A couple of weeks ago, at worship, I was seated behind a family, one member of which was a young woman in a wheelchair. I'm no physician, so I can't assume to name her condition, but she was fairly contorted; she was almost supine in her chair. She seemed a bit agitated as well; there were a couple of times a family member felt it necessary to take her out of the service. It was abundantly clear, however, that her family members loved her, and were not "put out" by her condition or the potential disruption she might have caused. I was very happy to see them there.
Last week, at the same house of worship, I was sitting on the opposite side of the building, and behind another family. This one was more "conventional" -- a mom and a dad and their baby boy, as well as a set of grandparents. The boy slept in his carrier through most of the service, and, when awake, was the "perfect angel" (i.e., quiet, but alert). He was taken out of the service, too, but for a very different (diaper-related) reason. Again, the family was clearly very loving and attentive to the boy. I was equally happy to see them there.
At both services, sitting behind both families, one of the main things that kept running through my mind was the recent firestorm created by Richard Dawkins (evolutionary biologist and noted "new atheist"). He responded to someone who was wondering about potentially being pregnant with a "kid with Down's Syndrome". Dawkins' response was "@InYourFaceNYer Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice."* As might be imagined, this tweet "went viral" and created a HUGE backlash against Dawkins, especially from the Down's Syndrome and the Right-to-Life communities. Dawkins subsequently tried to justify his position by pointing out how many Down's Syndrome foetuses are aborted already. And he questioned whether or not the foetuses could suffer. And, then, finally, he published a more complete response, suggesting that if he weren't limited to the 140 characters of Twitter, he would have given a more nuanced, logical, rational, answer. The gist of that more "complete" response was that aborting the foetus would be a mercy to the foetus, preventing it from experiencing future suffering. He also states that the choice to bring to term a child with Down's Syndrome would "condemn" (his word!) the parent(s) "to a lifetime of caring for an adult with the needs of a child".
Now, I can take issue with Prof. Dawkins for any number of reasons. Clearly, his position as one of the spokespeople for the "new atheists" puts him and me at odds over some fundamental theological issues. The question of abortion in such a circumstance is certainly problematic on a number of fronts. I am not choosing, here, to step into those troubled waters. I have, however, two other thoughts stemming from Prof. Dawkins' assertions.
First, I can't imagine that he could assert that a life without suffering is possible. According to his Wikipedia biography, he is currently in his third marriage. I don't know the circumstances, but if he had not experienced some level of suffering because of the dissolution of his first two marriages, I'd have to wonder about his humanity. I bring that up only to suggest, as have many throughout history -- perhaps, most notably, the Buddha -- that the very fact of living includes some level of suffering. If that is the case, then Dawkins' logic would compel us to abort every pregnancy. Hmmmmm.
Secondly, I'm not sure "caring" for someone is a "condemnation", unless one is driven by a totally selfish motivation (Dawkins DID, on the other hand, write the book, The Selfish Gene. Just an observation.) This question derives from my experiences over the last couple of weeks at worship, my own experience as a parent, indeed, my experience as a human being. Suffering -- our own, and that of our children -- is basically inevitable (unless we've been able to achieve enlightenment as suggested by the Buddhist tradition). The circumstances or troubles we face may be visible or invisible to others. They may have been the results of bad choices, or problematic genes, or freak accidents of weather. The reasons matter not. The question of our response to that condition, it seems to me, is the critical issue. What I saw in the faces of those family members of those two (VERY different) children was compassion. Love. It was not "logical" resignation to being condemned to care.
It was, I think, an illogical, irrational choice of commitment to care in the face of real life. Of course, those attitudes are what our religious traditions would commend. Sign me up.
*Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) August 20, 2014