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Are Children Valuable Before Birth?

Last week a science fiction author tweeted a thought experiment that was much longer than the traditional 140* character limit on Twitter. It's impossible to ask the question in 140 characters, and it is also impossible to have a reasonable discussion under such constraints. Attempts to answer through Twitter have had mixed results, with many ideas being twisted and misconstrued.

I'm not a skilled Twitter user. The last time I tweeted was even longer ago than the last time I wrote a blog post. I only heard about this tweet several days after it was receiving media attention, and am only responding now because a friend asked me about it a week later.

So I'm going to do my best. I'll write out the thought experiment, point out some responses (good and bad - and some that have been twisted), and then write how I would respond if someone made this argument to me.

The Tweet

On October 16th, Patrick S. Tomlinson (@stealthygeek), who is an author, presented the following thought experiment:




For a paragraph format, scroll to the end of this blog.

His argument can be summed up like this: People assert that unborn human embryos are as valuable as born humans. If put in a situation where they had to save only one or the other, they would save the born human. Therefore, those people don't actually believe that unborn human embryos are as valuable as born humans.

The argument has garnered a lot of attention. You can see above that at the time I was writing this, it had been re-tweeted over 31,000 times.

The Responses

Several people took to Twitter and other social media to address this question. The first time I heard about the tweet was when I heard political commentator Ben Shapiro discussing it on his daily commentary program several days later. So Ben Shapiro's is the first response that I heard.

Ben Shapiro answers the question directly (he would save the five-year old), then he makes four arguments against the thought experiment: First, he argues that, "moral instinct does not always mean correct moral decisionmaking." Just because our instinct is to save one over the other doesn't make that decision moral, Secondly, this thought experiment "does not reveal the value of the embryonic life," Third, Ben Shapiro says that, "most pro-lifers freely admit the supreme value of already-born human life, but that doesn't make prenatal life valueless," and, Finally, he points out that the thought experiment itself isn't reflecting reality. "[T]he case of pro-abortion advocates isn't a choice between a five-year-old and a thousand fetuses. It's a case of killing a fetus, by itself."

Mr. Tomlinson saw this response and asserted that Mr. Shapiro had "conceded" the question. Saving the five-year-old child in this thought experiment, according to Mr. Tomlinson, proves that the unborn are not morally equal to the born. (I don't agree.)

After a bit of back-and-forth, Mr. Tomlinson blocked Ben Shapiro on Twitter.

I saw another response from English Professor Karen Swallow Prior on Twitter.

Dr. Prior pointed out that just because we're inclined to save one over the other(s) doesn't mean that the others are not human beings with the same moral value. Her thought experiment demonstrates that our moral instinct - which tells us to save the screaming child - doesn't have any bearing on the value of the unconscious child. Who we choose to save doesn't tell us anything meaningful about the value of those we do not.

Mr. Tomlinson didn't understand her argument. He stuck to his guns and said that the 1:1000 ratio of his thought experiment makes it different. Dr. Prior pointed out that our intuition doesn't determine value. He refused to see that this is still true no matter how many embryos are present in the experiment.

Another type of response came from They invited Mr. Tomlinson to answer interview questions, and posted an article praising his ability to "eviscerat[e] abortion foes." The article contains foul language, as do many of Tomlinson's tweets. It is a gross response which ignores reasonable arguments in order to uphold an emotional one.

Some responses were reasonable, others were ridiculous and absurd. Many people (who claim to be pro-life) were throwing the phrase "potential person" around as though it were meaningful. (What is a potential person? Isn't a thing either a person or not a person? What change can non-persons undergo to achieve a new status?)

Hopefully my response will be reasonable.

My Response

Despite the claim that this author makes about never getting a straight answer in 10 years, I first heard this thought experiment answered by Jay Watts almost six years ago. At least, I think it was during his presentation that I first heard this. I've heard it many times from many different speakers. It turns out that this thought experiment is old. The fire in a fertility clinic thought experiment was first recorded in 1989, making it almost as old as I am. It was handled more fully back in 2006 by a pair from the University of Halle in Wittenburg. (Where Martin Luther posted his 95 theses 500 years ago this month.) Read the 2006 Answer to this Thought Experiment

If someone presented this thought experiment to me, this is how I hope I would respond:

Patrick (the name of the person presenting the thought experiment): If you had to choose between saving the five-year-old or the 1,000 viable embryos, which would you choose?

Me: Patrick, I'd really like to answer your thought experiment with a straightforward answer, but if I do, will you also answer one for me and discuss the ramifications of our choices?

Patrick: You're not going to give me a straight answer because you know it can't be defended. [If this was a public setting, I imagine that Patrick would maneuver like this more to win the audience's support. I'd do my best to ignore it, and to again reach out to encourage a deeper dialogue.]

Me: I will give you a straight answer, but I want to go beyond that to discuss the deeper questions your thought experiment raises. I'll answer you, ask you a similar question, and then welcome you to discuss the deeper questions. Is that fair?

Patrick: Fine. What's your answer?

Me: If I was faced with the terrible decision of either saving the five-year-old, saving the 1,000 cryopreserved embryos, or doing neither (because I really could just walk away in your experiment, but I think we both agree that option would be evil), I would save the five-year-old child.

Patrick: Aha! You just proved my point.

Me: Wait, Patrick. Let me ask you a question before we discuss what the point is. You agreed that you would.

Patrick: Fair enough. You've already shown that I'm right, so it doesn't matter what you ask.

Me: Thank you for letting me ask you this. Here is another thought experiment: Suppose there has been a catastrophic disaster which eliminated every human being from the planet except in one fertility clinic. Inside of the clinic is you, a five-year-old boy, and a tube of 1,000 viable human embryos (boys and girls). Suppose that across the street is a facility where you could implant these 1,000 embryos and restart the rest of humanity. If the fertility clinic were on fire and you could only save either the five-year-old or the 1,000 embryos (or neither), which would you save?

Patrick: Well that's an absurd thought experiment.

Me: True enough. I could try to come up with something more realistic, but that's not the point of thought experiments. Despite how ridiculous it is, won't you answer the question?

Patrick: If that absurd situation were to happen, I would save humanity by taking the 1,000 embryos, I guess.

Me: Ok. Some people could honestly answer differently. Regardless, I want to ask you a follow-up question about that.

Patrick: It doesn't change the fact that human embryos are not as valuable as one five-year-old. You said that yourself when you said you would save the five-year-old.

Me: Wait, Patrick, did I say that the human embryos weren't as valuable as the five-year-old? No, I only said that I would save the five-year-old in that situation. Just like you would save the 1,000 embryos in my situation.

Patrick: Yeah, but your situation put all of humanity against one five-year-old, so it wasn't the same.

Me: You're right, of course. It wasn't the same. Now I want to talk about what our answers mean.

Patrick: It's the same. Embryos aren't as valuable as five-year-olds.

Me: Just because you chose the embryos over the five-year-old in my thought experiment doesn't mean that the five-year-old wasn't human, does it?

Patrick: What?

Me: Sorry, that was a poorly worded question. In my thought experiment, you said you would choose the embryos, right?

Patrick: Yeah, but that was only because all of humanity was on the line. I wouldn't be able to reproduce with the boy, so saving him would doom humanity.

Me: Right. What does your choice say about the five-year-old?

Patrick: ... that he's a boy and all of humanity would be doomed if I saved him instead of the embryos?

Me: Does it say anything more about him?

Patrick: Not really, no.

Me: So it doesn't show that the boy is not human?

Patrick: No. It just shows that saving him wouldn't save humanity.

Me: You're right. Your decision to save the embryos, and humanity, doesn't actually show anything about the value of the five-year-old boy. He's still a valuable human being, it's just that you chose to save the other human beings in that case.

Patrick: But in my thought experiment there was no threat to all of humanity.

Me: You're right, there wasn't. And my choice was still to save the five-year-old boy. But does that prove that the embryos aren't also human beings?

Patrick: Yes. You would choose to save the five-year-old rather than the embryos because he's more valuable.

Me: That's only subjective. It depends on the circumstances and my own goals. What if in my thought experiment there was only either a boy or a girl, both five-years-old. Which would you save?

Patrick: And all the rest of humanity is gone?

Me: Yes.

Patrick: I would choose to save the girl.

Me: Does that mean the boy isn't a valuable human being? Patrick: No.

Me: And that's my only point. I'm not arguing right now that the frozen embryos are the same value as the born human being. I've argued that before, and will be happy to make that argument again. All I want to do is point out that our decision to save one rather than the other doesn't actually say anything about the value of the other.

Patrick: But it does.

Me: No, it doesn't. Your choice to save the girl, or the 1,000 embryos, doesn't actually mean anything with regard to the value of the five-year-old boy. I appreciate your thought experiment, Patrick, but it actually doesn't prove anything about the unborn. Their value doesn't depend on whether we have a moral intuition about saving them over a born child. The value of every human being is based on their shared characteristic as a human being, not on our moral intuition about protecting them. Whether we would save a boy over a girl, a young person over an old person, a healthy person over a sick person, or a born person over an embryonic person, the value of those we do not save is not changed. What is the value of an unborn person? Let's talk about that. [Then I would argue that unborn human beings are morally equal to born human beings based on their shared characteristic as human beings - using an argument for equality. I'd also point out that the only differences between the embryo I once was and the adult I now am are differences of degree in Size, Level of development, Environment, and Degree of dependency. SLED.]


I know that this response was long and text heavy. I hope that reading it was valuable for you. Of course, your choice to read it or not doesn't actually have any bearing on its value.


Here is the original thought experiment in paragraph form:

Whenever abortion comes up, I have a question I've been asking for ten years now of the "Life begins at Conception" crowd. In ten years, no one has EVER answered it honestly. It's a simple scenario with two outcomes. No one ever wants to pick one, because the correct answer destroys their argument. And there IS a correct answer, which is why the pro-life crowd hates the question.

Here it is. You're in a fertility clinic. Why isn't important. The fire alarm goes off. You run for the exit. As you run down this hallway, you hear a child screaming from behind a door. You throw open the door and find a five-year-old child crying for help. They're in one corner of the room. In the other corner, you spot a frozen container labeled "1000 Viable Human Embryos." The smoke is rising. You start to choke. You know you can grab one or the other, but not both before you succumb to smoke inhalation and die, saving no one. Do you A) save the child, or B) save the thousand embryos? There is no "C." "C" means you all die. In a decade of arguing with anti-abortion people about the definition of human life, I have never gotten a single straight A or B answer to this question. And I never will. They will never answer honestly, because we all instinctively understand the right answer is "A." A human child is worth more than a thousand embryos. Or ten thousand. Or a million. Because they are not the same, not morally, not ethically, not biologically. This question absolutely evicerates (sic) their arguments, and their refusal to answer confirms that they know it to be true. No one, anywhere, actually believes an embryo is equivalent to a child. That person does not exist. They are lying to you. They are lying to you to try and evoke an emotional response, a paternal response, using false-equivalency. No one believes life begins at conception. No one believes embryos are babies, or children. Those who cliam (sic) to are trying to manipulate you so they can control women. Don't let them. Use this question to call them out. Reveal them for what they are. Demand they answer your question, and when they don't, slap that big ol' Scarlet P of the Patriarchy on them. The end.

*As though to demonstrate my own ignorance of the medium, I originally said that it was a 170 character limit. Thanks to Bethany for pointing out that mistake so I could correct it.

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