A viral tweet proposed a hypothetical argument about saving either a child or frozen embryos from a fire. Saving the child exposes pro-life hypocrisy.

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Who knew that anti-choice advocates could go off the rails so inventively in response to a brief hypothetical argument posed in a few tweets?

A few years ago, Patrick Tomlinson tweeted this scenario: if a fertility clinic were on fire and you could save either a five-year-old child or a canister with a thousand human embryos, which would you save? Read the original tweets in this post from Hemant Mehta.

“An embryo is a child” is the foundational moral claim for many in the anti-choice* community, and the fertility clinic thought experiment nicely shows that it isn’t, not even to them. Someone once observed that there’s nothing like a life-or-death predicament to help you get your priorities straight. You can pontificate at leisure about how things ought to be, but when you have seconds to decide between a child who would suffer unimaginable agony and a can of cells that not only won’t but can’t, you quickly realize what’s important.


Tomlinson begins his argument with this:

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.

In what was some impressive “Yes, but” tap dancing, the anti-choice advocates I picked had a lot to say, but none of them answered the question honestly, either. I’ll look at three high-profile responses, by Matt Walsh (blogger), Ben Shapiro (editor of The Daily Wire, a conservative website), and Greg Koukl (Christian radio host).

Walsh and Shapiro admit up front that they would save the child, while Koukl won’t.

The next item on the agenda is the obligatory changing of the subject. Each author raises all manner of tangential topics, some interesting but some seemingly deliberate misdirections.

Before I give examples, let’s take a step back to remember the point of this exercise. Many anti-choicers tell us that an embryo is equivalent to a child. That is, they declare that the definition of “child” goes from, say, eight years old and goes all the way down to –9 months. Moving back in time, it’s a child at eight years old, as a newborn, as a fetus, as a frozen embryo (which is a blastocyst with roughly 100 cells), and even as a single cell.

That’s the claim, but by choosing the hypothetical child they’ve admitted that this claim is false. No, a child is much more valuable than a single cell. End of argument. There’s nothing more to say.

That’s where the “Yes, but” arguments come in. They want to change the subject. They want to have the last word. But the argument is over. It had the sole goal of undercutting their moral argument, and it succeeded. QED.

See also: Five Intuitive Pro-Choice Arguments

Change the subject

But for completeness and to illustrate the games they play, I want to list some of their arguments.

  • Walsh: “Yes, I would save the kid. No, that does not prove that the embryos have no value.” No one said it did. The point is that the child and the embryos have different values, and you’ve made plain that you agree.
  • Walsh: Leaving the embryos behind isn’t the same as killing them intentionally, and it doesn’t show that abortion is moral. The hypothetical argument doesn’t claim to prove that abortion is moral, just that “embryo = child” is false.

When you have seconds to decide between a child who would suffer unimaginable agony and a can of cells that not only won’t but can’t, you quickly realize what’s important.

  • Shapiro: “Let’s say that it was your five-year-old in the room, and next door were 1,000 actual full-grown human adults. Your instinct would probably be to save your five-year-old. Mine would be. Does that make me right, or the 1,000 humans no longer human?” If “human” means “has Homo sapiens DNA,” then of course they’re human, but that’s off topic. You’ve already agreed that embryos aren’t children—that’s the point.
  • Shapiro: “We can agree with Tomlinson that one ought to save the five-year-old rather than the box of embryos and still not admit that embryonic life is meaningless.” Huh? Who said it was meaningless?
  • Koukl: “Moral dilemmas, by design, make us choose. But the choice doesn’t rebut the argument for the intrinsic value of embryonic human beings.” No, it rebuts the claim that embryos are children.
  • Koukl: “The fact that Sophie, in the film Sophie’s Choice, made the choice to save her son didn’t mean she thought her daughter wasn’t a valuable human being.” This is yet another change of subject. The subject is: embryos aren’t children.

Notice the word games in several of these. Keeping things simple doesn’t seem to be the goal, so we take “child” from the original challenge and add “human” and “human being” to the mix. Throw in Homo sapiens and “person,” and we’ve got a nice selection of terms that may or may not be synonyms. For some apologists, there’s nothing they like better than spending hours fileting the definition of a word to keep the debate away from an embarrassing issue.

Concluded in part 2.

The mystery is how people can follow a religion
whose central theme from beginning to end is:
“Deity angry. Something gotta die.”
— commenter Lark 62

*Normally, I refer to the two camps as pro-life and pro-choice, but the obnoxious response by one author used “pro-abortion.” In fact, I am pro-abortion in the same way that I’m pro-amputation: no one enjoys a medical procedure, but sometimes they’re necessary. Nevertheless, that article prompted me to use “anti-choice” as the reciprocal term for their side of the argument.

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CROSS EXAMINED In his first career, Bob Seidensticker designed digital hardware and was a contributor to 14 software patents. Since then, he has explored the debate between Christianity and atheism for...