Randal Rauser recently tweeted a poll:
The lab is on fire. You only have time to save the three chimpanzees in Room A or the three fertilized human embryos in Room B. Which do you save?
I chose the chimps, despite the fact that I’m (broadly) “pro-life.” So now I feel the need to explain myself. Does this contradict my pro-life stance on abortion? Not at all. I have written a number of articles on this blog in which I expound and defend pro-life principles. The human embryo has value, great value, much greater value than it is typically held to have by those who would support the most permissive of abortion practices.
However, being pro-life needn’t be an absolute position. There are some groups who would outlaw abortion under any circumstances. For me, an unborn human has value, but not absolute value. There are considerations and circumstances that could outweigh our obligation to protect an unborn human. The obvious one is: should the pregnancy be a serious threat to the life of the woman, then abortion would be morally permissible.
My refusal to save the embryos isn’t a denial that they have ANY value. It’s the result of a judgment call on my part as to where the most value lies in this case. So, here are the choices (I’m assuming – for the sake of the thought experiment – that the chimps won’t kill me as I try to save them, and that I have the equipment that will safely store the embryos outside the building):
Room A contains 3 chimps. Chimps are highly intelligent animals, almost certainly self-conscious, with basic language skills, and surprisingly powerful cognitive apparatus, including complex emotions and social skills. In fact, some philosophers have argued that they meet the threshold for personhood, and as such should be protected under the sorts of human rights legislation that protects our own species. These beings would die horribly in a fire. They will undeniably suffer greatly in the process, and depending on how the fire spreads, their death could be hideously prolonged. I have the ability to prevent these highly intelligent beings – one of our closest living relatives, sharing many of the charactistics we associate with personhood – from dying such an agonising death. Moreover, their chances of surviving subsequent to rescue is pretty high.
Room B contains 3 human embryos. Embryos are fully human, but they are not sentient. Whilst they have the potential for rational thought, self-awareness, and suffering, such things are presently unrealised. Should they be destroyed in the fire they will not suffer at all. Moreover, there is no guarantee they will ever be fully developed. The implantation procedure is far from perfect, and couples who undergo IVF are in no way guaranteed success, even with more than 3 embryos being implanted. I could save the embryos only to have their implantation fail. Their chances of surviving subsequent to rescue is fairly low.
So, we have guaranteed agonising pain experienced by animals incredibly close to humans, who have a high chance of surviving, versus human beings incapable of experiencing pain or terror, and who have a low chance of surviving post-rescue. I therefore make a judgment call to save the chimps.
Do you agree? If so, why? If not, why not?
Stephen J. Graham