Biologist Richard Dawkins sent twitter into a tizzy on Wednesday in response to a woman’s hypothetical dilemma about whether to abort a fetus with Down syndrome. In typical Dawkins fashion, he gave a straightforward reply:
@InYourFaceNYer Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice.
— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) August 20, 2014
Let’s state the obvious for a moment: twitter is not a great medium through which to engage in elaborate discussions on complex moral, social, and political issues. But Dawkins tries, and he interacts his followers quite frequently, which is both admirable and important. For a social network that’s constantly under fire for being a bastion of banality and silliness, exchanging ideas with serious implications is refreshing, however imperfect the exchanges can be.
Dawkins elaborated in subsequent tweets after some backlash. “There’s a profound moral difference between ‘This fetus should now be aborted,'” he noted, “and ‘This person should have been aborted years ago.'” He added, “Woman said she wouldn’t know whether to abort. I told her what I would do & why. I OBVIOUSLY wouldn’t TELL a woman what to do. Up to her.”
But the damage had been done. The tweets came pouring in from the Left and the Right, from people with Down syndrome, from the relatives of people with Down syndrome, and his twitter feed was flooded with photos of people with the disorder.
While Dawkins also tweeted that most women with Down syndrome fetuses choose to abort, he could have added that most fetuses with Down syndrome are either aborted naturally through miscarriage or are stillborn. From a biological perspective, this is what women’s bodies are supposed to do. It’s nature’s way of noting that something has gone wrong with the fetus’ development and miscarriage is an attempt to remedy it. Obviously this doesn’t mean that those who do make it through birth have lives that are any less valuable, or that they can’t lead fulfilling lives. As Dawkins himself noted, he was simply talking about the fetal stages of development while infusing it with his own moral judgment.
On Thursday, Dawkins took to his website to say he regretted “using abbreviated phraseology which caused so much upset,” and that, “My phraseology may have been tactlessly vulnerable to misunderstanding, but I can’t help feeling that at least half the problem lies in a wanton eagerness to misunderstand.”
This is hardly the first time the scientist induced collective cardiac arrest across twitter. Just last month, he drew the ire of the social network’s social justice warriors by suggesting that there might be varying degrees of sexual assault that yield varying degrees of psychological trauma. Dawkins has also repeatedly taken heat for his tweets about Islam.
But for all the outrage — both real and embellished — Dawkins is more than willing to challenge the self-reinforcing sophism that characterizes a lot of social media. At a time when so much online content is crafted to preach to a particular choir, Dawkins isn’t afraid to deliver a sermon to incredulous congregants, even if it’s a church that almost everyone is attending.
Although, that probably isn’t the best metaphor to use here.
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