Answering a Pro-Choice “Gotcha!” Argument

A pro-choice individual recently posted a thread of tweets creating a scenario that he says proves that pro-life people are dishonest and don’t actually believe that life begins at conception. It’s a sort of “gotcha” question that is supposed to stump the pro-lifer and expose them for the fraud they really are. It might be worth mentioning that he also went on a spree of blocking people on Twitter who took him up on the challenge, but that’s none of my business.

Here’s the challenge in his own words:

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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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 cliam [sic] to are trying to manipulate you so they can control women. 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.

So, as a pro-lifer, what am I to do with such a dilemma?

The first thing to say is that in that situation I am pretty much 100% certain I would save the 5-year-old child. I suppose no one ever really knows what they would do in a moment of crisis until they are there, but if I’m answering as honest as I can, I save the crying child.

Now, what does that do to my pro-life argument that life begins at conception? Have I just proven that I don’t really believe that to be true? Or that I am morally inconsistent by letting 1,000 human beings die in exchange for only one?

Well, let me counter this scenario with one of my own. It is equally as unlikely to happen as this first one, so work with me.

You have a significant amount of money saved up and one day you are standing at your kids’ bus stop (which happens to be in front of your house) before school. Chatting with the other parents, you discover that one of the other kids in your child’s class has fallen very ill and needs a serious medical treatment to survive that will cost about $3,000. The parent of the sick child does not have medical coverage and has no money to pay for the treatment. In your own mind, you begin to think that you could dip into your savings and pay for the treatment yourself. As you are standing there mulling it over, the mailman comes by and hands you the mail. You glance through it and notice a flyer from World Vision. They are running a campaign to dig wells in Uganda. A single water well can be dug for only $3,000 and will effectively provide clean water to an entire community of at least 1,000 people, saving them from dying of malnutrition and disease-carrying dirty water. Now, you have a choice to make. You can afford to part with only $3,000, so you must choose which of these two noble causes you will donate to. Which one do you choose?

My guess is that the vast majority of people would donate to save the kindergarteners life. But why? Aren’t they trading just one life for a thousand? Wouldn’t the more prudent choice be to donate to the water well?

Maybe it is the more prudent thing to do. But here’s the reality: people make decisions not only on their logic but also on their emotions. The pro-lifer probably saves the 5-year-old from the fire not because they don’t actually think that the embryos are human, but because the little kid has a a face. They can see the terror in their eyes, the screaming cry that turns your stomach to knot. They can see in this kid their own child, their niece or nephew. Even though the embryos are human life and are to be considered people, the personhood of this kid, much more immediately evident when compared to a metallic test tube, is so overwhelming that you can’t help but scoop the little tike up in your arms and run for safety.

It’s no different with the water-well example. Aren’t those people in Uganda human? Don’t they deserve to live too? Of course. Even a pro-choicer would agree with that. But the kindergarten kid situation hits closer to home. It’s more personal, and so you are likely to be more emotionally engaged in that situation than the other. The Uganda people are so far removed from your situation that you can’t help but have a harder time thinking of them in terms of personhood. Of course you know they are people. But it just doesn’t feel the same.

It’s like that with any act of kindness. There are a million great causes out there to support and donate to, but we almost always choose to get involved with the ones that affect us on a personal scale. We donate money to Autism research and not AIDS research because our sibling has autism. Or we go to the benefit concert for our co-worker instead of volunteering at the Red Cross event. Why? Because there is always good causes to support, but we can’t support them all. So we tend to pick and choose based on what is more emotionally and personally engaging than by sitting down and crunching the numbers to see where our time or dollars could be used most effectively.

We save the 5-year-old from the fire not necessarily because it is the logical thing to do, but because it is more emotionally and personally engaging to do so. We are creatures not just of logic and reason but of personality and emotion. Those parts of our human makeup play a huge role in how we make decisions.

So if the pro-choicer thinks this situation exposes the immorality of pro-lifers, he should at least be willing to admit that he does the same thing in other ways. No one lives in such a way as to clinically and systematically calculate their resources and determine how they are best allocated for the good of all humanity. We simply try to help people. And in doing so, we will inevitably choose to help someone for personal reasons even when our aid could have helped more people if we had let ourselves become a little more emotionally detached. But humans don’t work that way, not pro-lifers and not pro-choicers.

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