Four Practical Tips for Responding to the Burning Fertility Clinic

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).

Timothy Brahm responding to the burning fertility clinic argument.

Tim talks with Ann (mostly obscured) with two pro-life volunteers watching.
Photo credit: Justice For All. Used with permission.

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?

Ann: No.

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.”

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Director of Training

Timothy Brahm is the Director of Training at Equal Rights Institute. He is interested in helping pro-life and pro-choice people to have better dialogues about abortion through 1) taking care to understand what the other person means, 2) using more carefully-constructed arguments, and 3) treating each other with care and respect. He graduated from Biola University with a B.A. in philosophy and is a perpetual member of the Torrey Honors Institute.

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  • Thanks for the good tips.

    It wouldn’t be hard for the pro-choicer to alter the thought experiment in order to level the playing field:

    “what would you do if you were in a fertility clinic about to be struck by a MOAB bomb, so that nobody would know what hit them, and you had to choose between saving a born baby with whom no one had bonded yet, and ten frozen embryos who were guaranteed to be born?”

    I’m already familiar with this thought experiment, so I’m quite sure I WOULD save my little embryo brothers and sisters, and I would reply to the pro-choicer accordingly. If I had been in such a situation without any mental preparation, I might have saved the born baby.

    • I roughly tried to respond to the variations at the end of the post. If all things are equal, I’ll save two embryos over one infant. If the two embryos are orphans and the infant has a family that loves it, that makes for an emotionally complicated choice, and not all things are equal. But then again, that choice is complicated whether they’re embryos or just other infants. Two orphan infants or one infant with a family that loves it? I don’t know.

      • Kate-

        “Two orphan infants or one infant with a family that loves it? I don’t know.”

        The answer to this is very, very obvious to anyone genuinely motivated by the intrinsic value of human life.

      • Kate-

        “Two orphan infants or one infant with a family that loves it? I don’t know.”

        If you were truly “pro-life” you would not have to consider this for one second. There would be no question here. You’d save the two orphans.

        But you’ve just admitted that you would consider saving one baby’s life instead of two babies’ lives….meaning you’d consider indirectly killing one baby. No offense meant, but given that you would consider killing a baby (which, everyone agrees, is infinitely worse than aborting a zygote) it seems rather hypocritical that you’re so adamantly against all abortion.

        • “killing a baby (which, everyone agrees, is infinitely worse than aborting a zygote)”

          ?? The post of Timothy Brahm’s you’re replying to says, “If all things are equal, I’ll save two embryos over one infant.” Would he say anything very different about two zygotes? I wouldn’t.

          • Kate-

            That’s not what it says. Learn to read.

          • Kate-

            He’s just told us that outside circumstances affect the value he places on human life/the way he would treat human life. That’s exactly the case many pro-choicers make, and it’s beyond ironic that neither of you realize this.

            • Does that have anything to do with my reply to your assertion “killing a baby (which, everyone agrees, is infinitely worse than aborting a zygote)”?

              If you would like to discuss a new topic, I’m open to the possibility, but please first make clear the status of our discussion about that assertion – do you retract that assertion?

              • Kate-

                No because his response to the original question of “do you save 10 embryos or 1 child” was that he would “probably save the child.” The quote you referenced earlier was about a clearly impossible scenario where “all things are equal” between 2 embryos and the one child. That’s about as relevant as saying “if all things were equal between 2 ladybugs and an airplane.”

                But speaking of his original response, let me just highlight his disturbing use of the word “probably. As in, “I would probably save the baby.” He won’t even FULLY commit to saving a living, breathing, feeling human baby over 10 microscopic, non-sentient cells! That is unbelievably twisted,and shows just how warped the extreme end of the “pro-life” ideology truly is. A live human baby is worth infinitely more than 10 embryos…and a human baby has infinitely more LIFE in it than 10 embryos. Anyone who truly values and respects REAL human life understands this.

                Anyway, none of this has anything to do with what I was responding to originally. What i was responding to was the fact that he said he would consider saving one infant over two infants because of how that particular infant was situated. This proves that he is not actually “pro-life,” since HE would indirectly yet needlessly kill one baby. He isn’t pro-life, just anti-abortion.

                • You have written, “No, [I do not retract the assertion ‘everyone agrees that killing a baby is infinitely worse than aborting a zygote,’] because . . .”

                  And your “because” consists of various criticisms of TB’s thinking. Those criticisms of TB’s thinking may have some merit in themselves. We can discuss them later. But your refusal to retract your assertion is not justified by TB’s thinking or your criticisms of it, because TB’s thinking and your criticisms of it don’t shed much light on “everyone agrees . . .”

                  What DOES shed light on “everyone agrees . . .”? Well, for instance, TB wrote “If all things are equal, I’ll save two embryos over one infant.” And I commented, “Would he say anything very different about two zygotes? I wouldn’t.”

                  I think that painlessly killing a baby with whom no one has yet bonded is no worse than aborting a zygote that is otherwise guaranteed to be born.

                  So it is not true to say “everyone agrees that killing a baby is infinitely worse than aborting a zygote,” right?

      • Jim H – Banned From LAN

        So, are you saying the fact that the embryos cannot feel pain, and that the infant can, has no weight in your moral decision/equation?

    • Jim H – Banned From LAN

      I’ll ask you the same question I asked Timothy:

      “So, the fact that the embryos cannot feel pain, and that the infant can, has no weight in your moral decision/equation?”

  • Val

    I consider myself very prolife, but, unless the human race were in danger of dying out, I cannot see myself choosing the embyros, even if the death of the infant would be instantaneous.

    That does not make my opposition to abortion any less valid, and here is why.

    First, I do not think this senorio directly relates to abortion, because the embryos would be too young to be a detectable pregnancy, were they inside their mothers.

    Also, one does not have to see human embryos as being on the same level as infants to oppose abortion.

    The situation the article discussed about born people in a deep coma is likely the closest senorio.

    The fact that I oppose the unnecessary killing of cats and dogs–even if done painlessly–does not mean that I think their lives are equal to that of infants, either.

    As I pointed out on another thread, there are more realistic hypotheticals that could make abortion supporters squirm.

    Let’s say the US were to adopt some very progressive reforms–which have been the hallmark of liberalism–such as universal and affordable health care, six months paid parental leave (to be divided between parents), strong protections for pregnant women in regards to both the workplace and education, better societal support for struggling families, free/affordable daycare, and free college for the first two years.

    Lets sweeten the pot a bit more by adding that some long-term contraceptive measures–such as hormonal implants and sterilization–would be free of charge.

    The catch (isn’t there always one)?
    The abortion supporters would have to agree to legally protect unborn humans under the 14th Amendment, which would mean that abortions would be illegal, with the exception of saving a mother’s life.

    Now there is a much more BOLD senorio for abortion supporters who consider themselves “progressive”.

    Do they hold that the “right” for a mother to be able to kill her very young son or daughter as more important than all the other ideals mentioned, the ideals that progressives are SUPPOSED to stand for??

    • gladys1071

      so you advocating, women give up their rights to their bodies for some porridge?. I consider all that you offer to be worthless in the face of losing bodily autonomy. Maybe some women would go for it, i certainly would NOT.

      i actually believe women should be able to have ALL of the things you advocate AND access to abortion.

      Even if you offered me 1 million dollars to gestate, i would refuse it. Bodily rightss should not be for sale.

      • Val

        So, as I said, the ability to be able to kill your very young child is more important to you than
        such things as universal and affordable health care (which would likely save tens of thousands of lives every year), six months paid parental leave (to be divided between parents), strong protections for pregnant women in regards to both the workplace and education, better societal support for struggling families, free/affordable daycare, and free college for the first two years.

        Got it!

        • gladys1071

          Yes my bodily autonomy means more to me then all of those things. Why would i want to trade my bodily freedom for those things. Education paid leave and day care does not replace 9 months of pregnancy and childbirth.

          Yes the ability to NOT be pregnant for 9 months is more important.

          • Val

            Again, this one thing is more important to you than, say, families going bankrupt owing to medical expenses, and ending up on the streets.

            People being refused life-saving cancer treatments because they find themselves too sick to work, thus losing their employer-dependent health insurance.

            Or a very sick child who no longer qualifies for medical care because he/she has reached their ‘lifetime limits’ of care.

            You would rather see this than to prohibit elective abortions.
            And people call prolifers “extreme”??

            • gladys1071

              I already asked you why can’t we have ALL of it?

              You are the one trying to take away something a right to bodily autonomy .

              I don’t want to take any rights away. I think all those things you propose can be In ADDITION to retaing abortion rights.

              so again why can’t we have all of that and keep abortion legal?

              • Val

                See reply above.

                • One can always evade an issue if one wishes. When pro-lifers are confronted with the “burning fertility clinic,” we could, if we wish, reply, “Oh, I would grab the fire extinguisher!” But why should we refuse to confront legitimate issues?

                  • Val

                    Yes, prolifers are supposed to answer honestly–and not “cheat”–and yet the abortion advocates cry fowl when we play our own ‘mind games’ with them.

                    HMT, after HE brought the whole “burning fertility clinic” nonsense up, flat-out refused to answer my challenge to him at all.

                    Maybe they should really absorb the saying that “those who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones”.

            • gladys1071

              How about we have all those things and keep elective abortions legal?

              Why does there have to be a trade off?

              You accusing me if not caring about families going bankrupt is ridiculous. I am for universal healthcare AND abortion rights.

              • Val

                It was a “hypothetical”, remember?
                Just like the “burning fertility clinic”, except mine a tad more credible.

                It was not based on the idea of “liking” either alternative, but which one is considerd the ‘lessor of two evils”.
                You simply answered honestly.

                • gladys1071

                  Except that what you propose are benefits that are already a reality in certain European countries AND abortion is legal. If other countries can have both, then we should be able to have both also.

                  • Val

                    For the THIRD time, it’s a hypothetical.
                    It is not prolifers like me–or prolifers UNLIKE me– who started these ‘thought experiments’.

                    Can you comprehend that??

        • gladys1071

          If women are willing to give up their bodily rights for these benefits, well they are stupid. I don’t see why women cannot have all of these benefits and still get to RETAIN their bodily rights which include terminating a pregnancy. Nine months of pregnancy is ALOT more than an inconvenience, and chilbirth is a life threatening event.

          You want to limit women’s options not expand them, why should i favor such?

          • Val

            This was a hypothetical, Gladys.
            I have heard versions of the “mass destruction of fertilized eggs” senorios for the last 40 years.
            I have never liked them, or thought that they had any logic to them.

            I am only giving the abortion supporters who just ‘can’t stop with them’ a small taste of their own medicine by exposing their abortion-extremism in my OWN senorios–which are much more realistic, BTW.

    • Serpent

      haha 6 months. in russia it’s up to 3 years.

      • Val

        Don’t have a clue what you are talking about.

        • Serpent

          the maternity leave obviously. your perfect scenario is not impressive at all to me

          • Val

            I am a strong believer in paid maternity leave.

            I would not expect abortion-supporters to like my scenario.
            That was kind-of the point.

            • Serpent

              by perfect scenario i meant the positive part obviously. 6 months are nothing. i see your overall scenario as giving up some things AND losing the right to have an abortion. oh and i just noticed that only the first 2 years of college are free.

              • Val


  • Guest

    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.

    I don’t think the “Wouldja save ε born children or N embryos (where N >> ε)?” question is meant to directly justify abortion or destructive embryo research. I think it’s more meant to be a reductio ad absurdum on the idea that embryonic humans are equal in value to born humans, a key feature in arguments against abortion (the name of your organization being but one example). Without that premise it’s a lot more difficult to justify, for example, making elective abortion illegal in the case of rape or other hard cases.

    In addition to the four practical tips above, I think this article does a good job illustrating why thought experiments like this are flawed and why people do not always select the obvious, utilitarian answer when posed with them.!

  • F.Nazar

    The article misses the main argument from Dignitas Personae: it is immoral to implant frozen embryos, with time they lose viability so they die. So they are never part of the equation even if they are living human beings.