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  • Paul Stark

The embryo rescue argument doesn't show that some human beings are expendable

An author named Patrick S. Tomlinson recently caused a stir on Twitter (32,000+ retweets) by presenting an illustration that he says "absolutely evicerates [pro-life] arguments."

It's a version of a thought experiment dating back to the 1980s that is sometimes offered by supporters of abortion or embryo-destructive research. Moral philosopher S. Matthew Liao (who rejects the argument) calls it "the embryo rescue case."

It goes like this. Imagine that a fertility clinic is on fire. You can rescue either a five-year-old child or a canister containing a large number of frozen human embryos. You cannot rescue both. Whom do you save?

Most people would save the child rather than the embryos. And Tomlinson thinks that this means people don't really think human embryos have equal value. "A human child is worth more than a thousand embryos," he says. "Or ten thousand. Or a million." Pro-life advocates, he concludes, are hypocrites for pretending otherwise.

But the embryo rescue case shows no such thing. As Robert P. George and Christopher Tollefsen note, the scenario doesn't involve intentionally killing anyone (as do abortion and embryo-destructive research). Rather, it presents a dilemma about whom to save when not everyone can be saved. And it seems clear that numerous factors might reasonably play a role in making that decision—without entailing that the individuals left behind don't matter.

Consider, for example, familial relationships. A man confronted with the choice of saving either his daughter or five neighbor boys might choose to save his own daughter. But that doesn't mean that the neighbor boys aren't human beings who have human rights. It certainly doesn't mean that it would be permissible to kill them.

Consider other factors. A firefighter might opt to save a screaming nurse who would suffer horrifically in a hospital fire rather than a comatose patient who would not. The firefighter might choose one healthy toddler over ten terminal patients who wouldn't survive anyway.

Many considerations like these apply to the embryo rescue case. Why could it be reasonable for someone to save the five-year-old rather than a large number of embryos? One reason is that frozen embryos, even if rescued, face a long and uncertain road. They must live through the thawing process, be adopted (if their genetic parents do not want them), and then successfully implant, gestate, and reach birth. A born child has a far, far better chance of making it.

Sometimes, however, people might indeed opt to save embryos. An infertile mother might choose to save her own frozen embryonic offspring rather than a five-year-old stranger. A man might choose to save two pregnant women rather than three male teenagers.

Here's the bottom line. Different facts may be relevant when deciding whom to rescue when rescuing everyone is not an option. But making such a decision does not entail that some human beings aren't valuable. It does not entail that killing some human beings is acceptable. It does not entail a rejection of the fundamental moral equality of all members of the human family.

Neighbor boys matter. Comatose and terminally ill patients matter. Teenagers matter. And so do human beings at the embryonic stage of their lives.

Even if pro-life advocates were inconsistent in their views or actions, however, that would not mean that the pro-life position is mistaken. It would not mean that human embryos don't matter. It would only mean that pro-lifers are inconsistent. "All this shows is that we're human beings who make emotional decisions, sometimes based on appearances, in a no-win hypothetical," says Greg Koukl.

To show that the pro-life position is wrong, one would have to actually show that the pro-life position is wrong. The embryo rescue argument doesn't do that.

Tomlinson thinks it's just intuitively obvious that "a human child is worth more than a thousand embryos." Many people are inclined to agree. But intuitions can be misleading.

"[A] two-month-old child resembles an adult human person more than … an embryo in the lab does, which gives one an emotional attachment to the child," writes ethicist Scott B. Rae. "But surface appearances and the emotions they engender are, by themselves, inadequate guides for moral reflection." Surface appearances, indeed, have often served as the basis for unjust discrimination.

George and Tollefsen tell the true story of the rescue of a child in 2005:

Noah Benton Markham's life had been jeopardized by the winds and rain of Hurricane Katrina. Trapped in a flooded hospital in New Orleans, Noah depended upon the timely work of seven Illinois Conservation Police officers and three Louisiana State Police officers who used flat-bottomed boats to rescue Noah and take him to safety. …

What … makes [Noah's story] unique? … The answer is that Noah has the distinction of being one of the youngest residents of New Orleans to be saved from Katrina: When the police officers entered the hospital where Noah was trapped, he was an embryo, a human being in the very earliest stages of development, frozen with fourteen hundred other embryos in canisters of liquid nitrogen.

Noah was born in early 2007. He is now a child, but he was once an embryo, as we all were. His life was worth saving.

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