PBA460H: The Burning IVF Lab Thought Experiment

Start with this thought experiment, then ground it in Dr. Kaczor's philosophical reflections on gradualism.

FIXME should these two things go together? FIXME Dank PL Memes racist/sexist question Twitter post

The Burning IVF Lab

“You never know when some lunatic will come along with a sadistic choice…”

Spiderman faces an ethical dilemma as he battles the Green Goblin: either he can save his beloved Mary Jane, or he can save a trolley car full of young children. If he decides to save Mary-Jane and not the kids, then the only conclusion is that it should be legal to kill elementary school children because they’re not really humans. That’s a good argument, right?

“Wait,” you may be thinking, “That argument doesn’t make sense at all!” Perhaps not, but the scenario is pretty close to the “Burning IVF Lab” analogy which is popular among some abortion supporters.

The Analogy:

An IVF lab is burning, and you have a choice between rescuing a 5-year-old girl or 10 frozen embryos. Who would you save?

  • Abortion advocates want to say that since virtually everyone would save the little girl, that this indicates that the 5-year-old has a higher moral status than the embryos. If pro-lifers really believed that all human beings have equal status, then they'd save the larger number of people.

Summarized another way:

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.

Relative Suffering

From the Equal Rights Institute blog

Tim: The first issue is that if I save the infant, the embryos aren’t going to die a painful, terrifying death, but if I save the embryos, the infant will suffer a painful, terrifying death. That really matters to me. Suppose I had the choice to save two people who were in deep comas or one person who was fully awake. If I save the person who is awake, does that show that I think they matter twice as much as the other two?

Ann: I guess not. But if life is so important, shouldn’t you still save the two? It still feels like you ought to value the lives of ten embryos over one infant.

Tim: Perhaps, but let me point out the second major issue with the thought-experiment. The frozen embryos might not survive anyway.


  • The embryos were conceived via IVF, so we have no idea what's going to happen to them.
    • They may be implanted, and there's no guarantee that all or even any of them would successfully implant.
    • Could the frozen embryos even survive outside the conditions of the lab? For how long?
    • Consider it like a case of triage. “Two people are in mortal danger and a doctor can only save one. The doctor will save the person with the greatest chance of survival. Does that mean the other person is less valuable than the person she saves? Of course not. But if she tried to save the person with the most extensive injuries, she may end up losing both.”
    • The fate of the embryos is extremely uncertain; the 5-year-old has a 100% chance of survival if you rescue her.
      • (This is not like the car sinking into a lake, where in that situation you have a duty first towards the more dependent person and the more capable person might have a better chance to fend for themselves, because both the baby and the mother have a 100% chance of survival if you rescue them in that scenario)

Relationships and Attachment

  • What if you knew 100% of the human embryos would survive, and be implanted, and our technology had a 100% success rate for implantation?
    • Say you’re in a burning building. In one room is your mother, and in another room is a complete stranger. You only have time to save one. I would almost guarantee you would save your mother. But does that mean the one you didn’t save wasn’t human? What if you were faced with the choice of rescuing your spouse or child or a room full of people? If you save your spouse or child over the roomful of people, that does not mean the people in the other room were not human.
      • As Robert P. George and Christopher Tollefsen point out, there could even be circumstances in which people agree that it would be reasonable for a particular person to save the embryos, even if other people, including people with no personal attachment to either the embryos or the girl, might be drawn to rescue the girl. For example, say a doctor in the clinic is a father or grandfather to the embryos. Most people would not consider it immoral for that doctor to rescue the embryos over the little girl.
      • FIXME Random pro-lifer on FB: “The question is one of intrinsic vs extrinsic value. Every human being has the same intrinsic value, but we also add extrinsic value based on their relation to us, their resemblance to us, their age, etc. So it's little surprise I would save, say, my daughter over some random stranger. These choices don't reflect on the intrinsic value of these people, but rather the extrinsic value I place on various characteristics.”
    • Or Dr. Chris Kaczor: “If forced to choose between saving the President of the United States and four other national Presidents and Prime Ministers, rather than ten unknown patients, most people would choose the Presidents and the Prime Ministers. To choose to save Presidents and Prime Ministers rather than plain persons is not a denial of the equal basic rights of those not saved, but rather a recognition that deaths of world leaders adversely affects many more people than the deaths of regular patients.”

Killing vs. Not Saving

  • There's also a significant difference between choosing who to rescue, and intentionally killing one person to save the other
    • What if the choice were three comatose patients or a five-year-old girl? Many people would agree that the comatose patients are humans deserving of full moral respect. Yet no doubt many of these same people would opt to save the girl over the comatose patients. Does this mean, in a different situation, these same people would consider it justifiable to kill comatose patients to harvest organs for a five-year-old girl in need?
    • Or, to return to our starting example: if Spiderman had only saved Mary Jane, would it somehow follow that it would be OK to kill elementary school children?
  • The question “Who do you save?” tells us nothing about “Who can we kill?” or “Who has human rights?”
  • (But, as Klusendorf notes, moral intuitions are important, but not infallible)
    • FIXME quote Klusendorf uses about old attitudes towards slavery, “no people were killed” – from Huckleberry Finn? Or Tom Sawyer?
  • Even if we were inconsistent by rescuing the adults over the embryos, this would do nothing to negate our arguments against abortion. So as we see, allowing these embryos to die in the fire to rescue another human does nothing to show that we don’t believe embryos are full human persons, and it certainly doesn’t justify us taking their lives through abortion.
An amusing dialogue example

The scene: Union Station, rapid fire exchange amidst a crowd

Angry guy: Can I ask you a question?

Blaise: Sure

Guy: Okay, so, let's say there's a clinic. Oh, I mean, a fertility clinic. And it's on fire. And, uh, the fertility clinic–

B: It's fire and who do I save, the two-year-old or the 1000 embryos?

Guy: Yeah

B: Well, the problem with that question is–

Guy: No, just answer

B: Okay, the question “who do you save”–

Guy: No, just answer it, who would you save?

B: The two-year-old.

Guy (smug): There you go. (starts walking a way)

B: Can I ask you a question?

(guy turns slightly)

B, stun move: You're the Flash, building is on fire and Batman and Wonder Woman are trapped, but you only have time to save one. Who do you save?

Guy, stops and turns: That's ridiculous, that's not even real

B: Okay, building's on fire, two-year-old and five-year-old are trapped, who do you save?

Guy: Uhh….

Me: The question “Who do you save?” tells us nothing about “Who can we kill?” or “Who has human rights?”

“Consider the real-life example of Noah Benton Markham, a survivor of Hurricane Katrina that hit New Orleans in August of 2005. He was an embryo contained in a canister of liquid nitrogen, frozen along with fourteen hundred embryos, which police officers rescued from a hospital. He was later implanted into his mother, Rebekah, and born on January 16, 2007 in Covington, Louisiana, some seventeen months later. When Noah becomes an adult and looks back over his life, he can say with all certainty that he was rescued from the flood in 2005. If he had not been rescued, he would not be with us today.”

FIXME Maria: alternate version of this dilemma, the version I have heard way more often during activism so I think it's helpful for members to be aware of it: embryo vs. baby, have to throw one off a cliff