|Hypothetically weighing the same as|
a five-year-old child.
My attempts to maintain my Christian integrity include regularly asking myself two questions. “What do I believe?” and “Do I do it?” These apply to a wide range subjects and are important applications of the overall question, “What would Jesus have me do?”
Why This Came Up Recently
Those two questions are at the heart of an exercise in ethics put forth on October 18 by “author” and “comic” Patrick S. Tomlinson in a series of tweets. (For other middle-aged white guys and our elders, that means short, 140-word-or-fewer posts to the social media platform called Twitter.)
Why bother with Tomlinson’s hypothetical? Two reasons. First, the question he asks has value in forcing me to consider those two questions again, this time with regard to my belief in the sanctity of life from conception through natural death. The second reason is that, with over twenty-five thousand followers, and friends of mine reposting commentaries on the discussions he has sparked, it seemed appropriate to answer his question, even for my significantly fewer friends and followers.
|I admit. I would save the five-year-old.|
And not just because I hope
he'll be mowing my lawn before long.
His hypothetical (You can find it here: https://twitter.com/stealthygeek/status/920085535984668672) pits the life of a five-year-old child against “a frozen container labeled ‘1000 Viable Human Embryos’” in the midst of a choking cloud of smoke in a burning fertility clinic. The question is, “Which do you save?”
Tomlinson claims that he has never received an honest answer to his question. He supposes that my choice of the one child over the other 1000 human lives in the container either makes me a monster, or proves that I do not really consider the embryos to be human lives. I disagree with his conclusion for several reasons—some of which I am going to subject you to here.
The Shifting Scenario
If you read even the comments Tomlinson allows to be posted, every time he does get someone’s honest answer, he adds another qualifier to the question. And it's a hypothetical question to begin with, which has no basis in objective reality. Still, be that as it may, it's a provocative-enough exercise to have value for examining one's integrity. But the examination should consider the integrity in his logic, at least as much as a Christian’s ethics or morality.
Logically speaking, his question can be compared to asking whether you would risk your own life to rush into a burning building to save your worst enemy. Most followers of Christ's teachings would know what the answer is supposed to be and say, "Yes." Whether they would actually do it...well, that's why we like that it's a hypothetical.
But if you deny those believers' ethical and moral claims by changing the logic of the situation you present, that's disingenuous. It's like asking whether you would rush in to save your enemy, getting the "right" answer, and then adding "but that means you'd have to stop doing CPR on his child that you just rescued from that same burning building."
|"Who would burn down|
a fertility clinic?"
Answering the Question as the Monster I Am
Tomlinson says he has never once received an honest answer to his initial question. He later redefines “honest” to include a willingness “to accept responsibility for their answer,” but I hope I do both. Still, my honest answer is based on several important distinctions, some of which have to do with the “facts” presented in the hypothetical scenario he presents.
The environment in which an embryo is "viable" and may potentially survive beyond the fire, and beyond the misfortune of having been conceived artificially in a laboratory, is to be implanted inside a uterus. To my knowledge, suggesting otherwise, even hypothetically, currently works only in science fiction stories (author Tomlinson’s chosen genre). Therefore, on the basis of correcting the “viable” terminology of the hypothetical, the five-year-old will always get the nod. Tomlinson counters this argument, already made by others in comments tweeted back to him, by claiming the right to create whatever reality he chooses in his hypothetical. Even granting him that right, accepting that “viable” applies with the standard definition, “capable of surviving or living successfully, especially under particular environmental conditions,” I will still save the five-year-old.
My decision to save the five-year-old does not negate the fact that each embryo is still a human life, even as frozen in a stainless-steel container. So, why save one life and leave 1000 to die? Am I a monster?
During my stint in law-enforcement chaplaincy I was trained for first-responder rescues. In Professional-Rescuer CPR/Basic Life-Support—nothing really fancy—I was taught to apply a severe and arguably “monstrous” logic to situations such as what Tomlinson describes. (When I had opportunity to apply that logic, and made what I am convinced was “the right choice,” I did ask myself, “How did I end up here?” But that’s another story for another time. I survived, and so did the victim.)
|You might want to ask the man holding the flame.|
(Yes, that's really Patrick S. Tomlinson's
current profile picture.)
The key concept that applies even in Tomlinson’s fanciful hypothetical is called "triage." You save the save-able, even over the more severely injured; you choose those whose survival is most assured, even over larger numbers whose survival is questionable. The same equation applies to the embryos and the five-year-old. The child who has survived to age five also has greater odds (1:1) than the thousands of embryos that were already destined (with only a handful of potential exceptions) to be disposed of by the fertility clinic in which this is supposed to be occurring, and to which, presumably, they would be returned once the fire is extinguished.
(I will add here that believing in the sanctity of life from conception through natural death means that I also oppose the creation of so many lives that are destined for destruction in the process of this particular means of treating infertility. Again, though, another discussion for another time.)
Who Will You Save?
In either case, the surviving child gets prioritized over the already-condemned embryos, the successfully developing child gets prioritized above even the potentially developing embryos, and certainly reality gets prioritized above the hypothetical (especially when the hypothetical has no corollary in the real world).
So, who wants to apply these arguments to the life of the mother who will die without an abortion? Because while those cases occur far more rarely than most would imagine, that circumstance actually exists.