The Point: Who Would You Save?

How do you answer this one? For the Colson Center, I’m John Stonestreet with The Point.

You’re in a burning fertility clinic and see a five-year-old child crying for help, and a frozen container labeled “1000 Viable Human Embryos.” You can only save one. What do you choose?

Author Patrick Tomlinson says the obvious right answer “destroys the pro-life argument.” His words, not mine.

He asserts that if we choose to save the five-year-old instead of the 1000 embryos, we don’t really believe humans are equally valuable from conception.

Got you worried? Well, it shouldn’t. As Daniel Payne points out at The Federalist, the argument is a self-evident non-sequitur fallacy.

There are lots of valid, pro-life reasons to save the five-year-old, including her ability to suffer, the relationship  she has with family, and the high likelihood of survival compared with the embryos.

But most importantly, this scenario isn’t analogous at all to the way unborn human beings are actually killed these days. They don’t die in tragic accidents; they’re intentionally killed by doctors and pharmacists, in the name of reproductive freedom. All Tomlinson’s scenario proves is the fogginess of pro-choice thinking.


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  • Karen Keil

    The argument also forces a false dichotomy. Why is it always “You can only save one?” What in the world is a five year old doing in a fertility clinic unaccompanied by someone who could save her? I get what you’re saying but his whole question is ridiculous.

    • Daniel

      Very true, in the real world has anyone while carrying out there ‘duties’ (acts of murder) in an abortion clinic, ONCE ever had to consider the very same scenario and make such a choice?

  • Jason Taylor

    That is like saying Wallenberg should not have helped Jews because he had not time to spare to help Hungarians, and couldn’t possibly have helped Poles while in Budapest.

  • David Richardson

    The status of an unborn child is still unclear–at least to me. Tomlinson’s argument is not really persuasive. Just from a practical standpoint, the protected embryos have a good chance of surviving a fire if help arrives in time. Even if engulfed in flames, the container for the embryos provides that the five-year-old does not have.

    But the Bible makes this issue a bit murky. Children were not spared, born or unborn, among those Canaanite tribes that God devoted to destruction–what is referred to as the Ban (Herem). Moreover, when Judah impregnated Tamar, thinking his widowed daughter-in-law was a prostitute, he became enraged when he discovered her pregnancy. He called for her to be burned for her sexual immorality. He was stopped, however, by the pledges she produced that proved that he was the father.

    Judah affirms that Tamar was more righteous than he, presumably because Judah did not keep his promise to give her his youngest son as a husband. But there is no comment about the children he would have killed (the twins Zerah and Perez) had he carried out his original intention. This may be a story about dysfunctional families, but a pro-life story it is not.

    The prophet Samuel ordered Saul to “attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and do not spare them. But kill both man and woman, infant and nursing child….” I do not suppose a pregnant woman would have received different treatment. Again, this is not a pro-life story.

    A woman whose husband believed that she was unfaithful could be tested before a priest by “bitter water that brings a curse.” If she were pregnant, this ceremony would apparently cause her to miscarry. If not, she would be unharmed. Whatever this water was, it sounds as if it induced an abortion chemically. The prenatal child, however, is the result of adult misbehavior yet earns a sentence of death. That is a curious thing for a pro-life God to do. Yet again, this is not a pro-life story.

    Of course, some argue that God is immoral for doing these things. That is not my point here. I am suggesting that the Bible does not really set forth a consistent pro-life position. God commands the killing of both the fetuses and the infants of enemies. On occasion, he is OK with miscarrying the infants of Israel. In short, the pro-life views of today do not find consistent support in the Bible. The cultures are just too different, yet the Bible is the same.

    I am not arguing a cause here. I am simply pointing out a problem. How God values fetuses and children seems qualified by a number of issues that the pro-life position ignores. Inheritance seems to be one, perhaps that is why Judah was upset with Tamar’s pregnancy? Female fidelity is another issue, which prompted the priest’s test by “bitter water.” Tribal identification is yet another. A child of Israel is worth more than the children of certain enemies. Consequently, the life of a fetus in the Old Testament was not necessarily deemed sacred. That is a fact. How this translates into our modern world, I find quite uncertain.

    Despite its deficiencies, Tomlinson’s argument poses that question to the modern mind. It is proper to point out this argument’s weakness, but that does not change the fact that the question is a legitimate one. Christian answers I have heard seem weak and sometimes appalling. For example, the killing of children actually did them a favor. Given their cultural baggage,they would have most likely gone to hell had they lived. God simply took them to heaven. That kind of reasoning in the present could serve as a justification for all kinds of reprehensible violence. Yet I have seen this argument seriously proposed.

    The world needs no justification for killing fetuses. Iceland has announced the elimination of Down’s Syndrome births. Denmark is close behind, and both England and America are catching up. Some bio-ethicists suggests that parents should have a six-month period to decide on keeping a child after birth or killing it. I don’t want to add fuel to that fire. Nonetheless, the Christian pro-life position requires a better apologetic.

    • Karen Keil

      The problem with your argument is that, whether you mean to or not, you are mixing things up. Sometimes, you are using description (what did happen) as prescription (what God told them/us to do.) The faulty assumption is that if it’s in Scripture, God approves of it. Sometimes, you equate Scriptural justice with human volition. Comparisons aren’t much good when the things you’re comparing are of different classes.

      • gladys1071

        It still does not mean that the bible condemns abortion at all times in all circumstances. The status of the unborn is murky and vague.

      • David Richardson

        Karen, that is not my point. What I am saying is that the pro-life case is simply not as clear as what many Christians would like others to believe. The examples in scripture that appear to offer a non-pro-life view must be explained in a way that makes them consistent with God’s moral law. Many of these stories are deeply troubling–both to Christians and non-Christians, alike.

        That scripture poses such challenges should not make us shy in attending to them. But we must be honest about the difficulties. We must address the questions that critics ask with intellectual honesty, even if the critics are not totally honest in raising them. That serves both the Christian community and the world to which the Gospel has been sent.

    • gladys1071

      I agree with most everything that you say. You are right the Old testament does not have a consistent pro-life message in all cases in all circumstances. You raise some good points and questions about this issue.

  • David Richardson

    You seem to be missing the point. What you are arguing from scripture should apply to all people. In the Old Testament, this does not seem to be the case. The killing of the unborn under divine decree would be, as you have argued, the killing of a human being. I don’t see how you can escape that conclusion. But that human being would not be dying for anything that the fetus did. The apologetic required here is one that exonerates God from violating his own moral law. It must show that God is acting morally in decreeing the death of a child or fetus under the terms of the divinely established moral law. If the killing of a child by a human hand is murder, they when God decrees the execution of a child or fetus, why is this not also murder? That’s the question.
    Does God require obedience to a moral law from which He exempts himself? That is the criticism. If God will not observe his own moral law, then why should human beings pay it any attention to it? God is not really serious about it.

    I have heard it argued that God is justified in such executions because of the evil that such children might do in the future. By executing them now, he avoids that evil and admits them into heaven. This is simply an abhorrent rationalization. One could use it as a justification for the brutal elimination of heretical Christian sects. I can see that line of argument now. “If God eliminates infants on the basis of the evil they might do, then eliminating these sects is justified on the basis of the evil they are doing presently and of the evil they might do in the future.”

    I have also heard it argued that the objection criticizes God for being God. After all, God created life and can do with it as he pleases. I would agree with that claim as long as deity relents from establishing a system of moral law to which he holds humankind accountable. If God exempts himself from moral law, then he becomes more like self-serving political leaders who establish rules for others to obey but then exempt themselves. God then becomes guilty of the same crime the Jesus accused the Pharisees of committing. This turns Judeo-Christian moral theory into a ridiculous parody.

    By all means, make the pro-life case from scripture. I am sympathetic. Moreover, add to this argument the behavior of the early Christian Church that opposed the traditional Roman practice of killing unwanted infants by exposure. The Church saved many of such children from certain death. That is a real pro-life story from Christian history. Nonetheless, you are still left with scriptural stories that offer a conflicting message. You must account for these. Intellectual honesty will not allow you to ignore them. That is my point.