If you could rescue EITHER embryos OR a 5-year-old, what would you do?

I'm Scheming Unborn Baby, and I approve this study
I’m Scheming Unborn Baby, and I approve this message

I overheard Ben Shapiro talking about some pro-abortion tweet that went viral on Twitter. Basically, the snarky pro-abortion person tried to make the case that unborn children don’t deserve legal protections because people have a moral intuition to save a 5-year-old instead of an embryo, if they can only choose one. The best response to this dilemma comes from Robert George, professor at Princeton University and Christopher Tollefsen.

Their article was posted at The Public Discourse.


We agree that considering the case as described by Sandel, most people in Jones’s circumstances would choose to rescue the girl. However, this by no means shows that human embryos are not human beings or that they may be deliberately killed to produce stem cells, or in an abortion.

The first thing to notice is that the case as described is not, in fact, analogous to the suggestion that we should perform embryo-destructive research for the benefits it might provide us, or to the suggestion that it is permissible to abort an unborn human being. In both such cases, we are being invited to kill, or authorize the killing of, human embryos or fetuses in order to provide benefits to others. But in the fire scenario, there is no killing; the deaths of the embryos who are lost when Jones opts to save the girl are not killings—no one is acting to destroy the embryos or cause their deaths—but rather are the kind of death we accept as side effects in various cases in which, for example, acting to save one or some persons means that we are unable to save another or others.

Second, there are differences between the embryos and the five-year-old girl that are or can be morally relevant to the decision concerning whom to rescue. For example, the five-year-old will suffer great terror and pain in the fire, but the embryos will not. Moreover, the family of the five-year-old presumably loves her and has developed bonds of attachment and affection with her that will mean much greater grief in the event of her death than in the event of the death of the embryos. While these concerns would not justify killing, they can play a legitimate role in determining how we may allocate scarce resources and, in some cases, whom we may or should rescue. Often, the (or at least a) morally correct decision cannot be made just on the numbers—a point that even utilitarians are willing to acknowledge. And so, for example, it is morally relevant in some cases where choices of whom to rescue must be made that a person we could save is (for example) our own son or daughter, even if saving him or her means that we cannot save, say, three of our neighbors’ children who end up perishing in the fire from which we saved our own child.

The analogy, like Judith Jarvis Thomson’s violin analogy, completely ignores the fact that in a pregnancy, the baby is created as a result of the decisions of the mother and the father of the baby. This is not some stranger, this is their child. And in the case of abortion, it’s not being done to save a 5-year-old. I once heard of a case where a woman killed her unborn child so she wouldn’t look fat on the beach, during her vacation. Hardly a morally sufficient reason.

I really liked this:

The possibility that resources might be used and even, perhaps, lives risked to save the frozen embryos calls to mind the story with which we began our book Embryo: A Defense of Human Life. In 2005, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, a police crew in New Orleans did save a canister of fourteen hundred human embryos from a hospital. Our book began with Noah, one of those embryos, who sixteen months later emerged, via Caesarean section, into the light of the world and his parents’ love. But if those officers had never made it to Noah’s hospital, or if they had abandoned those canisters of liquid nitrogen, the toll of Katrina would have been fourteen hundred human beings higher than it already was, and Noah, sadly, would have perished before having the opportunity to meet his loving family.

The harm of abortion is exactly like the harm of murder in general… each act deprives a person of all of their future. And this against the victim’s will, and without adequate moral justification.

An embryo has a unique genetic signature different from his mother, different from his father. He is a different person, and, if given shelter and food, he will grow up just like any of us do. Is it such a terrible thing to give food and shelter to another human being, that was created as a direct result of the choices of grown-ups? We don’t get to resort to murder of others just in order to make our own lives easier, do we?

7 thoughts on “If you could rescue EITHER embryos OR a 5-year-old, what would you do?”

  1. Embryos vs the kid: my favorite example of a strawman fallacy. Gotta love it when pro-choicers make a debate that easy!


  2. I get Public Discourse articles delivered to my email inbox. I got this one later in the day when I first saw a leftist acquaintance post to Facebook the pro-abortion meme with a picture of the self-satisfied-looking dude who supposedly had never had any pro-life person face up to his oh-so challenging thought experiment. I had no problem answering, but then saw this Robert George piece and immediately posted it on Facebook. To my knowledge, the acquaintance has not read it, seen it or in any case has not responded to it. I’ll need to nudge him a bit.
    At the same time, those who find the meme clever are the same people who, when asked how they’d choose between saving a murderer…say, John Wayne Gacy…or a dog from a burning building, will almost always choose the dog. We see human life in every person, good or bad, young, old or embryonic. But they think they’re being moral.


  3. There’s another problem with the analogy that it shares with other modern analogies: they are not realistic at all but pragmatic. The goal is to get ends to justify means.

    In the “analogy”, you need to choose between saving one life or another, knowing with complete certainty the outcome of your choice and all the factors involved. Real life has none of this sort of thing. No one makes moral decisions like this. Real moral decisions are based on principles and have uncertain outcomes. Pragmatic analogies make a joke of morality while trying to make profound claims about it. They ignore every single detail of a moral decision except the most important and then claim absolutely certain knowledge of the outcomes of the moral decision.

    It’s good that the response is to show how worthless the analogy is in representing anything meaningful. If the purpose of offering an analogy is to try and make it easier to think clearly about something, we should question the motives of people who use analogies to hide things instead.


  4. Euthyphro dilemma with a TWISTt! It is a false dichotomy on so many fronts. 1).Save either ” Frozen embryos (FE) or child ” is like saying which would you choose apples or oranges. Yes, both are fruits ( souls ) but the contents, quality, potentials are vastly different for example: Not all FE will survive implantation. 2) The question assumes only two alternatives. Whereas in reality there can be numerous options.
    If we look at the big picture in regards to Technology and Homo sapiens in image of God….
    I believe the KEY is the book of Genesis: We can gleam and fish out the principles. Gen 1:28 …be fruitful and multiply..and if we read further on to Gen 2 ..about relationship to each other and God. Male lonely God have helpmate woman. Couple to leave their families of origins and start their own family….physical, emotional, spiritual…thus marriage…..Adam and Eve….not Adam and John or Eve and Jennifer etc. Notice this plan God has throughout OT. Notice also exceptions are allowed like divorce, polygamy ( ? ) we are not told why it was allowed. I am not advocating but stating God did allow exception to his model for us. In NT we notice that God never sanctioned or accepted anything other than marriage but he allowed divorce etc. Other words sex in proper context resulting in “bundle of joy for all” is what God desire for our happiness with HIM. Notice God Adam Eve. There were no ” go between Adam and Eve.” By that I mean IVF or GIFT ( in vitro fertilization, gamete intrafallopian transfer ) etc. These I believe are morally acceptable like divorce.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s