Atheists, Absolutes & Abortion

Last week Richard Dawkins, the biologist and prominent atheist, caused a storm on social media by tweeting that a woman should abort an unborn child that has been diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome. Dawkins went on to claim that allowing the child to be born would be ‘immoral.’


Back in 2010, during a discussion on an Australian TV show, Dawkins was asked a question about whether, as an atheist, he believed in absolute morality. His response, in typical Dawkins style, was to launch an attack upon the morality of the Bible and other religious texts. Then he made this statement:

“I don’t think I want an absolute morality. I think I want a morality that is thought out, reasoned, argued, discussed, and based upon what you could almost call an intelligent design. Can we not design our society in such a way to have the sort of morality that we want to live in?”

At first glance this may just sound like a philosophical soundbite, but it actually cuts to the heart of how we look at right and wrong – and how we treat the most vulnerable members of our society.

Christians, and people of most other religious faiths, believe that there exists an absolute, or objective, morality. In other words, there are certain things that are morally wrong, and they always will be morally wrong irrespective of human opinion. Let’s take an extreme and obvious example. It is morally wrong to torture babies to death for fun. Nothing can change that fact. Even if the human race were to become so twisted that everybody thought it was OK to torture babies to death for fun, it would still be morally wrong. Even if not one single human being realised how depraved such a practice is, God would still view it as horribly wrong and immoral. That is what we mean when we say we believe in an absolute, or an objective, morality. There is a standard of right and wrong which is not determined by human debate or opinion, but is derived from God Himself and is built into the very fabric of the universe.

Now, we must admit that religions have often failed miserably in how they have expressed, and in how they have lived out, their ideas of morality. We have seen abominations such as Inquisitions, Crusades and ISIS. But, nevertheless, there remains this most basic notion that there is an absolute and objective standard of right and wrong by which all our thoughts, words and actions can be ultimately judged.

If you take God out of the equation, however, then what basis do you have for believing in absolute standards of right and wrong? Morality becomes something that we subjectively decide for ourselves, rather than something that exists objectively. In this scenario, torturing babies to death for fun is not wrong in and of itself, but that is simply a decision we have made because it makes sense for the survival of our species and the ordering of our society. It is hypothetically possible that, at some stage in the future, people will decide that torturing babies to death for fun isn’t actually that bad an idea. You can object to a practice on the grounds that you don’t personally like it, or because it hinders the progression of your society or of the human race – but you can’t ever say, “Look, this practice is immoral and flat out wrong.”

While such a view of morality is the logical outcome of atheism, I have discovered that very few atheists will, in a discussion, admit so. They are much more likely to dodge the issue by changing the subject and arguing about how religions have applied their views of morality. That is why it was significant that Dawkins, when pressed by an interviewer, admitted that, in his view, there is no absolute standard of right and wrong, and that we can construct our own morals to suit the kind of society that we want to build.

The problem with this kind of view is that the weakest and most vulnerable members of our society often don’t figure very highly in our dreams of what the human race should look like. They can become an inconvenience, either to be locked away in institutions or simply removed altogether. Think of how physically and mentally disabled children were left to rot in squalid orphanages under Soviet-era regimes in Eastern Europe. Or, closer to home, think of the recent controversy in Ireland when a suicidal rape victim was denied the opportunity to have an abortion. A public full of compassion for a teenage girl who had suffered a great violence and injustice somehow failed to show a similar compassion for a second innocent victim of rape – the baby that was conceived.

It is ironic that our society would be aghast if the death penalty were ever to be implemented against a rapist for the crime he has committed. Yet most people’s unspoken assumption seemed to be that an unborn baby who has committed the ‘crime’ of being conceived through rape should be destroyed, and that anyone questioning the morality of an abortion in such circumstances is automatically deemed to be heartless and unfeeling. Maybe we aren’t as clever at constructing our own morality as we think we are?

Chinese dissident, Ma Jian, portrayed a searing indictment of his society in the novel The Dark Road. In one passage, possibly the most harrowing piece of literature you are ever likely to read, Jian graphically describes how a woman who had violated China’s One Child Policy is subjected to a forced abortion. One of the most horrifying aspects of Jian’s tale is that the mother-to-be is the one who is deemed to have acted immorally. She has threatened the wellbeing of Chinese society by conceiving a second child. She has contributed to overpopulation and selfishly endangered the economic miracle that is dragging millions of people out of poverty. Yet the power of Jian’s novel lies in the fact that we know, deep down inside, that such arguments are wrong and always will be wrong. Even if State propaganda were to convince every single human being of the rightness of the One Child policy – it would still be wrong. No matter how we construct our morality to say otherwise, there is an absolute and objective morality by which it is wrong to kidnap a young woman, wrong to strap her to a table, wrong to forcibly inject poison into her unborn child’s head, and wrong to then strangle her baby when it still emerges alive from the womb.

‘Eugenics’ refers to the planned improvement of the human race’s genetic stock – giving evolution a bit of a helping hand, if you will. Two of the leading pioneers in the field of birth control, Marie Stopes and Margaret Sanger (Founder of Planned Parenthood), were supporters of eugenics. Stopes argued that deficiencies could be weeded out of populations by racial purification. Sanger, who once observed that Aboriginal Australians were “just a step higher than the chimpanzee,” advocated rigorous immigration controls and the forced sterilisation of “the undeniably feeble-minded.”

Actually, both Stopes and Sanger were opposed to abortion. Sanger believed that life should not be taken after conception, and that the numbers of abortions then taking place in the United States (although a mere fraction of today’s figures) were “a disgrace to civilisation.” Stopes referred to abortion as the murder of an unborn child. However, as we continue subjectively to ‘construct our own morality’ things have obviously changed. Today the Marie Stopes International NGO is a leading provider of abortions worldwide (including China) and Planned Parenthood is the largest promoter and provider of abortions in the United States.

Which brings us to the next step in constructing our own morality – Richard Dawkins’ claim that knowingly allowing an unborn child with Down’s Syndrome to survive to birth is an immoral act.

I have some experience of being a parent to a daughter with severe physical limitations and challenges. I have never parented a child with Down’s Syndrome, but those who have tell me that their children experience great joy and fulfilment in life, and are a blessing to their parents and siblings.

Yet somehow, in constructing a non-absolute morality, the lives of children with Down’s Syndrome have, in at least one atheist’s mind, become not only expendable, but morally undesirable.

It is true that sometimes religions, including the Christian varieties of religion, have done some horrible things. People often fail to live up to their own moral standards. Others find theological and dogmatic excuses to evade moral responsibility. Still others have failed miserably in expressing a morality which reflects the compassion of Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, we should remember that discovering what is right and what is wrong is still one of the greatest pursuits we can follow as moral beings made in the image of God.

But woe betide the human race, and particularly its weakest and most vulnerable members, if we become arrogant enough to think that we have the right to abandon the quest for absolute or objective morality and instead construct our own subjective morality created in our own flawed and selfish image.


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