A pro-choice argument in the form of a series of arrogant tweets recently went viral. You would think that with all that bravado, there would have been something new or interesting, but, no, it was just the same argument that has been around for decades. Disappointing as the argument was, I did find it interesting that, the last time I experienced this argument on a college campus, the person making the argument had a similar aggressive tone.
For some reason, pro-choice people tend to think this argument demolishes the pro-life view, so it’s important to be ready to respond to it efficiently (meaning you need to focus on just a couple of disanalogies, not all of them) and persuasively (meaning you need to convince them that you aren’t just weaseling out of a problem with your view).
Estimated reading time: 8 minutes.
Here’s what I did at a Justice For All outreach at UCLA in May of 2016. (You can find much of what I did in Robert George and Christopher Tollefsen’s book Embryo: A Defense of Human Life, which I highly recommend. Robert George also wrote this excellent article recently.)
Ann: So if life begins at conception, what would you do if you were in a burning fertility clinic and you had to choose between saving a born baby and ten frozen embryos?
Tim: That’s a great question and I’m happy to answer it, but it’s a good example of the principle that it’s easier to ask a hard question than it is to answer it. Are you willing to give me a few minutes to answer, or are you just trying to trap me?
Dialogue Tip #1: Negotiate for time when someone asks you a complicated question.
It’s natural when you’re under pressure to feel like you have to give really quick responses to any challenges to the pro-life view. Occasionally, a pro-choice person will even insist that you answer a question with impossible time restrictions. I always refuse to play those games. It is not fair to ask someone a question that requires five minutes to answer and only give them ten seconds.
If the conversation is relaxed, you don’t need to be as pointed as I was in this example. Ann had already been somewhat aggressive, so I made a judgment call to push her a bit harder than usual when I negotiated for the necessary time to answer her question.
Ann: No, no, take your time. I’d really like to hear your answer.
Tim: First, I don’t want to leave you hanging or anything, so I’ll just answer your question directly before I get into my explanation. I would probably save the baby.
Dialogue Tip #2: Respond directly to the question before you jump into your explanation.
I try to do this whenever I respond to any hypothetical scenario. When you don’t answer the question directly, there is some risk of it coming across like your explanation is just an attempt to weasel your way out of their question. I wanted Ann to know that I would be engaging meaningfully with her question when I gave my answer.
Tim: But I don’t think that means anything like embryos aren’t human beings. So let me make three distinctions. First, I’d like to ask you if we can change the question slightly, JUST for clarity. I think the question “what would you do” is less helpful than “what do you think you ought to do?” People are emotional and unpredictable. If someone tossed a grenade into my foxhole, I’d like to hope that I would have the courage to jump on it, but I’ll probably never really know. If I had the choice between saving my fiancee and a hundred other people, honestly I’d probably save my fiancee. So I’ll be less distracted if I’m answering the question, “what do I think I ought to do in the fertility clinic story?” and I think you’ll get a more helpful answer. Is that okay?
Ann: Yeah, that’s fine.
Dialogue Tip #3: Tread incredibly carefully if you want to change their thought-experiment.
If you’re going to do a negotiation like this to change the person’s thought-experiment, you have to do it very respectfully and very clearly. It is incredibly annoying when someone responds to your thought-experiment argument by just changing the story to make it easier to answer. In this case, I’m not changing it for my own advantage, I’m changing it to try to help Ann get the answer she’s actually looking for. If she had said she didn’t want to change the phrasing of her question, I’d have backed down and just answered it as she asked it.
Tim: Good. There are several issues with the thought-experiment, but I’m going to focus on two, because I think these two show pretty clearly that choosing to save the infant doesn’t at all show that I don’t actually value embryos as human beings the same way I value an infant.
Dialogue Tip #4: When responding to the fertility clinic, start by focusing your response on the easiest things for the pro-choice person to understand: the painful death of the infant, and the certainty of the infant’s survival if you choose to save him.
There are other incredibly important problems with the fertility clinic thought-experiment (seriously, read Robert George’s piece). I’d even go as far as to say that I’m leaving out the most important problem — that abortion directly kills babies — and that complicated questions of who to save cannot justify intentionally killing innocent people. Why would I do this? Because it is more difficult for a pro-choice person to understand that distinction and they aren’t usually in a respectful place when they bring up a case like this. I want to shift the pro-choice person into a more open posture before trying to explain something that difficult.
Tim: The first issue is that if I save the infant, the embryos aren’t going to die a painful, terrifying death, but if I save the embryos, the infant will suffer a painful, terrifying death. That really matters to me. Suppose I had the choice to save two people who were in deep comas or one person who was fully awake. If I save the person who is awake, does that show that I think they matter twice as much as the other two?
Ann: I guess not. But if life is so important, shouldn’t you still save the two? It still feels like you ought to value the lives of ten embryos over one infant.
Tim: Perhaps, but let me point out the second major issue with the thought-experiment. The frozen embryos might not survive anyway. They may not survive the thawing, and they may never get adopted. There are thousands of frozen embryos and not nearly enough parents who want to adopt them. Suppose I had the choice to save two people who each had a 10% chance to survive their injuries, or one person who was totally healthy. If I save the healthy person, does that show that I’m ableist or something, that I think healthy people are more valuable or important?
Tim: No, of course not, that’s just me doing triage. If you combine these two issues, I think it becomes clearer why I would save the baby from the fire instead of the embryos, even though the best evidence from biology and philosophy is clearly on the side that argues that embryos are human persons. Suppose I have the choice to save either ten people who are all in comas and will otherwise die painlessly and who may not survive anyway, or one person who is not in a coma and will certainly survive but will die painfully if I don’t save him. If I save the one, does that mean I don’t value the ten?
Ann: No, I guess that’s a fair response.
Tim: I want to give you one more variation of this thought-experiment, because I want to highlight how emotionally confusing these kinds of scenarios are. Suppose I have the exact same choice that I just had, except there’s one other detail. The ten coma patients are all black, and the other one is white. Does it make me racist to choose the white one?
Ann: Ugh, that’s a tough one. It feels wrong.
Tim: I’m with you, it feels weird. But my view is that it doesn’t make me racist to save the white person over ten black people. The scenario does not say anything about how much I secretly value people because I’m not deciding who to save based on how much I value people, it’s actually based on other factors. I would save the one in that scenario no matter what race the eleven people are. I’d save one black person over ten white people if the one black person was the only one likely to survive. I would also save one human embryo who I magically knew would survive over ten infants in comas who I magically knew were all going to die anyway. All that to say, if all things are equal, I will save two embryos over one infant, and I will save two infants over one embryo. But in your original question, all things are not equal.
I know the racism road is an edgy one, and that’s an even more sensitive topic now than it was then, so I’d recommend only going in that direction if you have a lot of rapport. I’m not sure if I would do it again. But the reason I did it with Ann is that my goal was not to just respond to her objection. My goal was to help Ann understand the pro-life mentality better.
When a pro-choice person lays a trap for us, they generally expect us to try to dodge it or wriggle out of it or something, which means any response you give is going to sound to them like an excuse. We want them to understand that our response is legitimate, so we have to bend over backwards to make it clear that we aren’t just making an excuse. I wanted Ann to really understand the pro-life logic, and that meant pointing out very clearly that who you choose to save does not necessarily show who you value the most.
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The post “Four Practical Tips for Responding to the Burning Fertility Clinic” originally appeared at the Equal Rights Institute blog. Subscribe to our email list with the form below and get a FREE gift. Click here to learn more about our pro-life apologetics course, “Equipped for Life: A Fresh Approach to Conversations About Abortion.”