Errors and bad arguments abound on Twitter; it is simply impossible to respond to all of them.
Yet when the errors and bad arguments concern the value of unborn human lives, and when those errors and arguments have, apparently, been so rhetorically persuasive as to generate many thousands of retweets, then perhaps they should be addressed.
This seems to be the case with a recent series of tweets by Patrick L. Tomlinson, who writes, “Whenever abortion comes up, I have a question I've been asking for ten years now of the ‘Life begins at Conception’ crowd. In ten years, no one has EVER answered it honestly.” He then offers a scenario, proposed earlier by Michael Sandel at a meeting of the President’s Council on Bioethics, and even earlier by George Annas. Sandel asks us to imagine that a building is on fire and Jones, who is trying to escape, can save ten frozen embryos or one five-year-old girl, but not both (Mr. Tomlinson’s example substitutes 1,000 frozen embryos, on which more later).
Now, by saving a crate of embryos, Jones would, on the “Life Begins at Conception” account, be saving many human beings (virtually every embryologist or developmental biologist would agree; this is easily verified by a look at the relevant textbooks). Yet it seems plausible that most reasonable people, among whom we will include Jones, would save the five-year-old girl. Can we agree that this choice is reasonable, given our view not just of the nature of the frozen embryos—they are human beings—but also of their value, for we hold that they are beings equal in fundamental worth and dignity to those other human beings currently reading this essay? Does our willingness to accept Jones’s choice as morally legitimate show that, in truth, we do not regard human embryos as we regard children at later stages of development, namely, as full members of the human family?
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.
Third, there could be circumstances in which people could agree that it would be reasonable to save the embryos, even if other people, including those with no personal attachment to either the embryos or the girl, might be drawn to rescue the girl instead. For example, if Jones happens to be the mother or father or grandparent of the embryos, Jones might well choose to rescue them, and many people would not regard this as immoral. (By contrast, everyone would agree that it would be immoral even for a parent or grandparent to kill someone else’s child in order to, say, harvest a heart or liver needed to save the life of a child or grandchild.)
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 story of Noah shows, we believe, that the choice to rescue human embryos is not necessarily fanciful or unreasonable. And there is another point worth considering, which the story of Noah brought to light. Suppose that someone, whether connected to the embryos or not, chose to save them despite the fact that it meant forgoing the opportunity to save the girl. Suppose further that the embryos were soon thereafter implanted and taken by their gestational mothers to birth, and then they grew to adulthood. If, upon reaching their twenty-first birthdays, the ten young adults organized an event to honor and thank the person who had rescued them when they were in the embryonic stage of their lives, could the rescuer in good faith accept their praise and gratitude for rescuing them? Clearly the answer is, as with Noah, “Yes, of course.” But had Jones “rescued” only a crate of sperm or oocytes, or were embryos mere “potential human beings” or “collections of human cells,” he could not claim that he had rescued any children at all, but only elements that could later be used to produce human beings.
The problem with these rescue examples becomes still more evident if we consider some other cases. For example, imagine a fire in which Jones must choose to rescue either four pregnant women or six men. Many people would probably choose to rescue the pregnant women, precisely because they would reasonably judge that they were rescuing eight human beings rather than six.
Finally, imagine that Jones is faced with the choice of rescuing three comatose patients or a five-year-old girl. Many people who disagree with us about the moral status of embryos agree that comatose persons are human beings entitled to full moral respect. Yet no doubt many of these same people would opt to save the girl rather than the three individuals in comas. Does that mean that they would consider it legitimate, in a different case, to kill one or more of the comatose individuals to harvest vital organs needed to save the five-year-old girl? Not at all. Choices about whom to save are subject to particular facts of the situation without requiring a comparative valuing (or devaluing) of lives. But choices to kill are always devaluing choices.
Still, Mr. Tomlinson might press upon us the difference between his example and Sandel’s, and make one last objection: in the Sandel case, there are only ten embryos, whereas in the Tomlinson case there are 1,000. Surely, at some point the numbers matter, and if not here, then at 10,000, or 100,000. At some point surely we should hold that it is not just permissible but obligatory to save the embryos.
Indeed, we do think this, albeit with a major qualification. At some point, which it is not possible to identify with precision, it would be obligatory to save a large number of embryos rather than the five-year-old girl, just as one would be required to save some large number of strangers rather than one’s own five-year-old daughter. But a condition would need to be met that in real life, sadly, almost never will be: there would have to be great confidence that all or most of the embryos would be given a gestational home and brought to delivery.
The argument here is quite simple: suppose you could save 1,000 comatose strangers or your own five-year-old child; and suppose further that the strangers will only come out of their coma if they are provided food and shelter for nine months. But you are quite confident that no one will, in fact, provide that food and shelter. Then, once again, it seems entirely reasonable for you to save your conscious five-year-old, without this indicating in any way that the comatose strangers are less than fully human, or deserving of less than full respect. Rather, the choice to save the child will at the same time be a sad commentary on a society that is unwilling to provide the necessary resources to nurse the temporarily incapacitated back to full health. We leave it to the reader to refine this example further to make it even more similar to the situation of cryopreserved embryos; we believe the analogy does not reflect well on us as a people.
In consequence, we think it entirely unreasonable to infer, as Mr. Tomlinson does, from the choice to save the five-year-old girl, that “No one believes life begins at conception. No one believes embryos are babies, or children. Those who claim to are trying to manipulate you so they can control women.” As we have noted, it is the standard teaching of every developmental biology textbook we have found that not simply life, but the life of a human being begins at conception. And, while embryos are not “babies,” they are, as a matter of sheer biological fact, living members of the species homo sapiens—human beings in the earliest stage of their natural development. Unless denied or deprived of a suitable environment, or killed by violence or disease, they will develop by an internally directed process from the embryonic stage into the fetal infant child, and adolescent stages, and into adulthood with their determinateness, unity, and identity fully intact. That is what each of us did who is now an adult. Each of us is the same person—the same living member of the human species—who earlier in his or her life was an adolescent, a child, a toddler, a newborn infant, a fetus, and, at the very beginning, a newly conceived embryo. By contrast, none of us was ever an ovum or a spermatozoon. Those were (both functionally and genetically) parts of other persons, namely, our parents, whose uniting brought us into being precisely as embryonic human beings.
No plausible reason has been given, we think, why some living human beings should be treated as deserving full moral respect and immunity from intentional killing, while other living human beings, differing from the first only in size, developmental stage, and location, should be treated as not deserving such respect. The pro-life view is thus deeply motivated by the principle of the fundamental equality in dignity of all human beings, and certainly not by a desire to manipulate and control. And that conviction is founded on undeniable biological facts, and on a firm commitment to the principle of the equal dignity of each and every member of the human family.
Robert P. George is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, and Christopher O. Tollefsen is College of Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina. They are co-authors of Embryo: A Defense of Human Life, from which this essay is adapted.