Every once in a while, a pro-choicer will try to entrap a pro-lifer with a thought experiment. “Oh, you claim microscopic embryos are human? Well, imagine you’re in an IVF lab that’s on fire, and you only have time to make one rescue before the whole thing burns down. Do you save a crying toddler, or do you rescue a cooler that holds thirty frozen fertilized eggs?”
This is supposed to be an unbeatable trap. If you save the toddler, that proves you think a born child is more real than even 30 fertilized eggs, and since you claimed life begins at conception, that makes you a liar; but if you save the fertilized eggs, which is saving 30 people, that means you’re choosing to let a crying child perish in flames, and that makes you a monster.
Well. I believe that life begins at conception, and I would save the crying child, because people in horrible situations do the best they can, and all it proves is that horrible situations are horrible. We respond to human impulses, and our humanity compels us to rescue the person most present to us.
If a pro-choicer in a similar burning building chose to save his own child instead of a child he’s never met, or a crying child instead of a sleeping child, that wouldn’t prove he thinks the child he doesn’t save is less human; it just shows that some situations are horrible, and we do the best we can. I can simultaneously believe that the fertilized eggs are fully human, and know that I would save the human who was calling to me for help. It’s an impossible situation (as well as a vanishingly unlikely one).
One of many repulsive things about thought experiments like this is that they create enmity where none truly exists. They try to force us to see born children as competing with unborn children for our mercy. It invites us to think of one or the other as less worthy, as more deserving of death. It is intrinsically manipulative and depersonalizing, for both of the subjects of the story and of the person to whom the dilemma is posed.
Dishonest people love to set up this kind of manipulative dilemma, not only in arguments about abortion, but in all kinds of arguments that have become about so much more than the actual people involved. Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.