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Nearly two years ago, the prochoice Twittersphere exploded with retweets of a thought experiment from Patrick S. Tomlinson which, he claims, no prolife person has EVER answered honestly in ten years. The thought experiment itself is long and can be quickly summarised: you’re in an IVF clinic that is burning to the ground, and as you try to escape you come across a crying five year old child and 1000 frozen embryos. You can save the child or the embryos, but not both. Which do you choose?

To give Tomlinson his due, I’ve reproduced his argument in its entirety below. You can also read it from his own Twitter account here.

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 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 claim 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.

Tomlinson later adds an interesting addendum:

Because a lot of people are missing the point, it is not being argued the embryos are not alive. Nor is it being argued they are without value. All that is being demonstrated is their value is not equal to that of a human child. That’s it. That’s the point.

Here at The Minimise Project, we are all for having better conversations with pro-choice people, and so of course we would like to take the opportunity to answer Tomlinson’s question. In fact, it’s not really Tomlinson’s question: its quite an old argument that has been made a few times before by pro-choice people. There’s a lot to consider here.

First off, the actual question Tomlinson is trying to get at is a bit confusing, because he starts by referencing the ‘“Life begins at Conception” crowd’, suggesting he’s trying to demonstrate through his thought experiment that life does not begin at conception, but his addendum then specifically states that he’s not trying to argue that embryos are not alive, but rather that their value is not equal to that of a human child. Again, to give him his due, let’s go with his latter clarified argument, rather than his former one.

What’s the answer to Tomlinson’s basic question?

Tomlinson claims he has never, ever got a straight answer to his question from a pro-life person as to whom they would save. I have to say at this point that I share Tomlinson’s frustration, because I have seen pro-life people repeatedly try to dodge his question, by saying something like “I would save both!” (you can’t – Tomlinson specifically stated that there is no option C) or “There shouldn’t be IVF clinics in the first place” (okay…but there are, and anyway that doesn’t answer the question). I would encourage anyone, pro-life or pro-choice, to be honest when we engage in dialogue with others. If someone asks a question, answer the question they asked! (More on this below). So I’ll oblige here and now: A. I would save the child. However, all the implications Tomlinson claims flow from my answer simply don’t follow.

Why doesn’t answering “A” absolutely eviscerate the pro-life argument, as Tomlinson claims?

Tomlinson is drawing a false equivalence. His claim, which is not directly stated but is implied, is that choosing to save one human or set of humans over another human or set of humans means that they don’t have equal value. This is a massive claim, and is completely unjustified. Furthermore, it’s nonsense. If I had to choose between saving my child and saving my husband from a burning building, I would save my child. Can we draw any conclusions from my actions as to whether I think my husband’s value is equal to that of my child’s? Of course not. What if I chose to save my child over five adults? For the record, this is what I would do. I think I have a moral obligation to care for my children, as a mother, but even if I didn’t think that, I would still save my child out of pure selfishness, and I would make no apologies for it. I still completely reject the idea that it says anything about whether I think my child is more valuable than the five adults.

Let’s return to Tomlinson’s first scenario but change the parameters slightly: suppose we’re in a post-apocalyptic scenario where there are no fertile men left and those embryos are the sole chance for the human race’s survival. Should we save the embryos or the child? That question is harder to answer, but I still maintain that choosing to save the embryos says nothing about whether the child or the embryos are of equal value or not.

So, in summary, the answer to the question “Whom would you save from a burning building?” is not the same as the answer to the question “Who has more value?” and it’s nonsense to pretend otherwise.

The final point to make here relates to the material at the end of Tomlinson’s tweet stream. He claims that anyone who says they believe embryos and children have equal value is lying to you and manipulating you, because they want to control women. This is a huge and unfair claim, and leads me to suspect Tomlinson has not met many actual pro-life people and has absolutely no close pro-life friends. However, if Tomlinson’s claim from the start of his argument is true, that he has never heard a straight and honest answer to his question, then his final unflattering paragraphs should be forgiven by pro-life people. It’s very easy to think the worst of someone who dodges your question, refusing to honestly engage for fear it will make them look bad. It’s much harder to think the worst of someone who says “Gosh, that’s a great question. I have to say, my gut reaction is that I would save the child. However, I can see how that would make you question my pro-life views! Something tells me that these situations aren’t quite the same, but I can’t put my finger on why just yet. Any chance I can get back to you on this? Thanks for giving me something to mull over!”.

So please, when you talk to pro-choice people, don’t do so unless you’re genuinely interested in moving with them towards the truth. As long as all you are interested in is winning arguments and making yourself look good, you won’t help anyone – you just give pro-choice people ammunition in their fight to make us look bad.

In part two of this blog, I’d like to share a thought experiment that I have never got a straight answer for from a pro-choice person. Stay tuned!