The Burning Research Lab Objection

Author Amy K. Hall Published on 09/06/2012

Here’s a common objection offered against the idea that an embryonic human is a valuable human being: Imagine you’re in a research lab when a fire breaks out, and you have to choose to save either a two-year-old or ten frozen embryos. Which do you choose?

The objection is meant to show that the embryos are not really human beings, and to prove to the pro-lifer that, deep down, he knows they’re not. After all, if they were all equally human, then the pro-lifer would automatically choose the ten embryos, right?

In Scott Klusendorf’s The Case for Life, he offers a succinct answer to the burning research lab challenge:

The objection fails for three reasons. First, how does choosing to save one human being over another prove the one left behind is not human? Given a choice between saving my daughter and a building full of other people, I would save my own kid. Would that prove the others were not human beings?

Second, the debate over embryonic stem cell research 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. Saving my own kid first is permissible. Shooting those left behind is not, even if it would increase my chances of escape.

Third, moral intuitions are important, but they are not infallible. We must examine them in light of reason. A little over a century ago, many whites thought it unthinkable that anyone would consider black slaves human beings…. Thus, it’s no stretch to imagine a proponent of slavery putting the following challenge to a northern abolitionist: “Your barn is burning. You have a choice of saving a Negro slave or a white schoolboy. Which would you choose?” If a majority of abolitionists leave the black kid behind, does that change the kind of thing he is or, more to the point, justify our killing him to get the white kid out?

For more on answering this challenge, here’s Alan’s response: