Quick Response #29: The Burning Fertility Clinic Thought Experiment

“There’s a burning fertility clinic, and you see a briefcase with 1000 frozen embryos and a toddler; you can only save one.” Yep, it’s the burning IVF lab thought experiment, intended as a mic-drop to prove that pro-life people don’t really believe the embryo is an equal human being. In this Quick Response video, Emily Albrecht explains why this thought experiment isn’t the “gotcha” many pro-choice people believe it to be, even if the pro-lifer would choose to save the toddler.

Related Links:

Quick Response #2: The Embryo Isn’t a Person – https://youtu.be/c6_kwErY4OE

Four Practical Tips for Responding to the Burning Fertility Clinic


I have to admit: it’s a little bit amusing to watch a pro-choice person who thinks they have this GENIUS idea to debunk all the idiot pro-lifers. Like I open TikTok, and the first video says “EVEN PRO-LIFERS KNOW that an embryo isn’t equal to a child! And I’ll prove it to you. Next time you’re talking to a pro-lifer, hit them with THIS…….” And then they recite the burning fertility clinic analogy—yes, the same one every other pro-choice person on TikTok is using. It goes like this. Imagine that you’re in an IVF lab when it catches on fire. There are 1,000 frozen embryos on shelves all around you, and there also happens to be a toddler in the room. You can only save one: either 1,000 embryos or the toddler. Obviously you’re going to save the toddler, and so pro-lifers don’t actually believe embryos and toddlers are equal. It seems like an easy, gotcha argument, right? Wrong. It’s not that simple.


Yes, I would save the toddler, but that doesn’t AT ALL prove that I don’t actually value embryos as human beings the same way I value toddlers. This is a triage situation—an instance where multiple people are at risk of dying, and since I can’t save all of them, there are multiple factors  I’m going to consider to determine who to rescue.

First, if I save the embryos, the child will suffer an excruciatingly painful, terrifying death, and 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. I’m going to save the person who is awake! That doesn’t prove that I value that person twice as much as the other two; it just means I’m taking into account whose death will be “worse” if I can’t save everyone from death, which would obviously be the ideal.

Also, the frozen embryos have a significantly reduced chance of survival compared to the toddler. They may not survive the thawing process, and they may never get adopted, meaning they would eventually be “discarded” or killed  for medical research. 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, that doesn’t show that I’m ableist or something, or that I think healthy people are more valuable or important. I’m just doing triage! 

If you combine these two issues, I think it becomes clear why I would save a toddler 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? No, of course not! 

The reason this analogy doesn’t work is because not all things are equal.  In any quality science experiment or thought experiment, you need to control for the variables, but the burning fertility clinic story doesn’t do that. To make the pro-choice question stronger, let’s say that all things ARE ACTUALLY equal: let’s say we know that the toddler is in a coma and won’t suffer a painful or terrifying death, and we know that the embryos will all survive the thawing process and will be adopted. The toddler and the embryos thus have an equal chance of survival if we save them and an equal experience of death if we don’t. In this case, we simply have a numbers game; there are two groups of human persons who are equal in value, and the ONLY difference between the two groups is how many people you’re saving. In this case, I’d save the embryos. 

But it’s also really important to note that who I would save from certain death says absolutely nothing about who I am allowed to kill myself. If you’re in a battlefield situation and you can only save some people, you’re going to save the ones who have a greater likelihood of survival, and the ones who are conscious right now and will die a more painful and terrifying death if I leave them there. But am I allowed to walk over and dismember the person I didn’t save, or another random soldier in the camp? Absolutely not! A fetus in pregnancy isn’t dying and in need of rescuing; the fetus is a perfectly healthy but vulnerable person, and abortion intentionally and directly kills that vulnerable person via suffocation, lethal injection, or dismemberment. If you don’t agree that the fetus is a person, check out Quick Response #2 The Embryo Isn’t a Person, link in the description. 

Ultimately, my answer to who I would save doesn’t answer the question of whether or not killing a human person is justified. My answer says absolutely nothing about the value of the unborn, and it certainly doesn’t make killing the unborn okay. This “gotcha” argument just doesn’t work.



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