Richard Dawkins is not ‘pro-choice’. I know, it surprised me too. Turns out that atheism’s high priest thinks abortion isn’t just a ‘right’ or an ‘option’ – he thinks it’s an obligation. “Abort it. And try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world,” the professor told one of his Twitter cultists when asked what the right thing to do would be should they discover their unborn child has Down’s Syndrome. Charming, eh?
I am not going to spend the rest of this blog espousing my views on abortion. There are many, many others with more wit, sense, style and understanding – I’ll let them continue to slog it out. But what is interesting about Dawkins’ outburst is how neatly it illustrates the imbalance in how we talk about questions of the body and morality in society.
Those who seek to liberalise almost always frame their arguments in the context of ‘choice’. We must be allowed to ‘choose’ whether to carry a child, to ‘choose’ when and where to die – and so on. This is the argument that has won women abortion rights and which will probably win the right to an assisted suicide. And it is a difficult case to contend with for those of us with deep misgivings – it taps directly into humanity’s vanity about itself. It paints us as free, rugged and self-actualising. Not for us the petty constraints of nature. No, we can ‘choose’.
That’s a pretty attractive offer. And it also, helpfully, has an inbuilt defence mechanism against opposition. Don’t like abortion? Don’t have one. Don’t believe in assisted suicide? Don’t do it then. Disapprove of gay marriage? Don’t marry a man. Because we’re all free floating, autonomous Ayn Rand characters our decisions don’t affect anyone else – you see? Of course, some of us know that this isn’t true. Society is an ecosystem that is as finely balanced, precarious and complex as the most imperiled coral reef. And what we choose to do does have an impact – on institutions, on our community, on the society that has nurtured us into existence. That doesn’t mean that change is always wrong, that we must preserve all that our parents left us in aspic. But it does mean that progress should be made in conversation with our traditions and with respect for the wisdom of those who weaved the fabric of our civilisation. All that being the case, though, the relentless logic of choice is a tricky thing to stand up against. It is clever, it is seductive and it is popular. And telling people that you’re against them choosing things goes down particularly poorly in 21st Century Britain.
So Professor Dawkins has done us a huge service in his honesty. Because he has pointed out – in the grimmest possible way – that people like him don’t believe in the sanctity of choice anymore than I do. They too believe in obligation and tradition – all that autonomy guff was merely shiny wrapping paper, a canny PR exercise. What starts out as a ‘right’ swiftly becomes a tacit expectation. One day the norm is that you can, if you want, choose to end the life of your unborn, disabled child. The next you are selfish or immoral if you choose not to. And what happens tomorrow? Well tomorrow you are instructed to end its life because the state has determined that it is cruel to let it live. Dawkins has shown us what he and a great many others really believe – that our tradition of the sanctity of life must be replaced with a new tradition of utilitarian eugenics.
This is helpful for two reasons. One, because it frees us of a false and circular argument about choice. It helps us to tell the story of our fears and it helps us to explain that freedom has consequences too. You are not just being gifted new rights, you are being asked to fundamentally change the way society views humanity. You may still be fine with that, but you can’t pretend it is not the case.
Two, it shines a light on the truth about assisted suicide. The people urging this new right upon us do not do so out of hatred for the disabled, the infirm and the old aged. They do so, mostly, with good but misguided intentions. But they cannot be allowed to look away from the impact this seemingly small, apparently harmless, change will have. Today the terminally ill will be allowed to ask for death. Tomorrow they will be expected to. Richard Dawkins will be instructing his followers that they are selfish for clinging to life, that it is immoral to refuse the pill, that they are silly and cruel for not embracing death.
If a world cleansed of imperfections is what we wish for then Dawkins has shown us the way. We can be free of people with Down’s Syndrome. We can shed the burden of the sick, the tired, the sad and the old. All of this is possible. But if, like me, you thought Logan’s Run a dystopian warning rather than a template for the future we should look upon the Professor’s words with a chill down our spine and a new resolve to carry on fighting.
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