JOURNALISTS abide by unwritten rules that govern how they view themselves and what they believe to be the primary function of their trade. I’m about to break one of my own: until now, I’ve never backed or signed a petition. They risk undermining a journalist’s freedom to criticise organisations whose aims they might otherwise support.

The petition I signed last week was organised by the Down’s syndrome charity Don’t Screen Us Out in response to comments made by the scientist Richard Dawkins in a recent interview with Brendan O’Connor, the Irish radio presenter. During it, Mr O’Connor asks Professor Dawkins if he stands by advice he once offered to a woman who was unsure of the correct course of action in the event of being pregnant with a Down’s syndrome baby. The professor had told her: “Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have a choice.”

Mr O’Connor declares his interest in this debate from the outset. He has a daughter with Down’s syndrome but he maintains a high level of professional detachment throughout the interview and conducts it in a spirit of polite inquiry. What follows from Professor Dawkins is perhaps the bleakest evaluation of humanity you’re likely to hear in a modern setting. What adds to the chill factor, I think, is that it also prescribes an inevitable direction of travel when the state presumes to legislate on matters surrounding end-of-life care.

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The professor partially retreats from his original opinion by withdrawing the term ‘immoral’. He suggests rather that it would be “wise and sensible” in such circumstances to opt for an abortion. His justification for this is his assertion that “the amount of suffering in the world probably does not go down – probably goes up – compared to having another child who doesn’t have Down’s syndrome.” Professor Dawkins, a biologist who appeals to scientific fact during his regular trolling of people who profess religious faith, admits his view about what constitutes ‘suffering’ is evidence-free. “It seems to me to be plausible; I have no direct evidence,” he tells the interviewer when pressed.

We’ll leave aside the issue of how much an affluent white man residing in a rich country can ever fully grasp the concept of human suffering and its effects. These happy accidents of birth and the advantages they have bestowed on Mr Dawkins means he will always be inoculated from the suffering of multitudes of other humans less favoured. As a gifted biologist the professor has used his advantages well in advancing our understanding of ourselves and the world we inhabit. Inexplicably though, the knowledge he has gathered about the beautiful diversity of creation seems not to have increased his compassion for it, but soiled it. What he is professing amounts to eugenics: the belief that only the fittest or best-equipped among us deserve to experience quality in our lives.

Here, I must declare my own interest in this issue: I have a niece with Down’s syndrome. It’s impossible to convey in a column such as this how much hurt she would feel, knowing that another human being harboured thoughts such as these; how reduced; how unloved; how devalued. Ciara is a young woman now and, having known only the love of a large extended family, is embarking on a journey into adulthood and a future that holds the promise of good things.

She has already represented her country in various sports and, thanks to the skills, dedication and compassion of her primary school teachers (her secondary school experience, less so) she is living a full life. She is also contributing to the happiness of others, this being a basic requirement for peaceful co-existence on earth. Professor Dawkins in his cruel, arrogant ignorance believes she and millions of others with Down’s syndrome are incapable of such. And lacking any evidence he chooses to see only that which he regards as other and abnormal and that these must be feared – and thus destroyed. It is the philosophy of Salem.

HeraldScotland: Richard DawkinsRichard Dawkins

You hesitate to sign an entreaty that might adversely affect another’s ability to earn their keep. The Don’t Screen Us Out petition though, leaves room for Professor Dawkins to reconsider his views and their consequences for humanity if they ever entered the mainstream. It says this: “Penguin Random House publishes Richard Dawkins’ books. As a company, they make it clear that they “celebrate and actively promote diversity and inclusion in all its forms, including and not limited to the nine protected characteristics cited in The Equality Act 2010” including “disability”. They go on to say that “It is not acceptable to make dismissive or hostile remarks about a person on any basis or to make assumptions about someone’s lifestyle, interests or abilities.”

You may be tempted to dismiss criticism of the professor on the basis that, as a high-profile atheist they are consistent with a view that there is no ultimate force for good and that we must simply let the dice roll as they please. ‘Morality’ being merely existential, this is a grand space to inhabit in which you can set your own boundaries on what you consider to be ‘good’. It conveniently frees us from any moral obligation to make the world ‘better’.

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Yet, it’s not on the basis of uncertain and precarious religious faith that we must disdain Professor Dawkins’ barren evaluation of humanity. None of us was born complete. We will never be the finished article. At some point in our lives we will require to be fixed and restored. On these occasions the healing can only be provided by others and rests on their willingness to give something of themselves while asking nothing in return.

For many, the brokenness is long-lasting or permanent and may never be healed. This will call for an extraordinary measure of unconditional devotion that resists the urge to calculate cost or predict benefits. It’s perhaps the most perfect love of all, but it’s one which we all have the capacity to offer. Richard Dawkins possesses it too and I’m sad that he under-estimates his own ability to reach it.

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