Ep 42 – The Burning IVF Lab Analogy

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Hello friends! I’ve had a TON of conversations on this analogy lately.
Some productive.
Some not so much.

Hopefully I can help you guys think through this issue and also communicate it well.
Here’s the podcast:


The information in this post/podcast has come from a ton of conversations I’ve had on this topic, informed by various posts at a bunch of different sites. I wish I could point you to all of them, but I just don’t remember where I found all of the information over the last several years. However, it was most likely a combination of ERI, Secular Pro-Life, and LTI, as well as the absolute best article on this topic in existence: Embryos and Five-Year-Olds: Whom to Rescue by Robert P. George and Christopher O. Tollefsen

I’m not trying to be a jerk here but it seems that the fertility clinic argument is embraced by people who are not trained, at all, in philosophy. This seems to make sense for those who are already biased towards choice, and basically no one else. Maybe the “fence-sitters”. But concluding “therefore abortion is ok” from this thought experiment is intellectually lazy.
I use this thought experiment as something of a litmus test for the pro-choicers I’m talking to. If they genuinely think this is a good thought experiment, I know I have some work to do. This isn’t meant as an insult, but merely an observation. The key here is that you should know your audience, but never use their ignorance as an excuse to be a jerk to them. The goal is to convince, not make them feel or look stupid/uninformed.

At the same time, this thought experiment is awkward. There doesn’t seem to be a pro-life intuition that people have on it. There’s a lot going on (killing vs letting die, saving vs killing, emotional manipulation, etc), so the uninitiated or untrained may be persuaded. In my opinion, if this thought experiment made you pro-choice, you were tricked and your ignorance was preyed upon. And tbh I’d probably be insulted that I was manipulated instead of taught how to think properly.

Before diving into the IVF analogy, let’s talk about thought experiments.
No, you CAN’T SAVE BOTH. You just can’t. You’re not allowed to do that. Stop offering that as a solution to this. That’s not how thought experiments work. Way too many people think that a proper response to this is to assert that you can save both. But you can’t.
You think you can do these things, but you just can’t, Nemo!
The point of a thought experiment is to flesh out our moral intuitions within the parameters of the thought experiment. One of the parameters is that you have to choose between the embryos and a toddler.

All of that being said, let’s talk about it.

It has been recently popularized by an author on twitter (who subsequently blocked me after I engaged him on it), but he didn’t invent it. Here’s his take on it, but the basic idea is this:

You are in a burning IVF clinic. In one corner, a child. In the other, 1000 embryos. Which do you save? If you save the toddler, this shows that you know they’re not equal. And if you’d just admit this, you’d understand that abortion is ok.

Right off the bat, anyone trained in basic logic will notice that this is a non-sequitur of massive proportions. There is no coherent train of thought that would allow you to logically conclude “therefore abortion should be ok” from “you would save a toddler from a burning building”, but the problems are much deeper than mere logic alone.

Because this is a complicated question, I suggest you do three things when talking about this with a pro-choice person.

  1. Respond directly to the question before diving into your explanation.
  2. Ask what the pro-choice person thinks you should conclude from this.
  3. Negotiate for time. Ask for permission to flesh out the details. Ask for permission to explain why their conclusion is faulty.

When you do all three of these things, you’ll have your answer out of the way, the pro-choicer’s conclusion, and the time to explain the flaws properly. And when you have all of these, you have the beginnings of an actually productive conversation!

Look at how much I’ve already said on this and I haven’t even started to address the thought experiment itself! Sometimes simple questions have complicated answers, and unfortunately people will ask a “simple” question, ignore the complicated answer, and then pretend that “no one has EVER answered it honestly“.

As George Horne says, “Pertness and ignorance may ask a question in three lines, which it will cost learning and ingenuity thirty pages to answer. When this is done, the same question shall be triumphantly asked again the next year, as if nothing had ever been written upon the subject. And as people in general, for one reason or another, like short objections better than long answers, in this mode of disputation (if it can be styled such) the odds must ever be against us; and we must be content with those for our friends who have honesty and erudition, candor and patience, to study both sides of the question.”

Ok, so without further ado, here is a bulleted list of the problems with the Burning IVF Lab thought experiment.

  • “What would you do?” isn’t a good question. The good question is “what should I do?”. This point may seem a little pedantic to some, but it is an important distinction. What I would do might depend entirely on my emotional state at the time. Moreover, extracting a moral principle should rely on the answer to the “what should I do?” question, not on what I would do. Maybe I’m a sociopath, and what I would do is the immoral choice!
  • One of the important things about this analogy is the question that it is asking. It is asking “which would you save?”, whereas abortion is asking “can we kill this?”
    Right off the bat it is asking a different question, so the entire thought experiment doesn’t even really apply to question of abortion. It might be a little bit better if the thought experiment was trying to get us to conclude something about embryo destructive scientific experiments with ESCs. It would be closer to the moral question, but still not a good thought experiment.
  • The choice to kill is always a devaluing judgement call. The choice to save is not devaluing, but a comparison of valuable human persons.
  • It is perfectly reasonable to save the toddler over the embryos, because this isn’t just a numbers game. If it was 1000 embryos vs 1 embryo, obviously the 1000 should be saved. But it’s much more complex than that. It is a mistake in thinking to see this as purely a utilitarian numbers game.
  • There is a significant difference between the kinds of deaths the embryos would suffer vs the kind of death the child would suffer. The toddler would suffer and die (probably slowly) in a fire. The embryos would cease metabolic activity. This doesn’t make them non-human, of course. It just means that the suffering of the toddler would be infinitely greater than the suffering of the embryos. So if we’re trying to reduce the physical suffering of those involved, the answer is obvious. Save the one that can suffer. Moreover, the familial attachments that the toddler has to her family would mean much greater grief than the loss of the embryos. Additionally, if you save the child, she is guaranteed to survive. The embryos… not so much. Not unless you have access to an IVF clinic and a perfect record of success in implantation, which no one has. Not yet anyway.
  • It’s weird to think that the scientific fact that a new human life comes into existence at conception is somehow going to be changed by a thought experiment that asks whether or not you would save a toddler or an embryo. My actions regarding an ethical dilemma has nothing to do with basic human reproductive biology. And while the embryos may not be “babies”, they are living human beings at the beginning stages of their biological development. No philosophical analogy is going to change this fact of biology, heartily embraced by every developmental biology textbook, and almost every qualified scholar, in existence.

The best way to engage with this, I’ve found, is to say which one you would save, and then ask them what you should conclude from this.
Let’s say you’d save the toddler (most would). What does that mean about the embryos? Almost all of them say it means the embryo isn’t human. And that seems obviously false, but demonstrating that is hard. The best way that I’ve found is to ask permission to explain why, and then modify the thought experiment to include 2 non-embryo entities.

Thought experiment modifications:

  • What if it was two toddlers, and one was your daughter?
    • Saving your daughter doesn’t mean that the other toddler is a worthless non-human or non-person. If that
  • What if I have access to an IVF clinic, and I can save all 1000 embryos? Or better yet, what if the 1000 embryos are the only hope left for the human race? What if all that’s left of the human race is just you, the toddler, and 1000 embryos?
    • This certainly changes the moral equation. But choosing the embryos doesn’t mean the toddler isn’t a valuable human being.
  • What if it was 2 pregnant women or 2 not-pregnant women?
    • This decision seems obvious (all else being equal) because they are pregnant. There are four people vs two. If we use this thought experiment, does this mean abortion is immoral?
  • Comatose patients and a toddler.
    • People agree that the comatose patients are morally relevant individuals but many would choose the toddler. What does that mean about the comatose patients?

…aaaaand that’s all I have on this analogy.
It took much longer and much more work than I had originally planned, but that’s what happens when there is a quick question asked by someone who didn’t think through virtually ANY of the assumptions built into the question.

Now go out there and save some babies.

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One thought on “Ep 42 – The Burning IVF Lab Analogy

    Noah said:
    December 15, 2017 at 14:35

    Really, it’s just a classic case of circular logic.

    Tomlinson’s analogy operates under the presupposition that embryos are worthless. The analogy is secretly built solely to justify that assumption, though he pretends it confirms the idea logically when really, as you say, there’s no way a thought experiment can render scientific facts–which are what actually matter in the question of whether embryos have human worth–null and void. Certainly not a thought experiment that doesn’t ask the right question about abortion.

    A thought experiment confirming that frozen embryos aren’t worth as much as a non-frozen child doesn’t have anything to do with the question of abortion. Except in the rare cases of the mother’s life being in danger during pregnancy, there is no “who should you save?” question in abortion. It proves nothing! It’s nothing but a circular justification to make pro-choicers feel secure–though you’re right, it is a clever one.

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