Some things we know, others we don’t. Barring the Apocalypse, we know that the sun will set in the evening, only to rise in the morning. Book it. We even know precisely when it will happen each day. We can accurately predict how fast and far a mouse or an elephant will free-fall from a given height.
But we run into trouble when predicting, say, the weather. Since ancient times man has been trying to accurately do it. In 650 B.C., the Babylonians were reading clouds and haloes-with limited success. In 300 B.C., Chinese astronomers created a weather calendar. Today we use weather balloons, computers, and even satellites, wonderful advances but still not foolproof. When was the last time a weather prediction went wrong for you? Then there’s the Old Farmer’s Almanac, which claims 80% accuracy. And don’t forget bunions.
Just as we can be wrong about the weather, we can be wrong about the potential of a human being. There is a story that goes like this: A professor asks her medical students for advice about a married couple’s problem. The man has syphilis; the woman has tuberculosis. Of their children, one is blind, another died, a third is deaf and dumb, and the fourth has TB. Would you abort the next? “Yes,” said the students. The professor responded: “Congratulations, you just aborted Beethoven.” Who’da thunk it?
But evolutionary biologist and outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins calls the story “the great Beethoven fallacy.” According to Dawkins, Beethoven was actually the oldest surviving child, and his parents were not diseased. He notes that there is no connection between the parents’ conditions and Beethoven’s musical genius. As for the abortion, Dawkins argues that the world would have lost Beethoven just the same if his parents had abstained from intercourse. Some who agree with Dawkins offer a counter-story. A woman decided to save her baby from abortion even though her first three children had died and the father was her half-uncle. The saved baby was Adolph Hitler. Again, who’da thunk it?
And Dawkins has now gone further. In a recent tweet, he said that it would be “immoral” to knowingly bear a child having Down syndrome. In the firestorm that followed, Dawkins wrote that the “moral and sensible choice” is to abort. Given a desire to “increase the sum of happiness and end suffering,” giving birth might be “immoral from the point of view of the child’s own welfare.” A mother would be “condemning” herself to a lifetime of caring for the child and a great concern about who would do so after the mother’s death. Dawkins has previously stated that, “[r]elevant to the morality of abortion, any fetus is less human than an adult pig.” Dawkins is certainly outspoken. But do his views amount to the great Dawkins fallacy?
We can take Dawkins at his word that he desires increased happiness and an end to suffering. That is noble. But it is also unrealistic anywhere short of Heaven. Imperfections pervade our world. The circumstances of our lives can be amazingly trying. Our minds and bodies break down at all stages of life. Loved ones die, some tragically. So will we. Atheist or believer, it is the unchangeable reality. The issue becomes: what do we do about that reality. As for the unborn and their parents, Dawkins’ solution seems to be that if you can see a problem ahead of birth, just end the pregnancy and start again. He has said as much.
Dawkins’ views raise an important question for all of us: are some lives just not worth living? Perhaps another story will help. Born of reserved, even distant parents, a badly bullied kid spent lots of time in his room hiding from his tormentors. He described himself as growing up “short, shy, chubby, and lonely.” In high school he took to acting and became good at it. Success, even great success followed. But something was missing. He could not find true peace and happiness. He liked alcohol and drugs until they became his new tormentors. He was in and out of rehab centers to lick his addictions to alcohol and cocaine. He was married, then divorced, then married again, then divorced again, then married for a third time, and that marriage ended, too. Unable to cope any longer, he cut one wrist and died alone in a closet, hanging from a belt. Would anyone say that Robin Williams’ life was not worth living? That it would have been better for him and his loved ones – and us, too – that he had not been born?
What Dawkins misses is that the value of a life is not measured by its problems and limitations. Life has value by the very fact of our humanity, whatever the stage of development. Life is a gift from God, or for Dawkins, from something other than himself. And with life comes potential. Every unborn baby is a life with potential, not a potential life. Back to Beethoven, we can assume that Dawkins is correct about the facts. He is certainly correct that there is no connection between syphilis, tuberculosis, and musical genius. But who said that there was? The story is about the potential that flows from the gift of life. Beethoven succeeded because with his God-given mind and will, he used his God-given talent for good. Hitler didn’t. But one person’s failures, even his madness, do not justify taking life from others.
So what is the potential of a child with Down syndrome? Well, she can model clothing. He can play high school football or be a batboy for a professional team. She can be elected to a city council. He can climb on Mt. Everest. They all can be happy – the fact for 99% of people with Down syndrome. And they can, and do, bring happiness to those they touch. Even in their struggles, those with Down syndrome know the joy of life, and their joy is infectious. They change our lives for the better. That may be why they’re here: to change the lives of all who in some way come to know them. They give us a deeper reason to love.
We can never predict the value of another human life. It’s enough to know that in every unborn baby is the start of a sunrise. God works in wondrous ways. Book it.
Paul V. Esposito is a Catholic lawyer who writes on a variety of pro-life topics. He and his wife Kathy live in Elmhurst, Illinois and have six children.