Good evening, Dr. Dawkins, and thanks for sparing me the happiness of rest. I did not need a late night espresso to write this. Normally, I think your positions are so outlandish and senseless as not to warrant attention. This time, you struck a different nerve: the logic of my hidden maternity.
“Those who thought I was bossily telling a woman what to do rather than let her choose, of course this was absolutely not my intention and I apologise if brevity made it look that way. My true intention was, as stated at length above, simply to say what I personally would do, based upon my own assessment of the pragmatics of the case, and my own moral philosophy which in turn is based on a desire to increase happiness and reduce suffering … “Those who took offense 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.”
—Richard Dawkins, responding to reactions on his Tweet, 20 August 2014, to a woman a who posited a ‘real ethical dilemma’ if she became pregnant with a baby with Down’s syndrome. Dawkins tweeted: “Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice.”
The reality is simple: that you think suffering is meaningless, to be eradicated at the very cost of (non) human lives. What you forget is that at the heart of reducing suffering is the bigger sacrifice: the reduction not just of broken human life we terminate, but of humanity itself; not just of suffering humanity, the ‘it’ ‘non humanity’ you alluded to this week, but my humanity and your humanity — the sentient, reasoning, ‘functional’ humanity of those you think differ from the suffering ‘not yet human’, ‘it’ masses, whose existence you consider meaningless, and protection immoral.
You think mere emotions guide decisions on suffering. But the reality is different and pretty basic. No human emotion is void of the logic of human existence, or the use of human reason. To sever this connection is to sever mind and body. Which would make you, by your own thinking, less than a person.
On the other hand, I think the forms of agonizing suffering everywhere experienced are surely the absence of great goods we desire, and they cause us existential pain, but they are not nearly the absence of meaning in our being. In fact, and radically unlike you, I think suffering probes us deeply to discover the essence of who we are as free persons, and that apart from it, we would be less free. You should try thinking this way. You might slowly recover yourself in the process.
And so, while abortion would never be an option in the moral framework of the truth of human existence I choose to stake my life upon, what I can concede is that the choice to abort, or the calculus you ascribe to diminish suffering in human life generally, is itself a choice that many make, thinking, albeit wrongly, that they are incapable of surviving pain, or should ‘reduce it’, as you say, to increase a perceived happiness. This is the basic narrative of the current state of affairs.
The truth departs from this narrative. It is simply that happiness does not come as a logical consequence of reducing suffering, as if by some calculus we could bring real happiness upon ourselves. Happiness is altogether distinct from suffering, and, in fact, possible even in the midst of pain. Any happiness we know is but a shadow of happiness substantially considered. Suffering, quite contrarily, heightens our awareness of our desire for happiness. For it is is often by privation of a good we so desire, that we truly come to realize how good that good actually is. The privation of happiness, through suffering or other experience, teaches us something of what happiness is in its essence. Suffering, then, is surely a difficult reality of the human condition, but it is paradoxically helpful to living a fully human life.
It is so that a choice to reduce suffering of another ‘potential not yet person’, by terminating their ‘not’ life may well ‘decrease’, even eliminate that persons’ actual physical suffering, and the suffering of those who would need to care for them, but it also simultaneously crushes any potential for their/our happiness as well. The net gain in this calculation is null. It may, in fact, be negative: a significant loss.
Rather, the only result here is a rejection of our own humanity, and a full negation of its capacity for resilience; it is the annihilation of our own free nature first — shared at it is with other members of our suffering rational species — such that, by ‘terminating a pregnancy’, or killing a living human being in the many senseless ways this is done each day, what we do simultaneously is also annihilate ourselves.
The debate here is not only about fetal sentience, or sensory possibilities of pain, or when life begins, or personal choice, or viability. Granted, these are critical differences at the origin of all we disagree on.
The debate plays out on a higher plane. It is the central question of who we are meant to be, what happiness is, and whether this human life, with its finitude and imperfections, its lacks and suffering, its agonies and joys, is the end and sum all of there is to strive for — whether and what for it is even worth living.
You have built a career and a platform on denying the existence of God, and proposing the reduction of suffering by means even of terminating human life. You have done more than build a career; you are risking your own freedom in the process, by denying yourself the possibility of knowing more than you think you know. None of this surprises me. Yours is not a novel argument. In fact, it is pretty logical. If God does not exist, than the very reality of human life has no foundation expect a purely specious one: we are reduced to a biological accident. And sure, as humans reproduce, human life is ‘replaceable’, although never equally, never exactly. We can try again, but to produce something, someone else. To limit yourself in this way is a choice you have made — a radically impoverished one.
All this considered, however, what you have yet to achieve is to crush, to obliterate that primordial instinct for life which suffering teaches pointedly even when life ends. And this is the critical distinction between reducing us to pure biology, and the far more convincing alternative understanding of the nature of persons as an integrity of physical body and immaterial soul.
But this is not a letter only to you. Nor do I presume here to tackle the complexity of your confusion, or the immensity of your intellectual project. I’ll leave that to your intellectual peers.
It is a letter with a far more singular aim; a rather personal one — the preservation of the integrity and meaning of my own life, in its physical and spiritual dimensions, in the search for a rational intelligibility of my own suffering.
It is a letter also to the children I would give my life to have — the ‘It’ that you think we should abort and try again to replace — that ‘It’ I would try heaven and earth again to even conceive. It is a defense of the primordial privilege you will never truly know: the thrill and irrepressible human happiness of maternity.
So here is my response to ‘Abort it, and try it again’.
I would not abort you and try it again, because I see no substantive difference between you and me.
I would not abort you and try it again, because I cannot try again to make exactly what no longer is.
I would not abort you and try it again, because the culture may tell me you are ‘it’, but my body tells me otherwise.
I would not abort you and try it again, because why bother if you are nothing. I should not notice you.
I would not abort you and try it again, because I suffer the want of you, absent.
I would not abort you and try it again, because the poverty of your hidden life is a greater strength in the misery of mine.
I would not abort you and try it again, because love always triumphs over pain.
I would not abort you and try it again, because to love another is to be fully human, and yes, godly too.
I would not abort you and try it again, because once we destroy, rebuilding (you) is hard, and replacing impossible.
I would not abort you and try it again, because ending your life is to also end a part of mine.
I would not abort you and try it again, because I have a unique and singular responsibility for you, that no one else shares.
I would not abort you and try it again, because I am free not to, and I take my freedom seriously.
I would not abort you and try it again, because your suffering is my suffering, whether you live or whether you die. To suffer with you, is to live.
I would not abort you and try it again, because the price of trying again is a failure to try now.
I would not abort you and try it again, because even if I had to spend my life caring for you, I would want no other life.
I would not abort you and try it again, because choosing you means first choosing myself.
I would not abort you and try it again, because you have a soul I did not create, and cannot destroy, however hard I might wish to try.
I would not abort you and try it again, because everyone I know who has a child like you would sooner die, than see you die.
I would not abort you and try it again, because I am not sure I could ever replace the happiness you would give me. I would never know it, if I did abort you, and tried again.
I would not abort you and try it again, because I can not predict my life today, and tomorrow might be the end of it.
I would not abort you and try it again, because telling me to do so is to insult my freedom, and crush my dignity as woman.
I would not abort you and try it again, because letting me choose to try it again is setting the bar too low.
And setting the bar too low, is a degradation to women.
I would not abort you and try it again, because to suffer for you is to live more fully myself.
I would not abort you and try it again, because too many have disappeared in an effort to try again.
I would not abort you and try it again, because the heart beating within you is coursing my very blood, and shedding my blood seems senseless suffering.
I would not abort you and try it again, because even if I could have brought you to birth and you had suffered, you have already given me what I could never have given myself: happiness to know just that you lived.
And having the happiness of knowing you lived, I would not abort you and try it again, because you are, and trying again would bring someone else.
I could never have you back.
I would not abort you and try it again, because what a tragedy it would have been if I never had you.
I would not abort you and try it again, because innocence is your name, and I still dread the darkness of your death.
I would not abort you and try it again, because this world is stark and in it you are a flicker of life.
I would not abort you and try it again, because you, absent, have taught me the value of my soul.
I would not abort you and try it again, because you are the daughter whose face I never actually saw.
I would not abort you and try it again, because without you, trying again would make no sense.
My child, my daughter, I would not abort you and try it again, because the hidden maternity I live through you, is the the greatest suffering of joy I will ever know on this side of happiness.
Dr. Dawkins, as your ‘true intention’ was, …, simply to say what [you] personally would do, based upon [your] own assessment of the pragmatics of the case, and [your] own moral philosophy which in turn is based on a desire to increase happiness and reduce suffering’, perhaps you might now try to explain to me what you would do, considering the pragmatics of my case, to increase my happiness and reduce my suffering.
I wonder — is it, perhaps, to end my life? And try it again?
You may reach Maria Grizzetti at IncarnationandModernity@gmail.com