Discriminating against People with Down Syndrome

Author Alan Shlemon Published on 10/25/2017

Richard Dawkins once responded to a woman who wrote the following tweet: “I honestly don’t know what I would do if I were pregnant with a kid with Down Syndrome. Real ethical dilemma.” Dawkins took no more than 60 seconds to read, deliberate, and post the following advice: “Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice.” Did you catch that? Not only should you have the option to kill a “kid with Down syndrome,” but it would be immoral not to abort.

Dawkins did clarify his tweet the next day, but his view and advice remained the same.

As disturbing as his position sounds, his thinking is not uncommon. Despite this month (October) being Down syndrome awareness month, I found it unsettling to read the recent article, “A Moral Duty to Abort.” It highlighted a few voices out there with similar reasoning as Dawkins’s. One professor argued that parents who don’t test for Down syndrome have “pushed the disability upon their children by not acting...morally they can be asked to be held amendable for their choice.” In other words, let’s punish parents who want to love and raise their children who have Down syndrome. This is horrible.

A recent CBS news story said the abortion rate for Down syndrome in the United States is 67%. To my knowledge, only North Dakota has a law (still in effect) that bans abortions for children with Down syndrome.

This is unjust discrimination. I say it’s unjust because some discrimination is just. We don’t sell handguns to children or allow them to join the army. We don’t allow blind people to obtain a pilot’s license. These acts of discrimination (based on age or disability) are just.

Abortion of a child with Down syndrome is unjust discrimination. Unborn children with Down syndrome are bona fide human beings but are being discriminated against because they have a characteristic that some people arbitrarily believe disqualifies them from being valuable and protected.

Scientifically, we know the unborn is a human being. That the child has trisomy 21 (the genetic condition causing Down syndrome) does not undermine this fact. Philosophically, we know there is no morally significant difference between a born child with Down syndrome and an unborn child with it. Therefore, killing an unborn child because he has Down syndrome is unjust discrimination—a human being is disqualified from his protected status based on a characteristic that wouldn’t justify killing a born human with the same characteristic.

I realize that, technically speaking, since abortion is legal in the United States, a woman could abort her child whether he had trisomy 21 or not. That, of course, raises the broader point that I believe abortion itself is unjust discrimination, as I argue at the end of this article.

But in an age where society decries discrimination and values diversity and inclusiveness, it’s hard to believe there are those who argue it’s morally preferable to abort a child with Down syndrome. The pro-life view, by contrast, is the view that is inclusive, upholds diversity, and doesn’t discriminate.