If you would save a toddler over an embryo in a petri dish, doesn't that prove the unborn aren't of equal value?

by Luke Wayne

There is an increasingly common internet argument in defense of prenatal infanticide wherein the abortion advocate presents a hypothetical situation in which one must choose between saving a toddler or saving a frozen embryo. If you say you would rescue the more developed child, it is argued, that proves the embryo isn't valuable and thus makes abortion okay (so the abortion advocate claims). There are a lot of variations on this argument, but it goes something like this:

There is a man with a gun in one hand pointed at a three-year-old child's head and a petri dish with a viable human embryo in the other hand held over an incinerator. He gives you a choice. He will either let you take the three-year-old to safety while he drops the embryo into the incinerator, or he will shoot the toddler and hand you the petri dish. You can only save one or the other. Which would you save?"

This kind of argument is fraught with all kinds of logical problems and doesn't actually prove anything. The emotional weight of these kinds of scenarios, however, can still make them persuasive to some people on a subjective level. So let's examine just a few of the many issues with this kind of so-called "argument."

Truth Versus Feelings

The scenario is ultimately designed to conflate what you would likely feel in a particular crisis situation versus what is objectively true. Emotionally, most of us would attach more value to people we can see, hear, and touch than to someone who we can't. Change the scenario just a bit. Imagine that this psychopath tells you that he will either make you watch as he burns a child alive in front of you or he will set the child free and instead a homeless man somewhere on the other side of the world will then die a violent death. Many people would choose to set the child free rather than watch the innocent little one burn to death. This does not mean that homeless people in other countries aren't real people with real value, it just means that we emotionally yearn to protect a child we can see and hear over a distant person we only know of intellectually. We are not acting on a moral judgment, but rather on an emotional impulse.

Take another scenario. Let's say the gunman has a man and his pregnant wife. Now, who do you set free? Most people would choose to save the pregnant woman. Does this prove that unborn children do have objective value and thus prove abortion wrong? Well, no. It is the same kind of emotional argument, just turned the other way. The fact of the matter is that the issue is not determined by how I feel in a ludicrous hypothetical. The question hinges on the actual intrinsic value of human life and on the objective reality of when that life begins. The advocate of prenatal infanticide cannot win on such factual grounds, and thus they must craft a way to shift the argument to how an individual feels in a tough situation.

What I Might Do Versus What is Right?

Relatedly, these types of scenarios attempt to take the conversation away from what is right and place it instead in the realm of what you might personally do. That I would save one person over another person doesn't mean that the person I would save is actually more valuable than the person I would leave behind. My personal decisions in a crisis are not the basis of morality. My emotional attachments do not determine a person's value. Ethics are not a matter of my preferences or impulses. The question is not what I would do in some arbitrarily constructed nonsense scenario. The question is whether or not humans actually have innate moral value. My whims in a given moment have nothing to do with it.

Imagine you are legitimately guilty of a serious crime and are sentenced to life in prison. Now, imagine you figure out a way that you could safely escape the prison and live out the rest of your life in comfort and freedom without ever being found. Would you do it? Let's face it, most people would. But if I ask you plainly if it is right for criminals to escape punishment and live out their lives in pleasure and ease, you would obviously agree that it is not. What you might do in a carefully crafted fiction, or in any situation, does not determine what is actually right.

Killing Versus Failing to Save

It is one thing to note that, in a situation where you can't save everyone, you will likely have certain priorities for who you save first. If you are trying to save people and can't save everyone, people generally won't fault you for the death of the person you couldn't quite rescue. The fact that, historically, our culture has seen a moral priority in saving women and children over men does not justify dismembering men alive and sucking their brains out with a vacuum hose or burning them to death with chemical solutions. Its one thing to say, "all things equal, save these people first." Its a completely different thing to say, "it is okay to actively kill innocent people as long as they are those people."

These scenarios conflate who you would fail to save in a no-win scenario with who you can willingly kill. The person who saves the more developed kid at the cost of the embryo because he can't save both from a killer might be justified in his decision. That doesn't make it okay for the person, if they somehow took down the madman and managed to rescue both, to just throw the embryo needlessly into the incinerator himself. There is a huge difference between an inability to save everyone in an extreme scenario and a permission to take the lives of certain kinds of people.

The Bottom Line

Both biblically and biologically, human life begins at conception and continues in development as the same organism, the same human person, from that point forward. While extreme situations and the atrocities of evil men may sometimes force us into scenarios where we can only save some people and have to prioritize who to save, all mankind is intrinsically valuable. Every man and woman is made in the image of God, and it is a blasphemy against God and a crime against our fellow man to purposefully take an innocent human life at any age or stage of development.

We may not be able to always save everyone, but that does not permit us to murder anyone. My emotions in the moment may cause me to value one life over another, but that is why it is so important that our laws and our ethics strictly insist upon the equal value of all, to bypass human passions and protect the neglected or even despised minority who the majority may otherwise trample. When arguments attempt to bypass justice, morality, and even plain logic so as to enthrone our inherent prejudices as the final arbiter of who is valuable and who is not, we must recognize it and call it out for what it is. That is a road down which we cannot afford to go.