Does the Fertility Clinic Illustration Disprove the Value of Human Embryos?

A tweet thread from pro-choicer Patrick S. Tomlinson this week said (paraphrasing): I’ve posed this dilemma to pro-lifers. The answer always proves they don’t really believe an embryo is as valuable as a human child. So here’s the challenge. You’re in a fertility clinic. There’s a fire. You’re running down the hallway to the exit. You run by a room. There’s a screaming two-year-old and there’s a canister of 1,000 frozen embryos. You can only grab one. Which do you grab? Most likely, you would grab the two-year-old. Therefore, he says, the fact that you wouldn’t save the embryos proves you don’t really think embryos are equivalent to children.

Our Emotions Aren’t Necessarily Rational

Let me offer a parallel example to make a vital point regarding answering this challenge. I was listening to a radio broadcaster who was promoting the idea of capital punishment. Somebody called in and said, “If your son committed a vicious capital crime, I bet you would try to get him off. This shows you don’t really believe in capital punishment.” The talk show host responded, “This doesn’t show I’m inconsistent. All it shows is that I’m a father.”

The point is that we may have very good reasons demonstrating the humanity of frozen embryos; yet at the same time, an emotion-inciting moral dilemma could cause us to make a decision that’s inconsistent with the ethical argument we’ve made. All this shows is that we’re human beings who make emotional decisions, sometimes based on appearances, in a no-win hypothetical.

If someone were to grab the canister rather than the toddler, I don’t think any pro-lifer would fault him because we believe those are human beings and a choice had to be made. It would be a terribly wrenching result, but that’s the point of moral dilemmas—there’s a terrible, wrenching result either way. And saving the embryos is a morally valid choice.

Our Emotional Response Is a Red Herring

There’s an inherent problem in offering moral dilemma hypotheticals to rebut the pro-life argument. Moral dilemmas, by design, make us choose. But the choice doesn’t rebut the argument for the intrinsic value of embryonic human beings. The dilemma simply forces us to make a choice in a no-win situation. It doesn’t draw out buried intuitions that show our real values; it draws out our emotions in a forced choice.

If somebody wants to argue against the pro-life case, he can’t look at the emotional reactions of people in a tense situation. He’s got to look at the argument itself. The dilemma is a red herring. In other words, it brings out an emotional set of circumstances that draws one away from the argument and focuses on people’s emotional responses. Then it postures as if it has really dealt with the argument when it hasn’t.

Our Emotional Connections to Some Don’t Disprove the Humanity of Others

As one person replied in a tweet, the fact that Sophie, in the film Sophie’s Choice, made the choice to save her son didn’t mean she thought her daughter wasn’t a valuable human being. She was simply forced to make a choice.

What if Sophie’s choice were between her two children and five of someone else’s children? She has a chance to save two or five. She can save her own two children or save the other five and send her own to the crematorium. If she chose to save her own children in that situation, I don’t think anyone would fault her for that decision. And no one would say she didn’t really believe in the full humanity of those other five children. In the same way, the fertility clinic illustration can show us where our emotional attachments lie, but it takes us nowhere with regard to the question of the humanity and value of the embryonic human being.

Proving Insincerity Doesn’t Disprove Arguments

Let’s just take it another step. Let’s say the person offering this challenge is right when he says you don’t really believe the embryos are human beings. Just because a pro-lifer doesn’t really believe what he espouses, that doesn’t make the embryos nonhuman. Even if we’re inconsistent or don’t believe what we espouse, that doesn’t change the actual facts. The arguments still haven’t been refuted; the illustration has only possibly revealed that a pro-lifer isn’t sincere.

That’s why arguments against the humanity of embryonic human beings have to go back to the pro-life argument itself and the reasons it offers, not an emotional hypothetical.

blog post |
Greg Koukl

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