Back in October, I posted a question, posed by science fiction writer Patrick S. Tomlinson, that had been generating a lot of interesting conversations online from people passionate for and against abortion rights. It was a different take on the classic Trolley Problem and the point was to expose the hypocrisy of the anti-abortion movement.
It boiled down to this: A fertility clinic is on fire. You have to escape quickly but there’s a crying child near you. There’s also a container marked “1,000 Viable Human Embryos.” You can’t take both. Time is running out. What do you do: Save 1,000 embryos or the five-year-old? You have to pick one option or the other. You don’t get to change the premise of the question.
The assumption was that everyone would choose to save the child. (Who in their right mind would let the kid die?) But if you genuinely believed fetuses were humans, then wouldn’t you want to save all the embryos instead? When the anti-abortion crowd said they would save the child, they were contradicting their own beliefs. Checkmate.
At the end of the piece, I asked this question:
I’m genuinely curious if anyone can explain how saving the 1,000 embryos could be a valid option without coming off as an awful person… Is there a “pro-life” response to this question that makes any sense?
It would be wrong to ask that question and then ignore any attempts at a response. I wasn’t asking just for the hell of it. I really wanted to know.
One person who felt my logic was flawed was Kristine Kruszelnicki, the Executive Director of the group Pro-Life Humanists. She wanted to offer a rebuttal to my piece, and I think it would be disingenuous to not give her that opportunity, especially when I sought it out.
So here it is.
It appears to be a no-win for the pro-lifer. Pick the five year-old and you can clearly be accused of not believing your own claim that embryos are valuable human beings equal to born humans. (After all, if everyone is equal, aren’t 1,000 lives worth more than one life?) But if you’d save the 1,000 embryos only to leave a distraught child burning to death, you’ll surely appear to be, in Hemant’s words, “an awful person” or “looking like a monster.” What to do?
First off, let’s dispel with the “gotcha” element. Choosing one over another in a forced either/or scenario doesn’t automatically prove that the one not selected is not equally valuable. Consider the situation in the book and movie Sophie’s Choice where a mother had to choose which child to send to the gas chambers under threat of having to watch both children die. No one could justly accuse Sophie of not believing in the humanity of both her children. Not every choice is a value statement.
Second, our moral intuitions aren’t always correct, and many factors may complicate a dilemma. Psychologists have found, for instance, that while 90% of participants in Trolley Problem scenarios would pull a lever on a runaway train to save five lives over one life, only a third would do so if the single individual on the other track was their child, parent, or sibling.
Since emotions might lead two-thirds of us to rescue a loved one from a burning building at the expense of a room full of strangers, it becomes easier to understand how someone might choose embryos over a five-year-old without necessarily being a monster. Whether pro-choice or pro-life, the person whose only chance at biological parenthood was about to go up in flames with the vat of embryos might make a very different decision than would someone with less emotional involvement.
In fact, vats of frozen embryos have been saved under emergency situations. During Hurricane Katrina, a team of four police officers paddled a small boat up a flooded street to rescue 1,400 human embryos from a flooded hospital fertility clinic. That might seem like a waste of time and resources to those who don’t believe in the value of human embryos, but the children who developed from some of those rescued embryos, along with their parents, will argue otherwise.
One might also choose embryos over a five-year-old if background details informed the scenario, as is often done in Trolley Problem experiments. For instance, if the five-year-old was a terminal patient who wouldn’t survive another day, or if a virus had rendered all born humans infertile while leaving those last remaining embryos as humanity’s last hope, perhaps even a strongly pro-choice person would question their moral imperative under the circumstances.
Now as for the scenario as laid out by Tomlinson, I do believe that the moral decision is to save the five-year-old. Not for emotional reasons — although I would certainly have an easier time relating to her cries and her facial expressions than to tiny embryos. And not because I think less of embryos. All human bodies begin at fertilization and embryos are simply the youngest among us.
My decision to save the five-year-old in this particular scenario would rest on the child’s current capacity to suffer emotionally and physically in ways that embryos, by virtue of their age, cannot. The human body exists well before the capacity for suffering and consciousness has developed, but where the capacity for suffering is present, it becomes a factor in a death-by-fire situation. To be clear: one’s lack of suffering doesn’t justify the wanton taking of life, but if the pro-lifer is asked to choose between beings they regard as equally human, then whether or not one will suffer in death surely can’t be ignored.
And that’s why I’d like to strengthen Tomlinson’s argument in order to really bring out the point he intended to make: Suppose the five-year-old is comatose. We’ll also make her unwanted and despondent in order to eliminate emotional factors, such as her future aspirations or the existence of parents who might miss her. Assuming, as Tomlinson does, that the embryos are viable and will have a strong shot at surviving the rescue to eventually be born, now the pro-lifer who values born and pre-born lives equally is making a choice based only on the numbers.
Do we save one or do we “pull the switch on the track” and save a thousand? I think in this revised case, saving 1,000 embryos would be the morally correct decision even if it goes against our emotional intuitions.
And for those who think this dilemma is, as Hemant put it, “not complicated… because embryos aren’t babies,” why not test the logic behind my answer by pitting a crying five-year-old against 1,000 comatose infants? One will suffer in death, 1,000 will not. If suffering matters, you’ll save the one. Now put one comatose five-year-old in a room with 1,000 comatose infants (that you’d somehow have the strength and time to save in one swoop). All other factors being equal, wouldn’t you save the greater number if you viewed all of them as equally human?
Finally, while this moral dilemma is philosophically interesting, it contributes little to the abortion debate overall. Stump a pro-lifer with this question and, at best, you’ve exposed an inconsistency. That doesn’t disprove our central biological claim that human bodies begin at fertilization.
Most importantly, the world is not on fire and this scenario is really not analogous to elective abortion. Abortion is never a choice between saving a five-year-old or saving embryos. It’s almost always a choice to intentionally destroy a fetus or embryo — when nobody’s life was at stake and no one needed to die.
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