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In our opinion: A slippery 'immoral' Tweet

Published: Friday, Aug. 29 2014 2:08 p.m. MDT

Updated: Friday, Aug. 29 2014 2:08 p.m. MDT

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins tweets that a woman pregnant with a Down syndrome fetus should "abort it and try again," adding it would be "immoral to bring it into the world given a choice. His extreme views earned him considerable backlash.

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In the debate over abortion, both sides often resort to using “slippery slope” arguments that decry even the slightest concession to the other point of view. Abortion rights activists therefore oppose any limits on the gruesome procedure known as partial-birth abortion, because they insist it would be the first step to a total ban on all abortions. Some right-to-life advocates counter that allowing any abortion at all will lead to a brave new world where all disabled children will be killed in the womb as a matter of course.

In most circumstances, the idea of the slippery slope is an intellectually lazy way to use fear of extremes to cast doubt on more moderate stances. Unfortunately, there are select occasions when someone makes themselves heard from the bottom of the slope. Such is the case with famed evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who recently took to Twitter to give advice to all women who discover that their baby will be born with Down syndrome.

“Abort it and try again,” he counseled. “It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice.”

This sparked a considerable amount of justified outrage from families with Down syndrome children, as well as from reasonable people who recognized the reprehensible nature of such a position. Many with Down syndrome took those words at face value and concluded that Dawkins views their very existence as immoral.

Dawkins was clearly taken aback by the ferocity of the backlash and tried to clarify himself further on his website. At first, he stated that his comments had not been intended for a wide audience, and he mocked “people who go out of their way to find such Tweets.” In other words, Dawkins isn’t sorry for what he said; he’s only sorry that he said it in public.

Perhaps recognizing the absurdity of presuming a Tweet made to over a million followers could somehow remain anonymous, Dawkins then feebly attempted to put some distance between his statement and its clear implications. He noted that his “phraseology may have been tactlessly vulnerable to misunderstanding,” but, given that he still refuses to back off from his initial premise, it’s unclear where he thinks he was misunderstood. Indeed, his problem stems from the fact that he announced his extremism in terms very easy to understand.

Dawkins also does the abortion rights movement no favors by maintaining that his argument “simply follows logically from the ordinary pro-choice stance that most of us, I presume, espouse.” His statement makes the slippery-slope warnings of many in the pro-life movement looked prescient, not paranoid. Richard Dawkins stands at the base of the slope and champions the devaluing of human life. Society would do well to avoid sliding down to join him.

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