An Argument on Abortion

Patrick S. Tomlinson has what he thinks is a knock-down argument in favor of abortion. In fact, it's not a particularly difficult argument to answer if you are equipped with a little Aristotle.
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.
Nonsense. "A" is the correct answer; but understanding why it is the correct answer shows that this argument actually tells us nothing much about abortion.

The reason "A" is the correct answer depends on the actual/potential distinction. As Aristotle explains in the Physics, potential is a kind of actuality -- he calls it 'first actuality.' A forest is potentially many houses in a way that a sand-filled desert is not, in that one could make houses out of the trees but not out of the sand. Yet you would not be surprised if someone valued one actual house, especially if it were well-made, over a forest of potential houses. The well-made house will keep him from freezing to death in a way that the potential house will not.

So you can set up a perfectly analogous story about a fire department that shows up to a fire that threatens both a well-made house, and also a nearby forest. They can stop the fire from spreading in only one direction. Does the owner prefer to protect his house, or his forest? It's going to be the same answer. What that shows is that abortion is actually irrelevant to the problem; you get the same story even if all the human lives are removed from the problem.

Tomlinson goes wrong in thinking that this means that destroying the embryos is not morally problematic. That's like arguing that it would be morally fine to set fire to the guy's forest since he cares so much more about his house.

There's a second issue of ontology where Aristotle is important. What is it to be a thing? Aristotle would say it is to have the form of the thing. What does that mean? Well, to be a house means that the wood isn't just growing in the forest, but it has been cut down, seasoned, shaped, and put in the form of the house. At each stage the potential for the house is more realized, i.e. more actual, than it was before. So it's not that the trees are potentially a house, the logs are potentially a house, the cured and shaped lumber is potentially a house. Each one is more potentially a house than the previous stage was, and thus it is more actually a house than the previous stage. Thus, burning up a guy's shaped and cured lumber is going to be a bigger harm against him than burning a few of his trees. Nevertheless, there is some harm at all stages.

The ontological point carries over to the embryos, with one huge distinction: embryos are self-organizing. Unlike artifacts that are put into a form by an agent, life forms take things from the environment and put them into their own form. They shape themselves: realizing their own form is their activity. An unfertilized egg or sperm is not capable of the activity of self-organizing as an individual human being. The frozen embryo is potentially capable of it, were it not frozen and placed in a womb of the right kind; but in a frozen jar it is only potentially doing it. The embryo in the womb is actively doing it. Stopping the activity by freezing it is morally problematic, as it is deciding to stop a living creature from engaging in the activity of life; stopping the activity by killing it is even more morally problematic.

The other thing to take away from that discussion is that the embryo is human, because it is engaged in the activity that defines humanity: i.e., putting itself into the form of a human. If we have duties to human beings as such, then, those duties exist here. If those duties are mitigated by levels of potentiality, well, we should be concerned with saying just how and why. But far from being a knock-down argument in favor of abortion, working through the issues shows that abortion remains hugely morally problematic even though there is a clear answer to the thought experiment.


Assistant Village Idiot said...

Well done.

Also notice that Tomlinson does not offer C)a hundred fetuses at 39 weeks gestation as his comparison. Also, he picks a human in the narrow range that we respond to as cutest. Notice the typical ages of children in commercials - seldom infants or toddlers unless age-specific goods are being advertised. Or D) He does not pick a demented old man in a wheelchair. He is relying on the emotional bond that we feel for a human child, not the logic of the situation. He is maximising that continuum for effect. When you take that away, his argument falls apart.

Of course we feel a closer bond with a born child. We are wired for that. We are also equipped to examine more closely.

Sam L. said...

How big is the container? Could you give it to the 5-year-old to hold while you pick him/her up and thus carry both out?

Christopher B said...

I saw a post on FB about how this argument was such a pro-life killer (some SJW comedian is going around spinning this question). My answer would be something you touched on regarding the fire department analogy. No one has ever considered allowing someone due to a lack of resources to save them the moral equivalent of murder. We don't hold EMTs responsible for the selections they make when faced with mass casualties even though we KNOW some people die because the EMTs don't treat them. A person isn't considered a murderer if someone is injured in an accident they witness and their attempt to help them isn't successful.

raven said...

That was a well reasoned and clear rebuttal. Illustrated the issue in a new way for me.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

In general, when someone sets up a hypothetical with highly constrained choices, they are trying to beg the question. They are carrying on a conversation in their head with an imaginary opponent. Step back. There's always something wrong with the setup.

So, you go into a bar, but there's a fire, and you only can get one of the patrons out. There's a Martian and a Venusian. Which one ya gonna pick, huh? Huh? Huh? Ridiculous.

Ymarsakar said...

What they didn't mention was that the Deep State and the Leftist alliance of demons for demons, set up that scenario precisely to bolster their ideological cult cause and to make fun of the bible clingers.

It works.

It would be better for a thousand cellular potential EM fields to die before the avatar connects to their spirit, than for them to end up in the hands of the black market slave traders and Deep State eugenicist factions.

If their spirits are connected and permanently stuck and logged into their bodies, then they only have a limited time on Earth. If that gets cut short, we'll have to do the paperwork later on when conditions change and the elohim in charge isn't just Lucifer and the Annunaki. If they can't transmigrate or resurrect any time soon, that'll have to be dealt with later... sorta like kicking the can down the road with SS.

Anonymous said...

We would like to propose that the city of San Antonio declare itself a "sanctuary city" for the unborn citizens who conceived without their consent and by no action or decision of their own…but who are under the threat of death because of an unjust law that is the result of judicial activism rather than the will of the people.

We should establish this “Sanctuary City for the Unborn” to help these unborn but living persons realize their potential as citizens.

The city government should ignore and/or minimize cooperation with government programs that seek to kill these unborn citizens.

The city government should encourage the birth and nurturing of young new citizens rather than their annihilation and destruction.

These unborn but living citizens should be able to pursue personal and individual development without the threat of death before they are even born, and be allowed to fully participate in American society as citizens. They should be embraced as part of our community, and we should recognize their capacity to contribute to our economy and society, if they are protected and allowed the right to be born.

Out of concern for these unborn citizens, we should call on local city and county officials to protect these unborn but living citizens by creating a sanctuary city for the unborn.

Anonymous said...

The early church and abortion
A layman reads The Ante Nicene Fathers

By Dan Popp

You shall not murder. — Exodus 20:13

The unborn child is a human life. Is that a new idea? Consider this assertion from a "Gender Studies" professor (and note the title of her work):

The tendency of the public and medical institutions to perceive fetuses as human is a problematic development because it has the potential to privilege fetuses over women. ... Whereas personhood was once gained through the social world, in Western contemporary society both mothers and fetuses establish identities through reproductive technology and technoscience. — Merideth Nash, The fetishised fetus: creating "life" with ultrasound.

I think it would surprise Ms. Nash to learn that the "perception" of fetuses as human is not a recent "development" brought about by breakthroughs in diagnostic imaging. Certainly current science has provided stunning visual evidence for the biblical view of life, but Christians and Jews have held this view for thousands of years.

The early church leaders, for example, had a great deal to say on the subject of life in the womb.

In The Epistle of Barnabas, AD 100, the author is outlining "The way of light," or acceptable conduct for Christians, when he writes in Chapter 19: "Thou shalt not slay the child by procuring abortion; nor, again, shalt thou destroy it after it is born." Chapter 20 contrasts the way of darkness: "In this way, too, are those ...who are murderers of children, destroyers of the workmanship of God...."

The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus, AD 130, asserts that the customs of Christians are unremarkable — with some exceptions. "They marry, as do all others; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring." A marginal note here in Chapter 5 tells us that "destroy their offspring" is literally, "cast away foetuses."

From Tertullian's Apology, about AD 200, we read:

In our case, murder being once for all forbidden, we may not destroy even the foetus in the womb, while as yet the human being derives blood from other parts of the body for its sustenance. To hinder a birth is merely a speedier man-killing; nor does it matter whether you take away a life that is born, or destroy one that is coming to the birth. That is a man which is going to be one; you have the fruit already in its seed. (Chapter 9)