Does Aborting The Disabled Reduce Suffering?

Does Aborting the disabled reduce suffering? We are continuing our series on the church and disabilities.  One of the most fundamental questions we face is whether or not people with disabilities should even be among us. When phrased that way, many people will probably recoil in horror.  But as we’ll see, this is position is not only held, but advocated for. 

As I said in an earlier post, a chapter from the book “Disney and Philosophy” got me thinking about the issue of the church and how we respond to those with disabilities.  But it’s not only the church, it is society as a whole that struggles with theses issues.  And how society views people in large part has to do with their acceptance in that same society.


David and I both have brothers with cognitive disabilities.  My brother has down syndrome, and David’s brother has Autism. My wife also suffers from chronic illnesses and physical disabilities.  So, we are intimately acquainted with many of the issues surrounding this community.  

I have to say that the way society interacts with the disabled has changed for the better.  We no longer automatically institutionalize those who have cognitive or sever physical disabilities.  This used to be the norm for such people.  Sadly, their outlook for a fulfilling life was often dim.  In this regard, we as a society have made great strides.  

Mixed Messages

But there is also a mixed message being sent.  For as we all strive to do better in how we treat those with disabilities, we also send a not to subtle message that their lives are less valuable than those of fully abled people.  And this is where our attitudes on abortion comes in.  

You see, one of the reasons often used to justify abortion is that the unborn child has a physical or potentially cognitive disability.  Therefore, it is reasoned, we should kill them in order to spare them the hardship of living a life of suffering.  This is seen as a compassionate thing to do.  

What Makes Us Human

Famed atheist and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins create quite a stir a few years ago.  The good doctor tweeted out the following response to someone who thought they might abort their child if genetic testing in the womb showed if might have down syndrome. “Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice.” 

Does Aborting The Disabled Reduce Suffering?

Dawkins later tried to clarify his position after he received scathing pushback to the tweet. He said “If your morality is based, as mine is, on a desire to increase the sum of happiness and reduce suffering, the decision to deliberately give birth to a Down’s baby, when you have the choice to abort it early in the pregnancy, might actually be immoral from the point of view of the child’s own welfare.” Dawkins makes two assumptions in his statements.  Both have moral significance. 

Myth: The Unborn Do Not Suffer

Dawkins argument is that is that aborting a child with disabilities “increases happiness and reduces suffering”. His first mistake is assuming that abortion itself has no negative effects on happiness or suffering.

The child most definitely does not escape suffering.  It is killed in the womb.  Having your life taken from you is the ultimate injustice.  Whether or not an unborn child is developed enough to feel pain, it is unjust to take their lives.  

The mother also does not escape suffering.  Many mothers that abort their children suffer emotionally, spiritually and physically from the procedure.  And no, the emotional suffering is not because they are being shamed by those opposing abortion.  This is understandable emotional pain at the loss of their child.   Physical complications from the procedure can make later childbearing more difficult or in rare cases, impossible.  So suffering is not avoided on either count. 

Suffering After Birth

 Dawkins second mistake is to assume that we can know the amount of suffering one will experience before they are born.  He also assumes that his definition of a life worth living should be accepted by all.  It never occurs to him that people might be perfectly content and happy living with a disability. 

All humans suffer. I’m sure that there are those with disabilities that wish they had never been born.  But in our own darkest moments, probably everyone has thought that at some point.  We also recognize that this is usually a temporary state.  And it would be foolish to end our lives to solve a temporary problem. 

Suffering among this disabled can take many forms.  From physical pain to mental struggles, the spectrum is wide.  Since we are dealing specifically with down syndrome in this post, I’ll mainly address the idea that there is suffering simply by having the disorder.  

Quality Of Life

People with down syndrome have a spectrum, just as there is with autism.  It affects some more severely than others.  Some are higher functioning, some are lower.  In my experience, their quality of life has far less to do with their mental capacity than how they are treated by those around them.  

Those who are loved and cared for live much more satisfying lives than those that are not. Should this be a surprise? Even perfectly abled children will not do well when they are treated poorly.  

Does Aborting The Disabled Reduce Suffering?

Some will argue that this is precisely why we should allow abortion.  Because parents that do not wish to care for a disabled child will suffer, and in turn pass that suffering on to their child. I think this is an idea that needs to be challenged.  

Parents can suffer greater emotional pain and have greater challenges from a perfectly abled child than a disabled one.  I’ve often said that I probably caused my parents much more suffering and headaches during my teen years than my brother ever did. If you go into parenting with the idea that you shouldn’t have to deal with any hardship, you are in for a severe let down.  

Just An Emotional Response?

Some of you are probably saying “Well, what do you expect.  He has a brother with down syndrome.  Of course, he’s going to argue for their right to exist”.  Dawkins shares your belief.  His final salvo in this debate was the following quote:

“Those who took offence because they know and love a person with Down’s syndrome, and who thought I was saying that their loved one had no right to exist, I have sympathy for this emotional point, but it is an emotional one not a logical one. It is one of a common family of errors, one that frequently arises in the abortion debate.”

But wait just a minute.  Doesn’t the fact that so many people love and cherish people with down syndrome defeat his argument?  Remember, it was his contention that having down syndrome reduces happiness and increases suffering.  People are telling him that this is not the case.  They are telling Dawkins that the exact opposite is true.  Not only are people with down syndrome leading happy and productive lives, but they are bringing joy to those around them as well.  

But here’s the rub. And it’s one that I’ll explore deeper in my next post.  What subtle message is being sent to those with disabilities by those like Dawkins? 

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