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Guest Blog Post: Problematizing the Down Syndrome & Selective Abortion Debate

Jihan Abbas

Originally posted August 29, 2014 from:

Richard Dawkins caused controversy last week for an offensive tweet about Down syndrome, prenatal screening and selective abortion. In what is becoming somewhat of a predictable pattern, Dawkins said something offensive, tried to argue his opinion was based on logic, then after facing significant backlash offered a sort of sorry-not-sorry ‘apology.’

In this ‘apology’ he framed his position as one of science and ‘ours’ as one of ‘emotion.’ While he suggested his position defended women’s rights, subtle reminders throughout his ‘apology’ that linked disability, a mother’s choices and actions, and notions of morality contradicted this. His ‘apology’ was problematic in too many ways to count.

In this ‘apology’ he argued his position on selective abortion follows the logic of being pro-choice, as if the rights of women and persons with disabilities are necessarily separate. To follow this logic being a feminist, having a disability, and being a mother are all separate and distinct identities. This is of course not true.

He also argued he likely holds the moral high ground, as his position would reduce the suffering of others. At the same time he suggested knowingly bringing a child with Down syndrome into this world naturally perpetuates ‘suffering.’ This is also untrue and upholds ableist notions that link disability and suffering.

Furthermore, ‘proof’ of his logic rested on stereotypes of adults with Down syndrome as perpetual children, and the false assumption that having a child with Down syndrome means a lifetime of care for parents. This ignores a growing body of research that that rejects notions of care based on the separation of independent and dependent bodies. This also ignores the reality that persons with Down syndrome are contributing in real and meaningful ways that don’t fit this limited understanding.

Finally, he suggested that while he is sympathetic those of us that oppose his position, our arguments are based on ‘emotions’, and his are based on logic. In stating this he makes the assumption that what he knows of Down syndrome is based on ‘logical’ unbiased scientific evidence. Yet John Langdon Down, often uncritically referred to as the ‘father’ of Down syndrome, grounded his understanding of Down syndrome on racist ideas that argued Down syndrome was a genetic throwback to less evolved races. It’s a conveniently ignored fact that the ‘father’ of Down syndrome based his opinion of Down syndrome on notions of white supremacy.

The reality is that the ‘logic’ of science Dawkins is so keen to draw from has consistently been wrong where Down syndrome is concerned. It was wrong when people with Down syndrome were euthanized, it was wrong when it called for and achieved their mass incarceration, and it was wrong when it forcibly sterilized young adults. While a discussion about the ethics of prenatal screening and selective abortion needs to take place, to assume this discussion can take place without serious and critical reflection around the ‘logic’ shaping these discourses is illogical.


Jihan Abbas is a researcher with both personal and professional experience in the area of disability and equality rights and the former Director of Policy and Research for Independent Living Canada. Her research interests include disability and the labour market, social policy, and the inclusion of persons with disabilities. She is also one of the inaugural winners of the Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship and am currently completing my PhD at Carleton University in Ottawa.



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