Bad reasoning about hard choices

U.S. National Guard photo by Capt. Matthew Riley


A fireman races into a burning medical clinic.  He finds there a flask of frozen embryos, but also a five-year-old child.  He can’t carry them both.  Who should he save?  Most people – including most pro-life people -- would say “the child.”  According to abortion advocates, this proves two things.  First, it is supposed to show that not even pro-life people really consider an unborn child equivalent to a born child.  Second, it is supposed to show why killing unborn children is okay.

Something is wrong here, but I can’t tell what.  Can you help me think this one through?


Sure.  Both inferences are false.  To begin with the second, what is done in this scenario isn’t analogous to an abortion.  In an abortion, you are deliberately killing someone.  In the fire in the clinic situation, you are saving someone, but you can’t save both, so you have to choose which one to save.  So what we think of story of the fire tells us nothing about what we should think about abortion.

As to the first inference, it isn’t even remotely true that if you choose to save the five-year-old, then you must consider an embryo to have less value than a born child.  To see why not, consider several alternative scenarios.

Scenario 1.  A fireman sacrifices his life to save a five-year-old child from a burning house.  Most people would say he did the right thing.  Does their judgment imply that they think the life of a fireman has less intrinsic value than the life of a five-year-old?  No.

Scenario 2.  A father rushes into a burning house occupied by his little girl.  As he rushes down the hall, he realizes that his daughter’s playmate is in the room next to his daughter’s.  The house is about to collapse, and he cannot save both of them, so he saves his little girl.  Most people would say he did the right thing.  Does their judgment imply that they think the life of his daughter’s playmate has less intrinsic value than the life of his daughter?  No.

Scenario 3.  There has been a battle, and many soldiers are injured.  There is only one doctor, and not enough medicine for everyone.  So the doctor divides the injured into three categories.  In category 1 are those who are so gravely injured that they will probably die no matter what he does.  In category 2 are those who have intermediate degrees of injury, so that they will probably live if he gives them medicine, but not if he doesn’t.  In category 3 are those who have light injuries, so that they will probably live no matter what he does.  The doctor decides to give medicine only to the persons in category 2.  He will try to make the persons in categories 1 and 3 comfortable, but will not give them medicine.  Most people would think he did the right thing.  Does their judgment imply that they think the lives of mortally injured and lightly injured persons have less intrinsic value than the lives of persons who are seriously but not mortally injured?  No.

What did happen was that although in each case, every human life was equally precious, not all could be saved, so in order to make the choice, other factors had to be considered besides the intrinsic value of human life.  In Scenario 1, the additional factor was vocation, for saving life is a fireman’s calling.  In Scenario 2, the additional factor was relationship, because all other things being equal, our duties to our offspring are greater than our duties to others.  In Scenario 3, the additional factor was who can be helped, because not all of the soldiers were equally injured.  Many such things come into play in hard choices.

And of course none of these cases is like abortion.  In every abortion, innocent life is taken deliberately, something that is intrinsically wrong.  By contrast, in the scenarios I’ve spun, no innocent life is taken whatsoever.  The fireman in Scenario 1 does not commit suicide.  The father in Scenario 2 does not murder his little girl’s playmate.  The doctor in Scenario 3 does not kill any of his patients.

For a clincher, several pro-life writers have pointed out that the original story – the one about the little girl and the flask of embryos -- can be modified so that even the advocates of abortion tend to make the opposite judgment.  Suppose there has been a worldwide super-pandemic, and the flask of embryos is the human race’s only chance of survival.  In this case, wouldn’t most abortion advocates say that the fireman ought to save the flask of the embryos?  Now ask:  Would their making this judgment imply that they think the lives of embryos are intrinsically worth more than the lives of born children?

No.  Just as before, all human lives are equally precious, but when not all can be saved, we have to consider other factors too.  Inequality has nothing to do with it.  I hope I’ve answered your question!

J. Budziszewski is a Professor in the Departments of Government and Philosophy, University of Texas at Austin. This article has been republished  with permission from his blog, The Underground Thomist.  His latest book is Commentary on Thomas Aquinas’s Treatise on Happiness and Ultimate Purposepublished by Cambridge University Press. See also his other books, including The Line Through the Heart:  Natural Law as Fact, Theory, and Sign of Contradiction.


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