Thought experiments can be fun. When science-fiction author Patrick S. Tomlinson recently Tweeted his own thought experiment on the relative value of a child’s life and the lives of human embryos, it sparked viral debate, garnering sympathetic attention from the media as a “powerful question” that allegedly “shuts down the abortion argument.”
Tomlinson asks abortion opponents to imagine that they are in a fertility clinic when the fire alarm goes off. As you are making your escape, you suddenly hear a child crying in a closed room. When you open the door, you see a five-year-old child in one corner of the room and in another corner a container marked “1,000 Viable Human Embryos.” You only have time to save one—the child or the container. Which do you choose?
The Trolley Problem
Although Tomlinson’s scenario was promoted as a novel challenge certain to expose the hypocrisy of abortion opponents who insist that human life begins at conception—presuming that everyone would choose to save the child—it’s actually just a variant of the Trolley Problem. Ethicists have been using variations of this thought experiment for more than a century to analyze how human beings respond to the question “Which human lives do you consider more valuable?”
One common form of the dilemma is to imagine a runaway trolley. If allowed to maintain its course, the trolley will hit five people tied to the tracks. But if someone in the train yard throws a lever in time, the trolley can be diverted to another set of tracks where only one person is tied down. What should the switchman do? Does he allow the five people to be killed, or does he divert the trolley and allow the one person to be killed?
Tomlinson’s thought experiment runs along the same lines. You can save one child or you can save a thousand human embryos, but you cannot save both. Where Tomlinson’s proposal differs is that the choice he’s created isn’t between one human person and a group of several human persons but between one human person and a thousand supposedly “non-persons”:
We all instinctively understand the right answer is “A” [to save the five-year-old child]. 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.
Tomlinson assumes that the embryos are not actually persons with inherent human dignity and the right to life. If he did accept the proposition that the embryos are persons, his whole scenario becomes a matter of deciding which human beings should be saved from mortal peril.
Thinking through the hard cases
Abortion advocates sometimes assume that pro-lifers have never wrestled with hard cases, such as the problem of how to save human lives in situations where not all who are in danger can be saved. But in fact, these kinds of issues have been discussed by Christian philosophers for centuries. For example, to address situations where our actions can have both good and bad outcomes, St. Thomas Aquinas proposed what has become known as the principle of double effect:
Nothing hinders one act from having two effects, only one of which is intended, while the other is beside the intention. Now moral acts take their species according to what is intended, and not according to what is beside the intention.
In a pro-life context, the classic example of a double-effect situation is an ectopic pregnancy, in which an embryo implants in the mother’s fallopian tube instead of her uterus. If nothing is done, the tube will eventually burst and both mother and child will die. Under double effect, pro-life advocates acknowledge that it is morally licit to remove the fallopian tube in an effort to save the mother’s life, even though the embryo will die. It wouldn’t be morally licit to directly harm the child, but an act that aims to save the mother even if it results in the (unintended) death of the embryo would be licit.
Saving human lives
Though not identical, Tomlinson’s scenario is similar. We are not asked to take an action that will have an unintended side effect in which another human being could die; we are asked only to decide who we will save. In proposing this scenario, Tomlinson’s interest is not in figuring out who should be saved but in attempting to force pro-life advocates either to admit that human embryos are not human persons or to expose their “deception.” As he put it:
This question [of whom to save] 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. That person does not exist. They are lying to you.
But the scenario he has created also could be applied to humans at other stages of existence. Instead of a choice between a five-year-old and a container of human embryos, suppose we opened that door in the burning building to find an elderly woman in one corner and an infant in another. Both need assistance to get out of the building alive. Whom do we save?
If we save the child, does that mean we think the elderly don’t have a right to life? If we save the old woman, does that mean we think infants really aren’t people? What if our own child was in one corner and an unknown child in the other? Most of us would save our own child first. Does this force us to admit that we deny the humanity of other people’s children?
Most honest, logical people can agree that in a hypothetical situation like this, many factors would influence our decision. As in triage cases, we may choose based upon the physical condition of the victim or on our own ability to help. We may choose based on family attachments or friendship, or based on personal or corporate values. (For example, the maritime code says to save women and children first.)
We may even choose not to save anyone, because we are not morally required to endanger our own life to save another. In no case does our choice to save or not to save another person imply the belief that the person we don’t save is not human or doesn’t have a right to life.
The limits of thought experiments
Tomlinson posed a fair question. Had he limited himself simply to asking it, perhaps it could have been an occasion for thoughtful reflection and lively discussion among people of good will. Instead, he accused pro-lifers of “lying,” of seeking to “manipulate” their opponents, and of trying to “control women.” These are harsh accusations with no supporting evidence given other than Tomlinson’s own assertion that he hasn’t received a satisfactory answer to his question.
Thought experiments like this one have limited value as rhetorical tools. They can challenge us to think, to re-evaluate our assumptions, to clarify our values. But they are not going to shut down debate. To assume that a novel thought experiment could do so is a monumental conceit; it also demonstrates a lack of respect for the intellectual capabilities of people of opposing views. And, frankly, I suspect that those who prefer to “eviscerate” their opponents with rhetorical wordplay rather than build constructive dialogue are more interested in personal publicity than they are in supporting women or defending human rights.