Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Do we really think embryos are people?

Many people -- bioethicists, op-ed columnists, state legislators -- have offered a thought experiment along the following lines: Suppose a research lab is on fire, and you can rescue either 10 frozen human embryos or a four-year-old child, but not both. Whom do you save?

The idea is that, since most people would save the four-year-old, no one really thinks embryos are as valuable as the rest of us. We don't act as if they are. Equating embryos with children or adults is counterintuitive.

But this is not a good argument for permitting embryo-destructive research and abortion, for at least three reasons. First, choosing to save Person A over Person B is not to deny that Person B is a valuable human being. I might legitimately choose to save my own kid over a bus-full of cheerleaders, but that doesn't mean I think the cheerleaders are not persons with equal dignity. It just means there are emotional or other factors involved that would lead me to save my kid first.

Likewise, I would choose to save a loyal friend over a stranger, and I would tend to save children ahead of adults, since they have more life to live and seem to deserve special regard. But none of this means I'm denying fundamental human equality. The saying "women and children first" doesn't imply that men are inferior.

In the burning research lab, one might choose to save the four-year-old because she would experience great suffering, while the embryos would not, and because she likely has parents and family who would be devastated by her death. These sorts of considerations "can play a legitimate role in determining how we may allocate scarce resources, and, in some cases, whom we should rescue," write Robert George and Christopher Tollefsen.

Second, a preference for saving a four-year-old over 10 embryos does not justify killing those embryos, which is what embryo-destructive research and abortion entail. Those practices are not cases of choosing whom to rescue, but of choosing whom to deliberately kill, and there is a tremendous moral difference. It is one thing to save Person A over Person B when only one of them can be saved; it is entirely different to murder Person B. George and Tollefsen explain, "Choices about whom to save are subject to the particular facts of the situation without requiring a comparative valuing (or devaluing) of lives. But choices to kill are always devaluing choices."

Third, our intuitions can be wrong, and about embryos they often are. Ethicist Scott Rae writes, "The surface appearance of an embryo seems too distant and impersonal. But surface appearances and the emotions they engender are, by themselves, inadequate guides for moral reflection." Consider that slave owners in the 19th century could have used a similar thought experiment when debating abolitionists: "Would you save 10 black guys or one white guy?" At the time most people would have chosen the white guy, but that doesn't disprove racial equality. People were simply mistaken.

What this debate needs is a bit of moral reasoning. Pro-lifers use such reasoning, together with the scientific facts of embryology, to show that human embryos -- despite their size and appearance -- are indeed valuable human beings deserving of respect and protection.