About that Fertility Clinic Abortion Question

About that Fertility Clinic Abortion Question October 26, 2017

One thing that has been circling around my facebook newfeed lately is a “challenge” by Patrick Tomlinson. He believes that he has the scenario that traps pro-lifers in an intellectual conundrum. Since I am a pro-life, let me see if I must bow to his superior thinking. Here is what he put on his Twitter account.

“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. Because a lot of people are missing the point, it is not being argued the embryos are not alive. Nor is it being argued they are without value. All that is being demonstrated is their value is not equal to that of a human child. That’s it. That’s the point.”

He is pretty proud of himself huh? He should not be. Some version of this thought challenge has been around for a while. It has not derailed the pro-life movement thus far and it will not now. I think Mr. Tomlinson knows this. He blocks anyone who does not offer the answer he wants. You know. Someone who shows critical thinking. This type of blocking is a great sign of someone who is insecure of his intellectual position. Well I am going to provide an answer for Mr. Tomilinson’s challenge, and he is welcome to come to this blog and try to answer me. I will not block his comments as long as they are not laced with profanity. Trust me that I do not fear an intellectual confrontation with someone who has the need to block dissenting opinions.

The problem with his scenario is that he does not provide enough information and then demands an A or B answer. Try this. “You are driving and you come to a deadend. You have to turn either right or left. Turning right will get you to a grocery store. Turning left will get you to a gas station. Tell me what you do. Left or right as there are no other choices.” Of course you cannot answer this scenario unless you have more info. Are you hungry? Is your car almost out of fuel? Knowing whether we need to feed you or the car provides the answer to that question. Quite simply, you need more information.

The same can be said with the fertility clinic scenario. What is going to be done with the embryos? Are they just some experiment to be used for unethical purposes? Are they high risk embryos not likely to survive? Or perhaps they are already deemed to be cast out since they are unwanted? Since I cannot know what is to be done with them, my choice is clear. I save the child.

This is pretty much like triage. If a doctor has the option of saving a five year old that he or she knows can be saved or work on ten people who are going to die anyway, then the doctor should work on the kid. But that by no means indicates that the ten people’s lives are worth less than the child’s. You save the life you know you can save rather than take a risk with those you do not know you can save. It really is an easy answer and without the implications Tomlinson suggests.

So Tomlinson botched the set up for this scenario. Not quite as smart as he thinks. So let me help him make it more difficult. Let’s say that we now know the embryos are going to be implanted into a thousand healthy 40 year old women who desperately want their kid. I note that the success rate for such implantation is 25%. So now what decision do we make?

The right intellectual answer is save the embryos. In doing so, you save the lives of about 250 people. Those people are going to live if you save them. This is what science says will happen if we implant those 1,000 embryos in healthy 40 year olds. It is horrible that the five year old will die in a tragedy. So there are no good choices in this. But the right intellectual, and I believe moral, answer is to save the embryos if we are given this additional information.

However, this is a very emotionally dissatisfying answer. The idea of allowing a five year old to die is disturbing. I understand that. It is Tomlinson who is trying to emotionally manipulate his audience. But ultimately this is a variation of the thought experiment known as the Trolley problem. Looking at the Trolley problem also shows why this scenario is emotionally difficult.

Here is the Trolley problem:

There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person tied up on the side track. You have two options:
1. Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track.
2. Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person.
Which is the most ethical choice?

So do we save five lives by acting on switching the lever? A certain percentage of Americans agree that we should switch the lever. They act in a way that will kill one person to save the lives of five. I think they are making the right, difficult choice. So basically if the embryos are to be implanted in healthy women, then the fertility clinic scenario becomes a modified Trolley problem.

But here is what is very interesting about the Trolley problem. There is another version of this thought experiment. In that version instead of pulling a lever, the respondent must push a fat person onto the track to stop the train from killing five people. When respondents are given this scenario they are far less likely to save the five lives. They are much more willing to pull the lever than to push the fat person.

Now let’s think about this. The result is the same. The respondent acts in a manner to take the lives of an innocent person to save five innocent people. But the difference is pulling the lever or pushing a person creates an emotional visceral reaction. Intellectually many of the same people who knew they should allow the single person to die could not do it when they had to push someone on to the track.

We can know what we should do intellectually but balk at the emotional consequences of our decision. Using a hypothetical five year old to emotionally manipulate others is not the best way to make the right moral choices. This type of manipulation is not a good way to measure commitment to the notion of life beginning at conception. There are viable arguments against the pro-life position. This is not one of them.


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  • Lynn Betts

    Thanks for dealing with this illustration; I hadn’t seen it before.

    As you suggest, I do think Mr. Tomlinson oversells the point illustrated. Given the heat in the debate, I’m not surprised. But I think the illustration does effectively raise some important points in the ProLife/ProChoice debate.

    I take it from your response that your view/the ProLife view is that every life from conception until death has “equal value” since you seem to base your answer on the number of lives saved, regardless of stage of development? (“The right intellectual answer is save the embryos. In doing so, you save the lives of about 250 people.”)

    You add: “It is horrible that the five year old will die in a tragedy. So there are no good choices in this. But the right intellectual, and I believe moral, answer is to save the embryos if we are given this additional information.” “However, this is a very emotionally dissatisfying answer. The idea of allowing a five year old to die is disturbing.”

    Since our laws have a moral basis (not that they are perfect, of course), do you believe typical state or federal law would favor saving the embryos over saving the child?

    If one believes “personhood” begins at birth, rather than conception, of course, there is no moral quandry. The illustration does point out that most of us, most of the time, use a metric much more akin to this than conception, and being made aware of this has some value.

    – “It is Tomlinson who is trying to emotionally manipulate his audience.” I don’t see that the illustration itself is an inordinate appeal to emotion; he is at least trying to put a clearly-human “face” on the matter, though his additional language gets more emotional.

    Thanks for any clarifying thoughts.

    • George Yancey

      I think state law would not put the child and the embryo in the same status. And given my triage perspective I am perfectly comfortable wit that reality. We do not know what is to be done with the embryo while the child is here with us.

      • Lynn Betts

        Thanks.
        If I understand your response correctly, you believe state law would place a higher value on the child than the embryo, yet you still believe the right intellectual and moral choice would be to save the embryos, based on a matter of greater “headcount”?
        (If this is a misunderstanding, do let me know, I’m just trying to clarify.)

        Another thought come to mind in making the decision on headcount alone. Part of this is a terminology thing: what you term the right “intellectual” choice seems to be a purely “mathematical” choice, while a fully “intellectual” choice could be broader. This comes from the following reasoning:

        So, shouldn’t there be some measure of “extra value” given in the equation to the life that is in a state that will experience physical, psychological and emotional trauma (pain and suffering) – i.e., the child, while no such “extra value” should apply to the embryos since they are incapable of experiencing such trauma? (Notice that considering the broader dimensions makes it more than merely a mathematical choice, though the other factors are given a mathematical value.)

        So, if one were using a more thorough equation to represent the choice (save the child or the embryos), there should not be a one-for-one comparison of child to embryo, but some larger factor to represent the child (maybe even infinity) since we know that it will experience trauma in its death by fire, yet the embryos will not)?

        Thanks for any response.

        • George Yancey

          Even though state law places a higher value it is because we cannot know what is going to be done with them. But as I stated in my article if we know they are going to be put into a thousand healthy 40 year olds then we are looking at 250 lives versus 1.

  • tc

    I too saw this question on Facebook. I agree that it is wrongly stated. However, one thing you didn’t bring up or also challenge was the stated assumption. The original author’s assumption was that all pro-life people assume life begins at conception. In math terms, he has two sets of people, but mislabels one of the sets. The proper labels are those who believe life begins at conception and those that don’t. In the latter set, there still remains others who believe that life begins prior to birth, including those who agree with the sustainability requirement (e.g., Carl Sagan’s position). There are those that believe Leviticus that life = blood (Dana Reeve in letter to President). Just some thoughts. OBTW, I really enjoying your posts. They are very balanced and thought provoking.

  • getdiscus

    Your argument boils down to: “I don’t know what a thought experiment is, so I’m going to call his question bad and insult his intelligence.”

    I don’t know why you’re so impressed with yourself over it.

    Also, where’s the Disqus? If you get any significant commentage, especially trolls, you’re going to really feel the limitations of this inline comment system. Just a thought.