Twitter Abortion: A Response To Tomlinson

Note:  This was composed in response to an article in RawStory about a viral series of Tweets written by hopeful writer Patrick S. Tomlinson, @stealthygeek .  The text of the Tweets follows:

 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. 1/

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. 2/

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. 3/

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. 4/

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. 5/

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. 6/

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. 7/

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. 8/

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. 9/9

It’s an interesting thought experiment, but it’s a false dichotomy in reality.  In an actual emergency, you’ll do what you’ll do, and fine lines of ethics or of morality won’t have anything to do with it.  There’s no time to think.  So you react, and most people will save the kid — the squalling, smelly, messy kid.  Probably sticky, too.

(I’m not a fan of small children.  You might have noticed.)

But it is, as I said, an interesting thought experiment in the ideal, even if in a purely practical setting I’d reject the question.  And it’s one well-worth examining, regardless of your religious beliefs.  Actually, if you’re a Christian, I think 1 Peter 3:15 gives you a compelling reason to examine this — both honestly and carefully.

The choices are:
A: The child
B: A thousand embryos
C: Try for both and fail

It’s a difficult question for the casual thinker, and it does need some consideration.  Most of us aren’t used to thinking of things in an abstract fashion, and a lot of people are simply incapable.  There’s no shame in that; it’s a function of being emotionally connected to the world around you.  Of course, when an abstract problem presents itself, that connection is a liability, but you’re probably a better person for all that.

However, in the abstract and from a purely ethical perspective, it’s quite simple:  You choose the child.  The reason is that, no matter how alive you believe the embryos to be, they’re still people only potentially, and the child is a person in fact.  The potential is only rarely worth more than the extant, and mere numbers do not swing that weight.  If the survival of the species were at stake– but it isn’t; if it were, that would have been made clear in the test.

Now, for our purposes I’m going to make the distinction between ethics and morality; ethics is the set of absolute rules of right and wrong, while morality is subjective and conditional.  A lot of people mistrust it for this reason, but life is complex and sometimes rules aren’t enough.  Sometimes you have to make a decision based not on the concrete but rather on factors that can’t be weighed and measured.

And given that, it must be concluded that there is an equally valid moral option, which is C:  You choose both.  You do this because you believe choosing either option alone is morally wrong, and you are pledged to do no wrong.  You then choose to trust God to protect you as you make the choice you believe to be the only one you can.  The person who does this is driven either by faith or by arrogance, and it’s impossible to say which from the outside.

The person who framed the question dismissed C from the outset as an invalid option.  He has the luxury of doing that because he lives by a set of rules that make C inconceivable, and he may well be correct.  But there are those who live by a different set of rules.  Who are we to call them wrong?  So long as they aren’t choosing on our behalf, what right have we to object?

Of course, both of these are merely shallow constructs, valid in principle only.  In practice, people rarely behave as they would given plenty of time for thoughtful analysis.  I know this because, in vaguely similar real life situations, I’ve made choices A, B, C, and D, that last being to run away in abject useless cowardice.  (I’m not proud of that, but I’d be dishonest if I didn’t admit it.)  In hindsight, I’m proudest of those times I chose C; going forward, I’d likely choose B more often than not.

But that’s because I’ve examined the question.  I’ve spent rather a lot of thought on it, and I think I’ve answered it honestly.  Most people have not, and shouldn’t be condemned for their inability to arrive at the correct solution to an abstract problem in logic when put on the spot.

And that’s the flaw in the series of Tweets:  not that it presents a flawed problem, one that’s badly phrased or a false dichotomy — though it is that last, in that Tomlinson rejects the validity of C from the outset and never considers D — but rather that it judges people for being unable to make proper decisions for which they’ve never been prepared.

But this last also presents us with another difficult truth:  Too often, those of us outside an impossible situation are willing and even eager to judge those on the inside, the people who made their decisions and have to live with the consequences.  Very few people after the fact would accept the view thrust on them, that they’ve committed a murder; very few who care deeply about the pro-life principle are willing to grant any room for ethical discussion.   There’s so much moral outrage and self-righteousness on both sides of the abortion debate that it’s unlikely anyone involved can consider it abstractly and honestly.

Which, in the end, is why we leave these decisions to those trained to make them: to legal scholars, to physicians, and to the occasional brilliant philosopher or divine.  But not to inconstant public opinion, and certainly never to Twitter.  Or perhaps it would be more correct to say that we shouldn’t.

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