RTE broadcaster Brendan O’Connor has been praised for the ‘measured’ response he gave to scientist Richard Dawkins’s views on the ethics surrounding Down Syndrome.
Brendan, the host of the Brendan O’Connor Show on weekend mornings, is the father of two children, Anna, who was born in 2008, and Mary, who was born in 2010.
Mary was born with Down Syndrome, and Brendan has spoken and written openly and extensively about the additional needs his youngest daughter has, as well as the difficulty of accessing adequate services in Ireland. English scientist Professor Richard Dawkins appeared on the Brendan O’Connor Show on Sunday to discuss a new collection of his writings on books, Books Do Furnish A Life.
Professor Dawkins has long divided opinion due to his uncompromising, arguably militant atheism, and his controversial views on evolutionary biology and ethics, particularly when it comes to transgender issues and questions surrounding disabilities.
During the course of the wide-ranging interview, Brendan broached the topic of Down Syndrome, questioning the 80-year-old Oxford academic on an exchange he had on Twitter in 2014 in which he stated that it would be ‘immoral’ not to abort a child known to have the condition.
Professor Dawkins’s tweet was in response to a woman who stated that she would be faced with a real ethical quandary if she found out her unborn child would have Down Syndrome. He wrote: ‘Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice.’
The Cork man was frank from the outset, saying: ‘I’ll be completely honest with you and say I have a kind of interest in this myself, and I promise you I’m not taking any offence by it or anything, I’m just curious about it.’
He continued: ‘How do you think it is immoral to bring someone with Down Syndrome into the world?’
Professor Dawkins responded: ‘I think that once you have a child with Down Syndrome, you love it, you cherish it, everybody does, that’s well known, I wouldn’t deny that for one single moment. But before it’s born, the vast number of people who take an Amniocentesis and is diagnosed with Down Syndrome, as a matter of fact do abort it. This is just a fact.’
Brendan stressed that he accepts that fact and wouldn’t judge anyone’s choice to do so, but questioned once more the supposed immorality of bringing a baby with Down Syndrome into the world.
Professor Dawkins responded: ‘Well, that was probably putting it a bit too strongly, but given that the amount of suffering in the world probably does not go down, probably does go up, compared to having another child who doesn’t have Down Syndrome, then that’s what I meant. ‘But I want to stress over and over again that I was of course not suggesting that people who already have a Down Syndrome child don’t love it, shouldn’t love it.’
Brendan went on to ask how Professor Dawkins knows that bringing a child with Down Syndrome into the world increases overall suffering, to which he responded: ‘I don’t know it for certain, it seems to me to be plausible that if a child has any kind of disability then you probably would increase the amount of happiness in the world more by having another child instead.’
When Professor Dawkins admitted that he has no ‘direct evidence’ to support this theory, Brendan quipped: ‘You’re such a scientific, logical person that I thought that you could possibly have some logical back-up to it. So, do you know anyone with Down Syndrome.’
When pressed on the morality of such a decision, Professor Dawkins took back his earlier comment, saying: ‘I think that it would be wise and sensible to abort a child which had a serious disability which was diagnosed early in pregnancy, and I suspect almost everybody does that in practice.’
Brendan concluded by saying: ‘You know children who are so-called perfect can cause terrible suffering in the world as well, but I suppose we have no way of checking.’
LISTEN TO BRENDAN O'CONNOR'S INTERVIEW WITH RICHARD DAWKINS HERE: