A False Abortion Dilemma

Salon recently contended that a “Twitter thought experiment” conducted by science fiction writer Patrick Tomlinson had exposed the blatant hypocrisy of pro-life advocates, using the following hypothetical scenario:

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.

Tomlinson had already received an honest, excellent, and fairly comprehensive answer from Ben Shapiro before I even noticed the story floating about the internet. He answered “A”, that he’d save the child, before highlighting several logical deficiencies in Tomlinson’s hypothetical argument. Shapiro pointed out was that the situation described was absurd because it created a false dichotomy, implying that the embryos could only have equal or zero relative value to a human child outside the womb. In reality, fertility clinics are profitable because frozen embryos have significant financial value, in addition to the moral value of human life. Nevertheless, Mr. Tomlinson insisted that his argument had completely eviscerated the pro-life position, and so that’s when I felt compelled to join in the conversation.

As Ben Shapiro suggested before I got involved, the hypothetical fire scenario simply wasn’t very logical or realistic. In fact, it makes no sense whatsoever. Why on earth would a five-year-old child be left alone in a fertility clinic? Where is the child’s mother supposed to be? And why does a fertility clinic, with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment and inventory, have no sprinkler systems to protect their valuable investments?

The entire premise for this “thought experiment” was patently absurd. Apparently science fiction writers don’t need to be terribly concerned about constructing believable or even plausible plots to capture the imagination of their readers. Nevertheless, for the sake of the debate, I will pretend the scenario isn’t ridiculous and stupid, and I’ll put forth an honest effort to give Mr. Tomlinson an honest, straightforward answer — option “A.”

I’d save the child and leave the embryos behind. Mr. Tomlinson asserts that means he’s won the “debate.” According to him, when pro-life advocate concede the point that the child outside the womb will experience pain but the embryo will not, it proves his argument that the child has greater value, but also implies the embryo has no value at all by comparison. However, Tomlinson made an epic blunder when he tried to explain the rationale of his fictitious scenario:

They [pro-life advocates] 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 to are trying to manipulate you so they can control women.*

To be brutally honest, Tomlinson couldn’t have made a more laughable claim, easily refuted using the words and opinions of the actual experts on this subject.

For example, embryologist Dianne N. Irving wrote, “Abortion is the destruction of a human being” — and it’s her job to know that sort of thing.

Also, Dr. Irving was hardly alone in her professional opinion that life begins at conception. In a publication called Medical Embryology, Jan Langman wrote:

The development of a human being begins with fertilization, a process by which two highly specialized cells, the spermatozoon from the male and the oocyte from the female, unite to give rise to a new organism, the zygote. (1)

And if that remains insufficient corroborating evidence, in their textbook Human Embryology & Teratology, Ronan O’Rahilly and Fabiola Muller wrote this:

Although life is a continuous process, fertilization is a critical landmark because, under ordinary circumstances, a new, genetically distinct human organism is thereby formed…. The combination of 23 chromosomes present in each pronucleus results in 46 chromosomes in the zygote. Thus the diploid number is restored and the embryonic genome is formed. The embryo now exists as a genetic unity. (2)

It is merely stating the obvious to remind readers that by definition, an organism is alive.

Therefore, it seems Mr. Tomlinson’s claim nobody believes that life begins at conception was at best a gross exaggeration, and a blatantly obvious prevarication at worst. It would have been far more accurate for Tomlinson to say that practically everyone but him believes life begins at conception.

Though that rather audacious claim illustrated a fatal flaw in Tomlinson’s argument, it was far from the only problem. Tomlinson completely ignores the unpredictable nature of human behavior, arrogantly assuming the same constraints on his own imagination will have universal application. He creates a false dichotomy with only one real choice by definition when he insists the child and embryos can’t both be saved — but how would our hypothetical hero intuitively know that fact? In stressful and near-panic situations, people tend not to think clearly and logically. Our hypothetical hero is more likely to make snap decisions than carefully mull over the options.

I tweeted a response to Mr. Tomlinson acknowledging that I chose option “A” to save the child, based on the logic that the human embryos had not yet developed to the point of having nerve cells. After all, the child would experience pain that the embryos would not. His reply was laced with foul language and churlish insults. I rejected his claim that my answer proved his point (that an embryo has no value compared to a human life), because that claim is absurd — an embryo is alive, and indisputably human.

As Ben Shapiro had already pointed out, agreeing to save the life of the five-year-old child didn’t mean the embryos weren’t alive, or not human beings. It only meant that our hypothetical hero wouldn’t be able to hear any embryo screams, because they haven’t developed vocal cords. Lacking a central nervous system at that early stage of development, embryos wouldn’t feel any pain. .

Abortion advocates tend to gravitate toward extreme positions to make their arguments sound more reasonable, often mentioning cases of rape or incest to justify medically terminating the life of an unborn child. However, the vast majority of abortions are performed for the sake of convenience, as a form of birth control.

The unborn child in her womb is usually characterized as tissue that is part of the woman’s body — the father’s DNA is equally important in forming the embryo.

Apparently, Mr. Tomlinson will only accept answers from pro-life advocates confined to options “A” (save child) and “B” (save embryos), refusing to allow for any option “C”.

The problem with that approach is that ordinary people can have extraordinary personal moral convictions that inspire them to engage in incredibly dangerous behavior that allows them to accomplish feats considered by “normal” people to be impossible.

Anyone doubting the veracity of my claim needs to see the movie Hacksaw Ridge, which tells the true story of Desmond Doss, the only conscientious objector in U.S. military history awarded the Medal of Honor for his bravery in the Battle of Okinawa. During that brutal battle, Doss saved the lives of nearly one hundred wounded soldiers by carrying them to safety. Doss adamantly refused to kill — he was more than willing to risk his life to save a fellow soldier, but he wouldn’t even shoot back at the enemy trying to kill him.

My point is inarguable — human behavior can be wildly unpredictable. We can’t simply assume that only those two options exist. Somebody will eventually come to believe that some third option is available, and take it.

Only an amoral monster with no soul would ignore a cries of a terrified child in a burning building and choose to save a metal canister with 1000 embryos. And only a moron would argue that a living human being isn’t actually alive.

An intriguing variation on this same sort of psychological thought experiment involving ethical decision-making in life-and-death scenarios was even explored in the “Batman” flick The Dark Knight. In that movie the Joker wired two ferries with explosives that could be detonated by remote control. Prison convicts and guards occupied one ferry, and the second was full of ordinary citizens, including women and children. The captain of each ferry was given a detonator that would explode the other bomb. If no one acted before the Joker’s deadline expired, he promised that both boats would be destroyed.

Like Mr. Tomlinson, the Joker fully expected the participants in his “experiment” would accept that their options were limited to the two choices he’d given them.

But that wasn’t what happened.

Perhaps the most compelling character that emerged during the experiment was a businessman who assured everyone that he would use the detonator if given the chance. But when that same man had the opportunity, he discovered that he literally couldn’t pull the trigger. The scene brilliantly illustrated that it’s easy for a person to claim that he or she will act in a certain way in a specific situation, but the reality is that people don’t always do what they say. For example, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Peter insisted that he would never abandon Jesus, yet less that 24 hours later, he’d denied knowing Jesus three times, as Jesus had predicted.

Simply because an embryo won’t feel the pain that a five-year-old child would doesn’t mean the embryo has no intrinsic value. It also doesn’t mean that an embryo is somehow not a human being. Simply because people who place a very high value on human life have truthfully admitted they would try to save the child who would feel pain doesn’t make pro-life advocates moral hypocrites. Nor does it mean that embryos are anything less than a living human being. The point really isn’t arguable.

It’s a well-established scientific fact that life begins at conception.

  1. Langman, Jan. Medical Embryology. 3rd edition. Baltimore: Williams and Wilkins, 1975, p. 3.
  2. O’Rahilly, Ronan and Muller, Fabiola. Human Embryology & Teratology. 2nd edition. New York: Wiley-Liss, 1996, pp. 8, 29.

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