One argument against the personhood of unborn children comes in the form of a thought experiment that attempts to prove that, deep down, even pro-lifers don’t really think human embryos are persons with a right to life like you and me.
It goes like this: imagine you are in an in vitro fertilization clinic that is on fire, and you have time to save only 100 frozen embryos or a single two-year-old child. Since most people (including pro-lifers) would save the two-year-old child, pro-choicers say this proves that the unborn aren’t persons.
But this doesn’t prove that the unborn are not persons or that it is okay to kill them.
First, at worst, it proves only that pro-life advocates don’t fully value the unborn as much as their own position demands. They are simply being inconsistent. In the middle of the nineteenth century, even white abolitionists might have saved one white child over five black slaves (and refused to grant them other important rights), but that would not have refuted any of their arguments against slavery.
We also have good reasons to believe that these kinds of thought experiments do not prove that the unborn are not persons. They prove only that in some situations where you can save only certain people, the unborn might not be saved. But that’s also true of many born people.
Imagine that a hospital is on fire, and you have time to save only one two-year-old patient or three 102-year-old patients. The original scenario operated under the assumption that we should save as many people as we can, and so a choice not to save 100 embryos must mean that the person doesn’t think they are persons. In this case, however, a lot of people would probably save the two-year-old because he would lose more years of life than the other three patients. But this wouldn’t prove that people over the age of 100 are not persons or that it is moral to directly kill them simply because they are unwanted.
Or here’s another case: if I had a choice between saving ten strangers or my three children in a burning building, I would save my three children. Once again, the principle “save as many people as possible” is overridden by other moral concerns, like “carry out the special duty parents have toward their own children.” But I would not murder ten strangers even if a madman was holding my three children hostage and demanded I murder those strangers in exchange for my children’s safe return.
All this proves is that we include many more factors in our evaluation of the question “Should I save this person instead of that person?” than the question “Should I ever be allowed to directly kill this person?”
When choosing whom to save, we might show a preference toward family members and those who have many obligations to others or could benefit the world (like a cancer researcher) while not prioritizing unsavory people like criminals. We might also spare a lower number of people from more painful deaths, and the prospect of the child experiencing a painful death seems to move people to want to save him.
Our decision would also involve asking how much each person in this case is harmed by death. Death equally harms human beings of any age because it takes away the rest of their lives, no matter how long that may be. But death would harm a father of ten more than a solitary monk because the father has other relationships and obligations. But even with that in mind, both would be equally wrong to kill. This means that the possible futures of these beings is also taken into account when deciding whom to save.
In the original scenario, we might save the toddler instead of the embryos because we know that frozen embryos have a much lower chance of developing into adults. They might never be implanted, be killed in the thawing process, fail to implant, be naturally miscarried, or be reduced selectively later in the womb through abortion. Such reasoning would explain why someone might save one toddler instead of 102-year-olds, even though he thinks the elderly are still persons.
In fact, when we remove the unnatural feature of these human beings lying frozen in cryo-tanks, we can make the thought experiment support the pro-life position.
Imagine that the choice is between five women and five pregnant women. This actually makes the decision more relevant to the abortion debate, because nearly all abortions happen after a child is a tiny embryo only a few days old. Instead, most abortions happen in the middle of the first trimester—a time when the child’s human form can be recognized. If someone imagines seeing not a sterile tank and a two-year-old, but one hundred beings that look like tiny, translucent humans, he may not be as confident about whom to save.
I think that in the case I’ve proposed, most people would choose the five pregnant women, because they instinctively know they would be saving ten people. I don’t believe they would save the pregnant women merely because of their “potential” to have children. If the choice were between five fertile women and five infertile women of the same age, most people would say this wouldn’t affect their choice.
And of course, that wouldn’t prove that the non-pregnant women were not persons. All it would prove, like the other scenarios we’ve reviewed, is that in cases where we can save only some people, we will evaluate a range of factors before choosing whom to save.
That’s why we must redirect the conversation back to the question “What are the unborn?”—so that we have the information we need to answer the question that is pertinent to the issue of abortion: can I directly kill this unborn entity simply because he is unwanted?