What Is an Embryo Worth?

The Deadly Intuitions Behind Abortion

The science of embryology has not been kind to pro-abortionists, but that hasn’t stopped a popular comedian from doing his best to dismiss it.

Science establishes that, from the earliest stages of development, the unborn are distinct, living, and whole human beings. True, they have yet to grow and mature, but they are whole human beings nonetheless. Leading embryology textbooks such as The Developing Human, Langman’s Embryology, and Human Embryology and Teratology affirm this.

Rather than refute the scientific evidence for the humanity of the unborn, some justify abortion with a direct appeal to intuition. To be clear, moral intuitions are more than hunches. They are strong, stable, immediate moral beliefs requiring no prior justification. They are properly basic, or, as America’s founders wrote, “self-evident.”

Statements like “rape is wrong” and “murder is wrong” are properly basic. You don’t need a syllogism to defend them. Anyone demanding proof that rape and murder are wrong does not need an argument; he needs a psychologist! The truth of the statements is immediate, direct, and obvious. From a Christian worldview, a wise Creator built these intuitional truths into our nature. Indeed, if you don’t have some foundational truths in place to begin with, you can’t know anything at all.

Do Intuitions Justify Abortion?

Nevertheless, some beliefs we think are self-evident may not be. In a fallen world, our intuitions are not infallible. In some cases, they are subject to correction by superior evidence, thus proving they are not self-evident after all. A recent series of tweets by comedian Patrick S. Tomlinson is a case in point.

“In a fallen world, our intuitions are not infallible.”

Tomlinson thinks he has a slam-dunk defense of abortion. Actually, it’s not his; it’s a rehash of a thought experiment first put forward (in separate essays over the last thirty years) by Michael Sandel, Dean Stretton, George Annas, and Ellen Goodman — to name a few. Nevertheless, Tomlinson thinks he’s destroyed the pro-life case for the humanity of the unborn and the inhumanity of abortion. In a series of tweets, he writes:

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. . . . Here it is.

You’re in a [burning] 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 eviscerates 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.

Tomlinson is convinced his thought experiment justifies abortion by squaring with our intuitions about whom we should save. But does it?

Answering the Wrong Question

Right away, Tomlinson is off the rails. The abortion controversy is about whom we may intentionally kill. His thought experiment is about whom we should intentionally save. See the problem?

“From the earliest stages of development, the unborn are distinct, living, and whole human beings.”

Put simply, how does it follow that because you save one human over others, the ones left behind are not fully human and we may intentionally kill them? Suppose I’m in a burning lecture hall with fifty of my students. I can save either my students or my 17-year-old daughter Emily Rose, who is there as a guest. Whom do I save? If I save my daughter, does it follow that those left behind are not human or that I may shoot them on the way out?

Let’s review the pro-life syllogism:

Premise 1: It is wrong to intentionally kill an innocent human being.
Premise 2: Abortion intentionally kills an innocent human being.
Conclusion: Therefore, abortion is morally wrong.

Suppose pro-lifers save the 5-year-old instead of the embryos. How does Tomlinson’s analogy refute the pro-life syllogism? It doesn’t. At best, it shows that pro-lifers inconsistently apply their ethic, not that they are mistaken about the science of embryology or the immorality of intentionally killing innocent human beings.

Now, I don’t think pro-lifers would be inconsistent to save the 5-year-old, for reasons I discuss below. But let’s play along. Suppose pro-lifers say the unborn are human but, when called to act on their stated beliefs, they shrink from doing so. What follows? Has the humanity of the unborn been discredited?

An abolitionist in the 1860s might save the family dog over a transient slave, thus exposing the abolitionist’s real beliefs about slaves. How would that in any way change the essential nature of the slave, or, worse still, justify intentionally killing him? Let’s go further: Suppose no whites in 1860 believed slaves were human. Did their beliefs about the slave determine what he was?

Why One Might Save the Child

Besides this, there exist several reasons one might pick the child over the embryos without diminishing the value of the embryos.

“How does it follow that because you save one human over others, the ones left behind are not fully human?”

Imagine a medical complex is on fire. I can save one hundred frozen embryos or one thousand terminally ill cancer patients lying unconscious in their final hours of life. If I save the embryos, are the cancer patients less human and less valuable than embryos? Certainly not. Rather, additional considerations guide my actions. While embryos and cancer patients are equally human and valuable, the embryos stand a better chance of getting out alive. Some will make it to birth. Thus, given the triage situation confronting me, I save the embryos.

Similar considerations guide me to save the 5-year-old over the frozen embryos in Tomlinson’s thought experiment. Once again, both are equal in fundamental dignity. However, the 5-year-old has a much greater chance at survival. Frozen embryos face challenging odds going from canister to womb to birth. Even when successfully thawed, many embryos spontaneously abort after implantation.

Moreover, a 5-year-old can feel pain while embryos cannot. Given a choice between letting a human being die in profound agony and letting others die with no agony at all, you save the former. Finally, there are social concerns. The 5-year-old has family and a local community. If she perishes, dozens — if not hundreds — are impacted by the loss. Not so with embryos, where painful grief is largely restricted to immediate family.

Missing the Point

Of course, none of these considerations diminishes the humanity of the embryos or justifies intentionally killing them. Rather, these factors are tiebreakers when deciding to save one human being over others. When gunfire erupts, a Secret Service agent will take a bullet for the president of the United States but not an ordinary citizen. And if Washington, DC, is attacked, he will save the president over an entire city. What does that say about the intrinsic value of those left behind?

It says nothing at all. While all human life is equally sacred, the consequences of losing the president are catastrophic to the whole nation. The Secret Service knows this and acts accordingly.

In sum, Tomlinson’s thought experiment misses the point. As Ramesh Ponnuru writes in The Party of Death, “The moral question posed by the burning-building scenarios is the extent to which you can show favoritism without being unjust.” In these scenarios, he writes, “We might reasonably take account of all kinds of things — family ties, the life prospects of potential rescuees, the suffering they would undergo if not rescued, etc. — that aren’t relevant to the question: Can we kill them?”