A Simple Answer to a Burning Question

If you were inside of a burning fertility clinic, and you had to choose between saving a toddler versus saving 1,000 frozen embryos, which would you pick?

This is the thought experiment renewed in popular conversation by comedian, writer, and social commentator Patrick Tomlinson. The short answer to his thought experiment is:

“All else being equal, pro-lifers can rightly choose to save the toddler, even though they are well within their moral rights to choose to save the 1,000 embryos. Either way, the thought experiment entirely bypasses the most relevant factor in abortion, that human embryos are human, and may still qualify for at least a modicum of moral respect sufficient to protect them from elective, non-dilemma, abortion-choice. The burning lab scenario does a marvelous job of illustrating what pro-lifers and pro-choicers tend to agree on already, that there are real-world differences between human beings across their different stages of development. Now, whoever set the lab on fire, that person is clearly in the wrong presuming they weren’t forced to do so. So, it is likewise wrong to kill innocent, defenseless, human beings (embryonic or otherwise) without some fancy fire-dilemma forcing that choice.”

That’s the short answer, but to understand it better you may want to keep reading.

Don’t Go Starting Fires

What we have here is a fairly sophisticated philosophical thought-experiment which is handled fairly poorly. Tomlinson is not adding much light to the issue; it’s more like rhetorical arson. He’s starting a fiery debate.

With no disrespect to Tomlinson, a good thought experiment like this one should generate new insights, fostering discussion, curiosity, and perhaps even breakthroughs in our understanding. Tomlinson, however, has been demanding that pro-lifers give a straight-forward A or B answer, with no explanation. He’s treating an open thought-experiment like it’s a closed question. Instead of stating one’s reasoning – and that’s where the real meat of the argument is found – he’s restricting responses from pro-lifers to (A) the 5-year old child or (B) the 1000 embryos.

I’m going to respond below, with a bit of academic rigor, to Tomlinson’s argument. But, a lot of what follows below would equally apply to stronger and more sophisticated variations of this argument were someone to also apply it directly to abortion as Tomlinson has done. Just because his treatment of this thought experiment is faulty, doesn’t mean the illustration is worthless. It’s actually a very good illustration, for what it’s worth, but it is not well suited as a straight-forward pro-choice argument.

Also, if you are looking for a practical response to this line of argument as you might encounter it in a casual conversation in the cafeteria, or over a poker table, then I recommend you follow the advice of Tim Brahm of Equal Rights Institute in “Four Practical Tips for responding to the Burning Fertility Clinic.” I’m doing a formal, academic, response here. It’s informational. But Tim’s article is practical. If you want to hear more voices on the subject you should also check out responses from Robert George, Gregor Damschen and Dieter Shonenecker, Ben Shapiro, Clinton Wilcox, and Matt Walsh.

(1) It a Logical Breakdown

Logically, it commits the error of “non sequitur,” meaning it does not follow. In this case, it does not follow that picking A or B requires that a person hold a particular stance on abortion. An un-implanted embryo has no developmental future without artificial insemination, but the thought-experiment does not offer any details about whether those embryos will be implanted or whether any of them will succeed. In Tomlinson’s version of this thought experiment, we are asked to make a decision without critically important information. But, if we lack critical information for making that decision, then we can decide either way and rightly plead ignorance in the court of moral opinion. If we don’t know whether those embryos have a probable future, an unlikely future, or no future, then there’s no clear “pro-life” or “pro-choice” label that fits a simple choice of A or B.

Before Tomlinson can demand that pro-choicers choose A and pro-lifers choose B, he needs to prove that those are the only internally-consistent options for those groups. Without that demonstration, however, his conclusion does not follow from the premises.

(2) It’s a Disanalogy

Tomlinson’s use of this experiment is also a disanalogy. It is not a good illustration for the point Tomlinson is trying to make. A good analogy will clarify something unfamiliar by comparing it with something familiar. A bad analogy, however, fails to clarify that thing often by comparing two things in terms of critical differences where they aren’t very similar.

The abortion debate is critically different from the burning lab illustration. Abortion is not about saving humans from accidental or environmental peril (like a fire), but about intentional peril. The burning lab illustrates a true dilemma, and it’s a fine illustration for what it’s worth, but in pregnancy, no one has to die. The “dilemma” is between killing and not killing anyone. There’s no accidental peril, akin to a fire, bearing down and threatening innocent humans. The struggling mother does not have to choose between which life to destroy, but rather choose between having her child-in-utero killed or spared. In this way, the analogical argument breaks down because Tomlinson’s argument leaves out the most critical factor, intentional killing.

In other words, the strength of Tomlinson’s analogy is that it’s far-removed from abortion. The closer the thought-experiment is to an abortion-situation, the more we find the difficult dilemma dissolves into an obvious decision – Don’t kill human beings. Now, I don’t want to stretch the analogy too thin. Tomlinson probably isn’t trying to create a neat clean argument from analogy. But if he is going to reduce this thought experiment to a straightforward “proof” for abortion-choice, then he is arguing by way of analogy, even if he’s doing it loosely and presumptuously. Analogical arguments only work if they responsibly illustrate the relevant similarities. His argument doesn’t really do that.

(3) It fails by Contrary Analogy

Using Tomlinson’s parameters, we can clarify one ambiguity in his storyline in a way that flips the script. What if those 1,000 embryos are the only remaining viable human offspring in the world? If it is the case that saving them saves the human race, and letting them die in the fire destroys them, then it is clear that the moral choice (all else being equal) is to save humanity, even at the expense of the 5-year old.

This analogical rebuttal makes it clear that Tomlinson has left the door wide-open by leaving critical details ambiguous in his argument. I’m not trying to contort the thought experiment into something it’s not. I’m only showing that there are possible reasons why a person could choose either A or B, depending on background information, and be morally justified in that choice.

(4) This argument implicitly undermines abortion, casting it as arson.

Since Tomlinson’s version of this thought experiment is aimed at the abortion debate, then he may need to specify who starts the fire. In abortion, the efficient cause for abortion is the mother. Typical pro-choice logic dictates, “Her body, her choice.” She’s the one choosing to terminate the life of her pre-born child. Regardless of whether the man in the lab chooses to save the toddler or the embryos, the fire is the material cause that killed innocent human life, but the arsonist is the one responsible for the death of A or B. This thought experiment, taken at face value as an argument for abortion, seems unduly harsh on the abortive-mother. She is “starting the fire” so to speak.

Moreover, abortion-choice is just that, a choice, it’s not required. If the fire is likewise optional, then the arsonist is morally culpable for starting a needless fire that killed human embryos. Even when pro-choicers deny the “personhood” or “moral equality” of those embryos, “arson” is still wasteful, malicious, and destructive. In this way, abortion can still be the wrong choice even without any agreement on the moral status of embryos.

(5) It’s a False Dilemma

Tomlinson treats this thought-experiment like A is the pro-choice answer and B is the pro-life answer – a straightforward dilemma. He reinforces this framing by deleting disagreeing explanations from the thread. This framing, however, is a false dilemma. A person may choose instead to risk dying, hoping for a miracle, as he tries to save both. That option is enough to show this isn’t a true dilemma – perhaps martyrdom is morally superior. I’m not making that martyrdom case here, but it’s another option. There are other options too, mentioned below, which further complicate this scenario.

(6) There can be pro-life motivations for choosing A or B

Even if we restrict our choices to (A) the 5-year old child or (B) the 1000 embryos, there are pro-life reasons why a person could choose either. But unless Tomlinson engages with the reasoning behind these choices, he will never know what someone’s choice is saying about their views on abortion. A pro-lifer may affirm saving the 1000 embryos for the sake of protecting more human lives, or he or she may save the 5-year old child in the same way that a triage doctor ascribes a higher priority to the one with the greatest chance of survival; a healthy 5-year old child may have a greater chance of survival that all 1,000 frozen embryos. None of the embryos have a legally protected future unless and until they are implanted and only if the in-vitro process succeeds.

Robert George, explains other reasons why we might be justified picking one toddler over 1,000 frozen embryos.

The five-year-old will suffer great terror and pain in the fire, but the embryos will not. Moreover, the family of the five-year-old presumably loves her and has developed bonds of attachment and affection with her that will mean much greater grief in the event of her death than in the event of the death of the embryos. While these concerns would not justify killing, they can play a legitimate role in determining how we may allocate scarce resources and, in some cases, whom we may or should rescue. (George 2017, para. 7)

Furthermore, George goes on to explain how it is not enough just to count the numbers, judging 1,000 embryos greater than 1 toddler.

Often, the (or at least a) morally correct decision cannot be made just on the numbers—a point that even utilitarians are willing to acknowledge. And so, for example, it is morally relevant in some cases where choices of whom to rescue must be made that a person we could save is (for example) our own son or daughter, even if saving him or her means that we cannot save, say, three of our neighbors’ children who end up perishing in the fire from which we saved our own child. (George 2017, para. 7)

It should be clear that there are more factors involved than simply “counting” embryos to toddlers. And these other factors mean pro-lifers can be justified in picking A or B.

(7) There can be pro-choice motivations for choosing A or B

Likewise, a prochoice person may choose A or B, depending on their reasoning. He may choose to save the 5-year old because he thinks the embryos lack any right to life, a conventional pro-choice belief. Or he may save the 1000 embryos because his own child is in there somewhere, and he wants to preserve his offspring regardless of any ‘right to life’ consideration. Or, he may think the 5-year old is a bratty kid with a poor prospect of flourishing in life, meanwhile, he sees the 1,000 embryos as brimming with potential.

(8) It’s a Misapplied Illustration – it doesn’t fit the abortion issue because it wasn’t originally about abortion.

Building on the previous points, if pro-lifers and pro-choicers can both choose A or B, then this thought experiment isn’t pointing strictly to a pro-choice conclusion, like Tomlinson seems to think. It can point either way, it’s ambiguous.

This ambiguity isn’t surprising because the thought-experiment wasn’t originally about abortion. To my knowledge, it was first formulated by George Annas (1989), and reiterated by Michael Sandel (2005), to illustrate a point about embryonic stem cell research and human cloning. Sandel uses this thought experiment to argue that embryos do not have “equal moral status” with children-ex-utero (pg. 245). While this may sound bad for the prolifer, he explains one paragraph earlier that “one need not regard an embryo as a full human person in order to believe that it is due a certain [level of] respect. Personhood is not the only warrant for respect” (pg. 245). Remember, Sandel isn’t talking about abortion here. We could grant his point, for the sake of argument, and remain pro-life by affirming that human embryos deserve real, albeit lesser, protections so they are never killed by elective abortion. A pro-life position fits his argument just fine since he’s trying to show, what many pro-lifers and pro-choicers readily admit, that there are relevant practical differences between human embryos and toddlers. To be sure, this finer point, about the valuational difference between toddlers and embryos, is important to the abortion debate. It does not, however, embody the abortion-debate like Tomlinson seems to think it does. Pro-lifers can, and do, grant practical inequalities but assert that both A & B have a right to life. Pro-choicers can likewise grant practical inequalities while denying that B has a right to life.

(9) Ethics of Care can clarify, for pro-lifers, moral differences between the toddler and the embryos

Some commentators use the language of an “emotional decision,” saying that we may choose to save the child because of “emotion” (ex., Walsh, para. 5). This terminology, however, can be misleading because it can sound like truthless irrational feelings are determining our moral decisions. Emotions do not exactly have the reputation for pristine moral logic. Plus, if we suggest that it’s an “emotional decision” we risk blurring our moral sentiments or ethical intuition with our irrational passions. It may be that our conscience weaves deep within our emotional life, and while it often feels like emotions, it still points reliably (for most people) toward moral facts. I don’t want to dismiss the value of emotions, but people mean a lot of different and confusing things when they say “emotions,” and there is some literature suggesting that our common understanding of emotions as “irrational passions” is deeply flawed (see Martha Nussbaum, and Robert C. Solomon). I’d suggest a better frame of reference might be Ethics of Care.

Ethics of Care is a system of ethics developed by Carol Gilligan and Nel Noddings around 1984. This system of ethics specifies a relational, compassionate, and subjective approach to our ethical choices. Think of a nurse’s care for a patient as opposed to a scientist’s treatment of a test subject. While the scientist tends towards cold objectivity, fair and balanced treatment, and impersonal distance; the nurse cares for her patient in a sensitive, responsive, and relational way. She may even value her own patients more than anyone else’s patients. Ethics of Care offers a marvelous insight into the world of ethics by pointing out that we can have different, justified, ethical judgments based on our relationships. A mother has a greater ethical pull towards her children as opposed to the neighbor’s children; an American may have greater ethical concern for fellow Americans than for foreigners; a man may care more about his wife than about any other person in the world. These critical differences are not implying that some humans are more innately valuable than others. Instead, these differences point out a complex and subjective landscape where relationships really do matter in ethics. Now, I’m not suggesting we embrace the entire framework of Ethics of Care. Ethics of Care is often criticized (rightly I think) for its surrender to relativism and liberal feminism. We can, however, find some important insights here for the burning laboratory thought experiment.

Embryos have no inter-personal capacity for relationship with anyone yet. Even if we grant the typical pro-life view that they are persons, they are still not the sort of mind-will-emotion persons with whom we can share interpersonal experiences. They lack that sort of interpersonal capacity, and so they are relationally isolated at that stage in their lives. Furthermore, they have no familial relation except for anonymous donors. The embryos, by no fault of their own, are cut-off from the meaningful relationships that lend normal and rightful ethical responsibilities within their caring community. Many of our ethical decisions fall along relational lines, helping out a friend, but declining to help a stranger; feeding my own children, but not feeding the neighbor’s children. If I have one meal to offer, and it’s going to my wife or a stranger, and both are equally hungry, then my wife get’s the meal. There’s no immorality in that decision. In the burning lab scenario, the 5-year old child has more relational and interpersonal ties to the world than, presumably, all 1,000 embryos. We may be perfectly justified in asserting an ethic of care, and saving the 5-year old instead of the embryos, just as a mother is more justified and responsible in caring for her child instead of someone else’s child.

(10) Argument by “worst-case scenario” is a bad strategy

The burning lab illustration is susceptible to “worst-case” reasoning. By “Worst-case reasoning” I’m referring to the tendency to distort and exaggerate something by focusing on the worst-cases. It would be a bad policy to always stay indoors because bad weather could harm you; or never talk to any strangers ever, because of “stranger danger;” or never eat vegetables because of botulism. Sure, we can find worst-case scenarios where people slipped on ice, or they talked to the wrong stranger, or they got botulism from a salad. But these are not sufficient evidence to justify a universal policy about those things. Worst-case reasoning errs by generalizing too widely on the basis of scary extremes. The burning lab illustration doesn’t work with a genuine “worst-case,” since that scenario has probably never happened in the history of the world. Instead, the burning lab scenario invents a worst case scenario, out of thin air, to create an emotionally charged dilemma. This scenario can have some emotional pull (including irrational reactionary passions). But since this worst-case never really happened, and may never happen in the future, it doesn’t tell us a whole lot, practically, about whether the abortion-industry is wholesome enough to merit our public support. It doesn’t tell us whether there may be other reasons to oppose abortion. It does not tell us about the majority cases, the ones that don’t fit the “worst case” framing. Most abortions are miles removed from the “worst cases.” They are often regrettable situations but aren’t a dilemma between saving one life or saving more. The vast majority are not rape pregnancies, nor do they have extremely deformed or handicapped children-in-utero. Most abortions are fairly mundane elective abortions where the woman did not value her child’s life enough to refrain from destroying him or her in-utero.

In the abortion debate, the “burning lab” illustration is somewhat rare. The more popular worst cases scenarios tend to be: (1) rape-abortions and (2) perilous pregnancies where the mother’s life is in danger. Now, if these objectionable cases are addressed in a calm, and respectful manner they can be a perfectly legitimate line of inquiry into the ethical pros and cons of abortion-choice policy. However, there’s a quick way to tell whether a person is sincerely arguing on this basis, or whether they are using worst-case reasoning as a smoke-screen to obscure other motivations behind their position. I like to make an offer:

“Would you lend your support to a general ban on abortion, that makes exceptions for women who have been raped and for women in perilous pregnancies? I’d support that law, since I want to save lives for mothers and their children alike. Would you support that?”

I have yet to find an abortion-choice advocate who has lent their support. But after that point, they stop mentioning rape and perilous pregnancies. When they were mentioning the “worst case scenarios,” I think, they were drawing attention away from the other kinds of abortion, sometimes known as “convenience abortion,” that they also support. They did not want the argument to veer in a direction where they are left defending women who refuse to use contraceptives because their boyfriend doesn’t like condoms, or they are left saying that it’s ethically permissible to tear apart an innocent squirming human being limb from limb.

With the burning lab illustration, this “worst-case reasoning” helps distract attention away from the gut-churning images of actual abortion. Abortion and the abortion industry are really ugly. I can understand why abortion-choice advocates would not want to spend much time looking honestly at it. But, the “worst case reasoning” is a bad habit risking distortion, distraction, and even dishonesty.

(11) Hard Cases Make for Bad Laws

It has often been said that hard cases make for bad laws. They make for bad laws because they point to the exceptions and the dilemma scenarios, leaving the law ill-equipped to address the more general and common cases. Imagine if all cars were banned because less than one percent of driving trips crash. Imagine if cocaine were legalized in all cases because a doctor finds an unusual medical benefit when it’s used to treat a rare disease. Imagine if a clothing company instituted a new policy halting production on all 2-legged trousers and instead reverted to 1-legged trousers because there are people who have only one leg. Imagine if all convicted pedophiles were permitted to work in daycare centers because 2 or 3 convicted pedophiles have been successful daycare workers without incident. Hard cases, exceptional cases, and anomalies make for bad laws.

In this case, the burning lab experiment suggests an unusual burning laboratory scenario which, quite possibly, has never occurred in all of world history. This situation is just a thought experiment, but it’s theoretically possible. It’s not so outlandish that it could never happen. However, it’s still a “hard case,” a ripe ethical dilemma that philosophy classes can argue over for weeks on end. And since, those philosophy classes, and them able-bodied philosophical scholarship beyond them, are firmly divided on how to navigate or interpret this scenario, then we can be assured that at the level of public policy, we would not be wise to try to use this thought experiment as a central pillar supporting a universal law in favor of abortion, i.e., abortion-choice policy.

Some of the “hard cases” border on absurdity, with strange and abstract thought experiments that effectively separate the argument from any chance of approaching a realistic deliberation on the legitimacy of abortion, for example, as dismemberment killing, or other “unsightly” aspects of abortion-practice. I’ve personally heard people argue for abortion choice policy by way of thought experiments about: (1) men getting pregnant, (2) alien invasion, (3) forcible organ donation/sharing with a concert violinist, (4) floating airborne “people” seeds, and now a (5) burning in-vitro laboratory. Other lines of argument are more mundane, such as the (6) streetcar dilemma, and the (7) acorn analogy. Each of these scenarios has it’s own purpose and could be used in a fair and rational way. However, these are often used as a diversionary tactic, to force the abortion debate into the stratosphere, 2 and 3 degrees removed from the ugly reality of deliberate killing of one’s child-in-utero. It’s a strategic disadvantage for abortion-choice advocates to let the conversation linger around the unsightly reality of destroyed fetal humans. The pull toward abstraction and “worst-case scenarios” helps to justify abortion-choice policy by diverting attention away from the common-case scenarios where the choice is between convenient killing or compassionate life-saving.

These worst-case scenarios also help justify abortion-choice policy by slicing out critically relevant factors that weigh against abortion-choice. With the burning lab scenario, no abortions are in view, no motherhood is mentioned, and no family relations are anywhere to be found. By removing all these factors, the thought experiment is simpler, but it’s so austere that it may have eliminated all the critical differences that “make all the difference.” This method of argument is kind of like saying, “Ballet and bowling are basically the same sport, if you focus on what they have in common.” Tomlinson has created a “worst case scenario” that is not much like abortion at all


(12) The Game is Rigged

At this point, it should be clear that Tomlinson is not offering an open discussion, an academic debate, or a genuinely intellectual exchange here. This “controlled conversation” is more like pseudo-intellectual showmanship. The effect is more heat than light.

Furthermore, Tomlinson is doing his own pro-choice camp a great disservice by feigning an intellectual debate when instead it’s more like a Fordian choice, “You can have any color car you want, as long as it’s black.” For Tomlinson, it’s “You can oppose abortion-choice any way you want, as long as you’re supporting it.”

This thought experiment is not new and it’s not a “grand slam” like Tomlinson seems to think. It’s not even terribly relevant to abortion, not directly at least. This clever thought-experiment can help reveal the murky circumstances of bioethical dilemmas, but it doesn’t really tell us much about the ethics of elective abortion.

If you’d like to see some of the original versions of this thought experiment see George Annas (1989), Michael Sandel (2003), and Dean Strettan (2008), all cited below. You may also want to read Frank Beckwith’s Defending Life, where he mentions this thought experiment in a wider context of abortion-choice arguments (2008, pg. 169). See also, Robert George’s Embryo: A Defense of Human Life (2008, pg. 216) for a more expansive treatment.


Annas, George. “A French Homunculus in a Tennessee Court,” Hastings Center Report (1989), 20-22.

Brahm, Tim. “Four Practical Tips for Responding to the Burning Fertility Clinic,” Equal Rights Institute (27 October 2017), accessed 29 October 2017 at: https://blog.equalrightsinstitute.com/four-practical-tips-responding-burning-fertility-clinic/

Damschene, Gregor and Dieter Shonecker, “Seven Embryos or Saving One child: Michael Sandel on the Moral Status of Human Embryos,” Ethics and the Life Sciences in the Philosophy Documentation Center (2006), 239-45, accessed 7 November 2017 at: https://philpapers.org/archive/DAMSSE

George, Robert and Christopher Tollefson, Embryo: A Defense of Human Life (New York: Doubleday, 2008).

George, Robert, and Christopher Tollefson, “Embryos and Five-year Olds: whom to Rescue,” The Witherspoon Institute, 19 October 2017. Accessed 29 October 2017 at: http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2017/10/20332/

Nussbaum, Martha. Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions, Upd. Ed. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ., 2003).

Sandel, Michael, “The Ethical Implications of Human Cloning,” Jahrbuch fur Wissenschaft und Ethik, Vol. 8 (2003), 5-10, accessed 29 October 2017 at: https://scholar.harvard.edu/files/sandel/files/ethical_implications_of_human_cloning.pdf

Solomon, Robert C. Not Passions Slave (Oxford: Oxford Univ., 2007).

Stretton, Dean, “Critical Notice–Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice by Francis J. Beckwith,” [book review], Journal of Medical Ethics, 34, no. 11 (2008), 793-7

Walsh, Matt. “Here’s The Reason Why Pro-Aborts Rely on Worst Case Scenarios to Argue Their Point,” DailyWire (17 October 2017), accessed 29 October 2017 at: http://www.dailywire.com/news/22380/walsh-heres-reason-why-pro-aborts-rely-worst-case-matt-walsh#exit-modal

Wilcox, Clinton. Response: “Thought Experiment: The Burning IVF Facility,” Prolife Philosophy (self-published; 5 July 2012), accessed 7 November 2017 at: https://prolifephilosophy.blogspot.com/2012/07/thought-experiment-burning-ivf-facility.html?m=1


About intelligentchristianfaith

Married man. Teacher. Theologian. Philosopher. Workout nut. Prefer cats to dogs. Coffee buff. Transplant to Texas. Carolina Panthers fan. Perpetually pursuing the world's best burger.
This entry was posted in Abortion Practices, Ethics of Abortion, History of Abortion, Philosophy of Abortion, Scholarly Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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