I don’t normally fall for anything that sounds remotely like click-bait, but I was just too curious about this argument that pro-lifers are supposed to be terrified of. What was it? It came in the shape of a thought-experiment: if you found yourself in a burning lab and had time to save a baby in one room or 10 embryos in the other, which would you choose? The question is rhetorical: the pro-lifer – surely – will choose the baby. However, in doing so he or she is denying the full humanity of the embryos – the very thing on which their entire pro-life case rests! If the pro-lifer really believed embryos are fully human then they would save the embryos and let the baby die, an action which flies in the face of our moral intuition that tells us it is obviously right to save the baby.
So, there we have it: the “Terrifying Argument.”
I confess myself………..disappointed.
Firstly, it is patently false to suggest that the act of choosing the baby over the embryos amounts to a tacit denial of the humanity of the embryos. Allow me to use another thought experiment. Suppose the baby in one room is my own son and in the other room are other babies rather than embryos. Under these conditions – rightly or wrongly – I would choose to save my own son first. Now, whatever you make of this action – whether it’s right or wrong, justifiable or unjustifiable, understandable or not – the point is that in saving my son first am I thereby somehow denying the full humanity of the other babies? Hardly! It’s simply my parental instinct that causes me to prioritise the life of my own son. You are free to think my actions are immoral, but you cannot rightly claim that they are driven by a denial of the humanity of the other babies.
I actually agree that our moral intuitions lead us to prioritise the baby, but this does not mean that the baby is more fully human than the embryo. It doesn’t even mean the baby is objectively more valuable than the embryos. All it means is that humans have certain moral intuitions (which, of course, can be completely wrong) in which babies are viewed as being of more value. After all, we can see babies, interact with them, hear them cry in pain, giggle when they fart, and smile at our funny faces. It isn’t difficult to see why we instinctively react to favour the life of the baby.
But of course, we must still face the deeper question: is it objectively wrong to save the baby over the embryos?
If you happen to be a certain breed of pro-life utilitarian then you might say that it is indeed morally wrong to save one life when you had it in your power to save ten. But why must a pro-life advocate – or anyone else for that matter – be a utilitarian of any stripe? The problems with utilitarianism are well-documented so there’s no need to expound them here. What we would need is some argument for the conclusion that it is morally wrong to save one life when it’s possible to save more than one. I’ll leave it to my readers if anyone wants to have a go at suggesting plausible candidates for such an argument or moral theory. However, I’ll note in passing that all the candidates I’ve ever been presented with cannot be maintained and are never applied consistently by their advocates. Take, for instance, charitable giving. We can give £10 to a charity that might save the sight of 2 people. But most of us who can give £10 could easily give, say, £15 and save the sight of 3 people. Are we morally wrong if we don’t live in borderline poverty and give all our money away to charity? Maybe we are, but no-one I know of lives consistently with that sort of principle.
Anyhow, there is nothing inconsistent with holding (1) that a baby is of much greater value than an embryo – such that we rightly save a baby over a bunch of embryos in a burning lab situation – and (2) that it would be wrong to intentionally kill a developing embryo in an abortion. So, not only is it the case that our moral intuitions lead us to prioritise the baby, but there are plausible reasons a pro-life advocate can offer in support of prioritising a baby over some embryos in the burning lab scenario. The baby has fundamental interests in staying alive; the death of a baby in a fire would be far more horrendous than what an embryo would experience; the baby has begun certain deep interpersonal relations of bonding with other human beings whilst the embryo has not. These are just a few of the grounds on which pro-life advocates could claim that a baby is more valuable than an embryo in a petri-dish without thereby denying that an embryo is fully human and worthy of protection from dismemberment or chemical destruction in utero.
In any event, the issue of abortion is not like the issue of choosing whether to save a baby or ten embryos. In the case of the fire in the lab we are trying to save at least one human life – and thus our actions are to some degree at least morally good. But, except in cases where a mother’s life is a stake, abortion is simply a matter of killing a human life, not of choosing to save one life over another.
It seems to me, therefore, that the Terrifying Argument is a failure on numerous fronts:
(1) It fails to demonstrate that the embryo is not a human being worthy of protection.
(2) It fails to demonstrate the pro-life advocate must deny his foundational belief that the embryo is a human being worthy of protection.
(3) It fails as an analogy to abortion.
Even if we grant the Terrifying Argument in its entirety it doesn’t demonstrate that the pro-choice position is correct.
Stephen J. Graham