) that not only does Down Syndrome count as grounds for abortion, but it is only one of a class of conditions that not only give moral grounds for abortion but demand abotion as the only moral outcome.

[5] 1) Whose happiness is in view: the mother’s, the child’s, collective society’s? 2) What chain of causality constrains your estimation of happiness? If one unhappy woman gives birth to a happy daughter who gives birth to a whole line of both happy and happiness-giving progeny, then would the immorality of giving birth to a disabled child go away if she was the happy daughter who gives birth to a line of happy people? What if it is the granddaughter of the original mother to generate the line of happiness? Or is it only the happiness of the woman or the child or their present society that is of concern? If so, why or why not? 3) Related to Dawkins’ expansion of the category, what else counts as a disability that demands abortion?

[6] Starting at mark 14:52.

[7] Starting at mark 15:30.

[8] Starting at mark 16:28.

[9] Starting at mark 16:49.

[10] Richard Dawkins: It’s “Wise and Sensible” to Abort Fetuses with Down Syndrome

[11] Richard Dawkins: It’s “Wise and Sensible” to Abort Fetuses with Down Syndrome

[12] Friday, May 14, 2021 –

[13] Friday, May 14, 2021 –

[14] Dawson is a freelance journalist, who has contributed to the BCC, Vice, the Independent, among other journalistic outlets.

[15] Richard Dawkins’ argument against women having babies with Down’s Syndrome is nothing more than eugenics

[16] Richard Dawkins’ argument against women having babies with Down’s Syndrome is nothing more than eugenics