No, Saving A Child Instead Of Embryos In A Burning Building Does Not Negate The Pro-Life Position

No, Saving A Child Instead Of Embryos In A Burning Building Does Not Negate The Pro-Life Position

A recent highly viral tweetstorm by author Patrick Tomlinson claims pro-lifers can’t think their way out of this thought experiment. He’s wrong.
Daniel Payne
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Any argument in favor of killing innocent people tends to be, you know, kind of hard to swallow, but some arguments are more compelling and clever than others. They make you at least able to see why certain people are pro-choice.

Then there are the deeply, viciously stupid pro-abortion arguments, the ones so profoundly inept, vapid, and useless that they make you question the base mental competency of the people who advance them. Such is the case with a recent highly viral tweetstorm by author Patrick Tomlinson, whose Twitter thread on the topic is worth quoting in full (presented here in a more easy-to-comprehend format):

Whenever abortion comes up, I have a question I’ve been asking for ten years now of the ‘Life begins at Conception’ crowd. In ten years, no one has EVER answered it honestly. It’s a simple scenario with two outcomes. No one ever wants to pick one, because the correct answer destroys their argument. And there IS a correct answer, which is why the pro-life crowd hates the question.

Here it is. You’re in a fertility clinic. Why isn’t important. The fire alarm goes off. You run for the exit. As you run down this hallway, you hear a child screaming from behind a door. You throw open the door and find a five-year-old child crying for help. They’re in one corner of the room. In the other corner, you spot a frozen container labeled ‘1000 Viable Human Embryos.’

The smoke is rising. You start to choke. You know you can grab one or the other, but not both before you succumb to smoke inhalation and die, saving no one. Do you A) save the child, or B) save the thousand embryos? There is no ‘C.’ ‘C means you all die.

In a decade of arguing with anti-abortion people about the definition of human life, I have never gotten a single straight A or B answer to this question. And I never will. They will never answer honestly, because we all instinctively understand the right answer is ‘A.’

A human child is worth more than a thousand embryos. Or ten thousand. Or a million. Because they are not the same, not morally, not ethically, not biologically. This question absolutely evicerates [sic] their arguments, and their refusal to answer confirms that they know it to be true.

No one, anywhere, actually believes an embryo is equivalent to a child. That person does not exist. They are lying to you. They are lying to you to try and evoke an emotional response, a paternal response, using false-equivalency.

No one believes life begins at conception. No one believes embryos are babies, or children. Those who cliam [sic] to are trying to manipulate you so they can control women. Don’t let them. Use this question to call them out. Reveal them for what they are. Demand they answer your question, and when they don’t, slap that big ol’ Scarlet P of the Patriarchy on them. The end.

I find it difficult to believe Tomlinson has actually been posing this question to pro-lifers for “a decade.” Every pro-lifer I know, anyway, would feel perfectly comfortable giving a straight answer to this question. The answer, of course, is that you save the child. This is not really a difficult answer, and it is not difficult to see why. Nor is it difficult to spot the glaring, almost viscerally self-evident fallacy Tomlinson conveniently ignored.

So Let’s Get Into Why

The reasons for saving the child are numerous and obvious. A five-year-old can feel pain, for instance—tremendous amounts of it—and viable embryos, even 1,000 embryos, cannot. If it is a choice between letting a human being die in profound and brutal agony and letting many of them die with no agony at all, it seems a fairly easy choice to choose the latter.

There is also a great deal of emotional difference between the death of a five-year-old and the death of an embryo: the five-year-old has likely formed many relationships with many people who have come to know, love, cherish and treasure him, and he them in return. There may be many people—even a few thousand!—who feel profound and special attachment to their viable embryos, and would feel great loss at their perishing. But the loss associated with embryos is not emotionally or mentally comparable to the loss of a five-year-old, just as the disappointment one feels in the event of a three-month miscarriage is not comparable to the loss one feels at a nine-month stillborn baby.

A more complex but still valid reason for saving the five-year-old is that he has a better chance of living out his natural life than many of the embryonic humans do: the rates of successful pregnancy from in vitro fertilization are very low. Moreover, perhaps upwards of 50 percent of pregnancies end in miscarriages. There is a greater likelihood that the child will live than will many if not all of the embryos.

This Does Not Negate the Pro-Life Position, However

At this point pro-choicers tend to think they have you over a barrel. They believe that, by choosing a five-year-old over human embryos, they have “destroyed your argument” in favor of the sanctity of preborn life. They are wrong, and in all likelihood they know it.

Making a difficult practical decision between saving one life or another (or many others), does not in any way negate the sanctity of either life. If I were in a burning building and came across a healthy five-year-old and a terminal cancer patient, I would elect to save the five-year-old. But my decision wouldn’t mean that a terminal cancer patient is somehow innately “not the same, not morally, not ethically, not biologically,” as the five-year-old.

Similarly, if I came across two five-year-olds, one screaming and the other in a deep but temporary coma, I would save the screaming one: the former can die in terrible agony, while the latter will die without it.

The examples are endless. As National Review’s Charlie Cooke sarcastically demonstrated on Twitter, one’s decision to save one’s own family over another person’s family does not somehow mean that the other family is “not worth saving.” Only a fool would believe as much.

Similarly, NR’s Ramesh Ponnuru, in his book “The Party of Death,” points out that “the moral question posed by the burning-building scenarios is the extent to which you can show favoritism without being unjust.” In these scenarios, he writes, “we might reasonably take account of all kinds of things—family ties, the life prospects of potential rescuees, the suffering they would undergo if not rescued, etc—that aren’t relevant to the question: Can we kill them?”

At The Daily Wire, Ben Shapiro points out the hollowness of the thought experiment’s premise through another question: “[Y]ou can save the box of embryos or you can save the life of a woman who will die of cancer tomorrow. Which one do you save? If you choose the embryos, is the cancer-ridden woman therefore of no moral value?”

Purposeful Killing and Accidental Death Are Different

In his book “The Case For Life,” Scott Klusendorf writes that the debate over the status of embryos “is not about choosing whom we’re going to save, as in the case of the burning lab. It’s about whom we’re going to deliberately kill to benefit us.”

Just so. The nature of these difficult theoretical decisions says nothing about the sanctity and precious value of all human life, embryonic or otherwise. All it says is that, in the event that we are presented with the responsibility to make a hard and painful choice, we will do so based upon many different important factors.

Saving a five-year-old child over an embryo, or even a thousand of them, doesn’t mean the embryos are not human beings; it doesn’t mean that, ceteris paribus, they should not be valued and protected as much as any other human should be; and it certainly doesn’t mean that it should be okay to murder them while they’re in the womb or at any other time.

We should never forget that this is the ultimate aim of pro-abortion politics: to make it legally and morally acceptable to murder innocent human beings. Who wants to take ethical advice from someone who countenances such brutal and savage barbarity? I sure don’t.

Daniel Payne is a senior contributor at the Federalist. He is an assistant editor for The College Fix, the news magazine of the Student Free Press Association. Daniel's work has appeared in outlets such as National Review Online, Reason, Front Porch Republic, and elsewhere. His personal blog can be found at Trial of the Century. He lives in Virginia.
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