In the first part I sought to tease out the basis for Dawkins’ claim that what he said “follows logically from the ordinary pro-choice stance.” It is to the reader to decide if my analysis is correct, and if not, what the real basis is. It is important, however, to understand that Dawkins is not the only person who has made such assertions, and not the only person who has stated or implied that their positions flow logically from a Darwinian, atheistic, and utilitarian point of view. The people listed below, in varying degrees according to each of those ‘three planks’ follow suit.
If you find what follows concerning, then it is not enough to be offended. The argument must be tackled on its merits.
The following individuals represents just a small sample of people who seemingly accept Dawkins’ premises and draw the same conclusions.
A certain ‘bio-ethicist’ named Jacob Appel has even suggested that women farm out their unborn babies for spare parts as a way to pay their way through college. He has urged for mandatory genetic screening, insisting that it is ‘smart science.’ Richard Dawkins says, “my own moral philosophy [is] based on a desire to increase happiness and reduce suffering.” Appel joins him in this utilitarian ethic, stating, “The most obvious advantage of mandatory screening is that it will reduce the long-term suffering of the children who are spared disease.” Appel submitted a paper arguing for neo-natal euthanasia–that is, killing disabled children that are already born. In this paper, he argued that these decisions should be removed from the parents, who are blinded by their affection, and given to the doctors, who will be more objective. Richard Dawkins says that his position “follows logically from the ordinary pro-choice stance.” Appel says that “expanded access to neonatal euthanasia appears likely” because it is “an inevitable consequence of our progress towards liberal humanism.”
Alberto Guibulini and Francesca Minerva
Dawkins targeted the unborn ‘defective’ persons for destruction, while Appel realized that the principles of ‘liberal humanism’ logically entailed the killing of born ‘defective’ persons, too. But how important, really, is the fact that the persons are ‘defective’ if you have already embraced a position that allows for abortion on demand, that is, for no particular reason at all? Why get bent out of shape about aborting ‘defective’ people if you have no compunction with aborting perfectly ‘healthy’ ones? Is that not what the “ordinary pro-choice stance” entails?
Therefore, it should not be a surprise that another batch of fellow travelers have picked up where Appel left off, euthanizing born, defective, children, by arguing that by the ‘ordinary pro-choice’ logic, euthanizing born, healthy children rationally follows as perfectly acceptable and morally permissible. The two scholars in question, Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva, insist “that what we call ‘after-birth abortion’ (killing a newborn) should be permissible in all the cases where abortion is, including where the newborn is not disabled.”
They arrive at this view, logically, in part, by asserting that “the moral status of an infant is equivalent to that of a fetus, that is, neither can be considered a ‘person’ in a morally relevant sense.” On this, perhaps, Giubilini and Minverva would take Dawkins to task, on the view that ascribing a ‘moral status’ as a ‘person’ is ‘subjective.’ Recall that Dawkins had said, “I support those philosophers who say that, for moral purposes, an adult, a child and a baby should all be granted the rights of a person.” In this, Dawkins is only being logically consistent with his own worldview by assuming that it is in his rights to be granting other people’s rights. Why he takes the view he does is probably just him being subjective, but then, that may only be because he hasn’t yet found something more objective: “There is no hard and fast dividing line.” Once one is found, does anyone doubt where Dawkins would come down?
Jeremy Bentham, one of the forefathers of the utilitarian ethic, declared in 1823:
“What else is it that should trace the insuperable line [between humans and animals]? Is it the faculty of reason or perhaps the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog, is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day or a week or even a month, old. But suppose the case were otherwise, what would it avail? The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?”
A little over three decades later, Darwin would prove in many minds that there was no ‘insuperable line’ between humans and animals. Darwin’s theory did more than that, it also revealed that morality was itself the product of natural selection. In one fell swoop, the floor was taken out of all the traditional moral systems. That did not, however, change the fact that people behaved in ways they believed were ‘moral.’ However, a new basis was needed. When they weren’t trying to simply invent new moralities on the basis of ‘might makes right’ they often turned to the utilitarian outlook of Bentham and John Stuart Mill, who advocated for the ‘greatest good for the most people,’ which, in practice, meant the elimination of as much suffering as possible as the greatest governing value.
Dawkins, likewise: “my own moral philosophy [is] based on a desire to increase happiness and reduce suffering.”
Not to be outdone, another fellow traveler and renown utilitarian, is Peter Singer. Singer, of course, gained some fame and notoriety by calling attention to the fact that there is ‘no insuperable line between humans and animals’ by insisting that there was nothing wrong with humans and animals having sex with each other. He was just being logical. Singer might perhaps stand along side Giubilini and Minerva (he was even cited by them) in challenge to Dawkins’ subjective assessment that a baby is a person, as Singer has argued that a person might not be a person even until the age of two years old; but then, “There is no hard and fast dividing line.”
Singer is certainly one who is willing to take his ideas to their logical conclusions. Not too long ago, he published an editorial in which he urged that every person alive sterilize themselves in order to make this the ‘last generation.’ You see, Singer says, “If we could see our lives objectively, we would see that they are not something we should inflict on anyone.” He wonders, “[is] the continuance of our species justifiable in the face of our knowledge that it will certainly bring suffering to innocent future human beings?” Fortunately, the New York Times is a fringe, extreme, publication, that no one reads or takes seriously.
We would be remiss if we did not point out that if Singer really cared about eliminating suffering, and saw animals as morally equivalent as humans, he’d really be calling for the destruction of every living thing that can conceivably suffer. That is, you will recall, Bentham’s Maxim: “Can they suffer?” But this may be a digression.
Singer is, of course, a card-carrying member of the “ordinary pro-choice stance.”
Dawkins insists that he is not advocating for a eugenic policy because “Down Syndrome has almost zero heritability.” From this we can gather that Dawkins believes that eugenicists only care about improving the genome. Another fellow traveler, Julian Savulescu, is one of the few alive today who unabashedly accepts the label of ‘eugenicist.’ Several years before Dawkins stated that someone was morally obligated to abort a ‘defective’ person, Savulescu had already gone one better, arguing that we are morally obligated to select for ‘superior’ traits. The title of the essay probably says it all: “It’s Our Duty to Have Designer Babies” The article in the UK edition of Readers Digest goes on to say,
“Screening embryos like this is illegal at present, but isn’t rational design something we should welcome? If we have the power to intervene in the nature of our offspring—rather than consigning them to the natural lottery—then we should. Surely trying to ensure that your children have the best, or a good enough, opportunity for a great life is responsible parenting?”
The utilitarian ethic is clearly on display: “A critical question to ask when considering whether to screen for some gene is: will it benefit the unborn child?”
The great problem with the Nazis, Savulescu says, is that they used coercion. “Modern eugenics,” he says, “…is voluntary. So where genetic selection aims to bring out a trait that clearly benefits an individual and society, we should allow parents the choice. To do otherwise is to consign those who come after us to the ball and chain of our squeamishness and irrationality.”
Drawing nearer to stating his underlying Darwinian principles then most, Savulescu concludes by saying, “Whether we like it or not, the future of humanity is in our hands now. Rather than fearing genetics, we should embrace it. We can do better than chance.”
From this excerpt we see that even if ‘heritability’ is not in view, there remains the question of the future health and happiness of the unborn child. Isn’t this how any ‘responsible parent’ should feel? Is it not mere “squeamishness and irrationality,” dare I say, emotionalism, to suggest otherwise?
The scope of what constitutes ‘eugenics’ turns out to be broader than how Dawkins presented it. The “ordinary pro-choice stance” urges that “every child a wanted child” is the mark of responsible parenthood. Here is one eugenicist at least who joins with our parade of scholars and ethicists in suggesting that what they propose rationally follows from their belief system.
If Savulescu aims to distinguish his perspective from the Nazis by placing it on a ‘voluntary’ basis, there have been others who, like Appel, thought it necessary to segue to more ‘mandatory’ measures.
As far as abortion goes, perhaps one of the most glaring examples of advocating for compulsion is found in a text book written in the 1970s by John Holdren and Paul Ehrlich called Ecoscience. In one passage, the authors say “if the population crisis became sufficiently severe to endanger the society” then “compulsory population-control laws, even including laws requiring compulsory abortion, could be sustained under the existing Constitution.” And before you ask–this was written after Roe vs. Wade.
Ehrlich of course had some fine things to say on his own on this score, declaring that “We must have population control at home, hopefully through changes in our value system, but by compulsion if voluntary methods fail.”
Of more pressing interest is Holdren.
John Holdren credits a certain Harrison Brown whose book, The Challenge of Man’s Future, as ‘transforming his thinking about the world and the sort of career he wanted to pursue.’ In this essay giving tribute to Brown, published in 1986, Holdren says, “Thirty years after Harrison Brown elaborated these positions, it remains difficult to improve on them as a coherent depiction of the perils and challenges we face.” He lauds “the combination of logic, thoroughness, clarity, and force with which he marshalled data and argumentation on every problem and on their interconnections.” There’s that invocation of logic again.
Brown expounds at length on one way to address the “deterioration of the species” through a compulsory system that aims to “improve the species by carrying out a process of planned selection” by abandoning normal procreation for “permitted inseminations” and ‘tweaking’ “the number of aportions and artificial inseminations permitted in a given year” saying,
“It can be argued that such a procedure would be ruthless and would deprive many people of their individual liberties. Yet would it be any more ruthless than the policy which is now followed in the United States? Only a small fraction of the populations would be affected. The vast majority of persons who might want to conceive would be able to do so, and the majority of those who might desire to terminate unwanted conceptions would be able to do so under hygienic conditions. Contrast this with the status quo, where abortion must be obtained frequently on kitchen tables, usually at great expense and under circumstances where the victims have the “freedom” to choose between giving birth to unwanted children and endangering their lives by subjecting themselves to illegal operations under insanitary conditions.
Control of aids to conception and of abortions could also provide a mechanism for slowing down the deterioration processes associated with the elimination of biological competition. Priorities for artificial insemination could be given to healthy women of high intelligence whose ancestors possessed no dangerous genetic defects. Conversely, priorities for abortions could be given to less intelligent persons of biologically unsound stock.
Such steps would undoubtedly contribute substantially to a slowing down of species deterioration. But it is clear that they would by no means be sufficient. A broad eugenics program would have to be formulated which would aid in the establishment of policies that would encourage able and healthy person to have several offspring and discourage the unfit from breeding at excessive rates. “
In another place, Harrison worries that “at the present time there is little, other than to prevent breeding in persons who present glaring deficiencies clearly dangerous to society and which are known to be of a hereditary nature. Thus we cold sterilize or in other ways discourage the mating of the feeble-minded.”
He has hope, however, that after “another ten or fifteen generations have passed, understanding of human genetics will be sufficient to permit man to do a respectable job of slowing down the deterioration of the species.”
Holdren appeals to Brown. Brown, in making his case, quotes Sir Charles Galton Darwin’s The Next Million Years.. Judging from that man’s name and pedigree, you can easily surmise what kind of basis Darwin, Brown, and Holdren are all operating on–one that tracks ideologically back right to the ‘original’ Charles Darwin himself, with the father of eugenics, Francis Galton, as the bridge.
Here, the ideological family history of a man who believes that compulsory abortion can be justified under the US Constitution. But why care what some fringe fanatic believes about compulsory abortion and the Constitution? That has nothing to do with the “ordinary pro-choice stance,” right? Except that this particular man, John Holdren, is the current chief science officer in the Obama administration. The ideas expressed above, we have every reason to suspect, are the sorts of things that certain members of the US government are perfectly willing to consider. These would be the ones that Dawkins might refer to when he appeals to the ones he believes that “most… espouse.”
Incidentally, Holdren was asked about an aspect of this at his confirmation hearing. He only said that he ‘no longer thinks its productive’ to focus on establishing an ‘optimum population.’ This does not seem encouraging. The bottom line in this instance is that we have a man in office who lauded the works of another man who wanted to “prevent the breeding” of defectives, who himself in turn built his arguments on Darwinism, in particular reference to the Malthusian elements of Darwin’s theory.
Finally, we should say a word about three gentlemen who even more directly speak to the particular issue of the morality of aborting ‘defectives.’ Dawkins insists that he does not consider his statements at all related to eugenics, not knowing, apparently, that this is a specific issue that eugenicists themselves focused on after the horrors of the Holocaust tied their hands significantly.
Three Eugenicists: Gordon Rattray Taylor, Frederick Osborn, S.C. Reed
Gordon Rattray Taylor
In the first place, consider Gordon Rattray Taylor’s The Biological Time Bomb, published in 1968.
After appealing to both the suffering of those who are born with a ‘defect’ and the genetic integrity of society as a whole, in a section on eugenics, Taylor says:
“To discourage people carrying a known defect from transmitting it is clearly desirable. Moreover, if this can be done consistently, the defective gene will, at the end of one generation, vanish from the gene pool.”
Dawkins wrote: “It would be immoral to bring [the Down Syndrome child] into the world if you have the choice.” His plea that Down Syndrome isn’t hereditable does not immunize him from the charge of presenting a eugenic perspective, as he is clearly engaged in “discouraging people carrying a known defect from transmitting it” which is, according to eugenicists themselves, part and parcel of a modern eugenics policy.
Once again, we find that what eugenicists themselves conceive of eugenics is more broad than Dawkins lets on.
And who should care about Taylor? He evidently had some influence, as he, and other eugenicists, ended up cited in the majority opinion in Roe vs. Wade. It should go without saying that Roe vs. Wade factors heavily into the “ordinary pro-choice stance.”
We should perhaps understand Justice Ginsburg’s confusion when she confessed that she had thought the purpose of Roe vs Wade had been to address concerns related to “population growth and particularly growth in populations that we don’t want to have too many of.”
In Frederick Osborn’s The Future of Human Heredity: An Introduction to Eugenics in Modern Society, Osborn declares:
“Heredity clinics are the first eugenic proposal that have been adopted in a practical form and accepted by the public. They are run by scientists and their findings are based on scientific knowledge. The word eugenics is not associated with them. The couples who go to them for advice are interested in not having an abnormal child, rather than in the less personal goal of improving the race. If they suspect that they may be carriers of a particular deleterious gene or group of genes, they want to know whether their children will suffer the defect. It is the function of the heredity clinic, after careful examination of the family record, to advise on the chances of the defect being passed on to the children. Reports from these clinics indicate that couples are considerably influenced by the information they receive n the clinics, and generally, but not always, they are influenced in a eugenic direction.”
According to Osborn, the most effective eugenic policies are the ones which work to modify public opinion, so that people will ‘voluntarily’ do what the scientists deem best. For example, “irresponsible parents,” such as ones with larger families or are not married or ones that are on welfare–or, you may be quite certain, carry ‘deleterious genes’–“should feel the weight of an adverse public opinion, instead of the favorable attitudes which now too often accompany their childbearing. Community leaders of every kind should encourage this kind of wise discrimination.”
Osborn should know a thing about ‘heredity clinics.’ He was involved in making them a reality. Since the Nazis had ruined any prospect for compulsory measures, he advocated for heredity clinics where parents would eliminate ‘defectives’ through “voluntary unconscious selection.” Unconscious–that is, they would not know what principles they were applying or how they arrived at them. Selection–that is, in a Darwinian framework. Voluntary–that is, the parents themselves, without knowing how they arrived at the values they possessed, would choose the decision that the eugenicist desired them to make.
“Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution,” Theodosius Dobzhansky had said. Writing in the foreword for Osborn’s book, Dobzhansky says, it represents “what eugenics was, is, and ought to be.” If anyone would have known whether or not Osborn is incorrectly applying Darwinism, it would have been Dobzhansky.
Today, what happens in a ‘heredity clinic’ has been transformed into what we now call ‘genetic counseling.’ Osborn wasn’t the only one, by any means who had pushed for carrying out eugenics policies via sessions with genetics counselors. Each of them, however, invoked Darwinian principles as their justifications.
As president of the Minnesota Eugenics Society, a certain C.F. Dight told Hitler that he was “praising your plan to stamp out mental inferiority among the German people. I trust you will accept my sincere wish that your effort along that line will be a great success and will advance the eugenics movement in other nations as well as Germany.”
When Dight died, he left his estate to the University of Minnesota to fund the “Dight Institute for the Promotion of Human Genetics” which in turn, under the direction of Sheldon C. Reed, sponsored some of the first ‘heredity clinics’ in America. Reed had wrote, “there is no important distinction between research in ‘pure’ genetics and research in ‘applied’ genetics such as eugenics. Our present day use of the term ‘human genetics’ may be financially and politically expedient but there is no great philosophical difference between them.”
S. C. Reed was a member of the American Eugenics Society, of which the aforementioned Frederick Osborn was president for a length of time. In 1956, about when Osborn was advocating for the establishment of ‘heredity clinics,’ Reed was instrumental in transforming the notion of ‘heredity clinics’ into ‘genetic counseling’ and prided himself in obliterating the eugenic connection between the two. He helped establish genetic counseling as a professional field in its own right.
Reed served as a president of the American Society of Human Genetics, which, you may wish to know is still in operation.
The third president of the ASHG, Lee Dice, also promoted heredity clinics: “The danger of deterioration of the world’s stock of human genes through the accumulation of harmful mutations was forcefully pointed out at the 1949 annual meeting of the American Society of Human Genetics by our president for that year, H. J. Muller.” The methods of the Nazis to address this problem, Dice admits is “utterly repugnant to most persons.” This leave just two options: “Either those persons who carry hereditary defects may be segregated or sterilized by the state, or they may voluntarily refrain from reproduction.” Of these two options, the only one with practical promise is the ‘heredity clinic,’ where the parents can ‘voluntarily,’ but based on ‘unconscious’ principles of selection, make the ‘right’ call.
Hardly anyone knows about the original eugenic basis for genetic counseling anymore, not even the genetic counselors themselves, many of whom would be horrified at the suggestion that their work is ‘eugenic’ in nature.
I know a little about genetic counseling.
After my daughter was diagnosed in the womb with spina bifida, the immediately asked if we wanted to ‘terminate’ her and promptly sent us to the genetic counselor for more information. Little did I know at the time that 150 years of pregnant philosophy was giving birth at that time to a particular point of decision: you are carrying a child with a birth defect. It will have a life of suffering, but even if not, as Guibilini and Minerva might say, “…to bring up such children might be an unbearable burden on the family and on society as a whole, when the state economically provides for their care.” You are continuing to pollute the gene pool, and putting a burden on the scarce resources available to society. In the old days, natural selection would have intervened. Today, we can “do better than chance.” Don’t you want to be a responsible parent?
Our daughter is now a beautiful seven-year old who brings tremendous joy into the lives of everyone who meets her. Dawkins would call this an ‘emotional argument.’ If ‘joy’ is an emotion, then I suppose that is true. Is it logical, however, that it was immoral for us to bring her into the world?
On an evolutionary paradigm stripped of all transcendental realities and thoroughly entrenched in the sterile abstraction of utilitarianism, it certainly is logical.
Nearly all the people who have been mentioned above, and many more that could be mentioned still, have a worldview where Darwinism is a key underpinning. (An exception would be Taylor who was an evolutionist of the Lamarckian sort). Few of them have any room for the existence of God in their worldview, indeed, many of them hold that thought in contempt. Most, if not all of them, sought to establish a moral code that was consistent with their reductionist outlooks, and settled on a philosophy that raised ‘suffering’ as the highest moral evil, with the consequence that eliminating it wherever it surfaced became the obvious ‘moral’ choice.
These, then, can obviously be expected to transmit this viewpoint through their positions of influence. Holdren, as ‘science czar’ in the Obama administration. Singer as professor at Princeton University. Savulescu and Minerva, as professors at Oxford. Giubilini as professor at Charles Sturt University. Taylor’s influence was embedded in the minds of the Supreme Court justices who wrote the majority opinion in Roe vs. Wade. Some, like Dight, Dice, and Reed, you will have never heard but set in motion institutions that still exist today; indeed, in Dight’s Minnesota, the screening of newborns for genetic defects is mandated by law. And so on and so forth. Living and dead, you can be quite certain that all of these people acted on and attempted to further their worldviews.
Not that they are to be blamed for that. It is self-evident that people will act on their worldviews and almost as self-evident that they will try to further them. The problem is when the rest of us fail to grapple with the underlying logic with their worldviews, treating their comments as ‘extreme’ when in fact they are only being consistent. Or, as in the case of Dawkins, dismissing his comments as thoughtless when he presents them as logically flowing from his worldview–a worldview he has been expending considerable effort and energy on extending as far as he can before he dies.
The reader may be somewhat surprised that an essay which began with the implied proposition that Darwinism, atheism, and utilitarianism were the core ingredients in the “ordinary pro-choice stance” did not take more time to demonstrate that more explicitly. There is no question in my mind that this case can be made, but I am doubtful that anything short of a full length book treating each aspect would possibly be taken seriously. Many readers, however, will find the above quotations disturbing, all the more so when it is learned that the ones making those statements currently occupy or previously occupied places of power, prestige and influence. And not in Nazi Germany.
What ‘logic’ is driving these people to the positions they have? Surely that is more important than whether or not they have said something that has offended our sensibilities! They seem to take for granted the same set of facts and arrive at similar conclusions which Dawkins characterizes as the “ordinary pro-choice stance.” What is that ‘set of facts’ if not what I have claimed?
Some research into the deeper convictions of the people discussed above will no doubt be enlightening.
Which brings us back to Dawkins, whose ‘deeper convictions’ is a readily accessible bit of public knowledge. Instead of focusing on how he, or those with similar positions, can be so rude, perhaps we should be asking the more important question: are they in fact, wrong?
Many of the people who took offense to Dawkins’ comments accept all of his premises, and to reject the conclusion merely because you don’t like them is not a very robust protection from abuses.
Even those of us who reject his premises should not dwell on his rudeness, as if we obtained an apology we will have actually accomplished anything. The most substantial thing that will be achieved is people will have odious viewpoints which they will not share aloud anymore, but that won’t keep them from acting on those viewpoints. It would be a case of the proverbial ‘white-washed tomb.’ As far as Dawkins goes, there will not be a change of heart until there is a change of mind.
But perhaps that is true of everyone, and the real point of this essay.