Baby or Vat?

Zachriel asks, at UD:

Here’s a simple thought-experiment. There’s a fire at an fertility clinic, and there is precious little time before the entire building is engulfed in flames. Down one hallway, there’s the soft purring sound of an incubator with a thousand frozen embryos; down the other hallway, the cries of a newborn baby. Which do you choose to save?

Usually, people answer “the baby” and the interesting debate then concerns why.

Answers on that thread include:

  • Because the baby could suffer more (to which Zac adds the condition that the baby is anaesthetized)
  • Because the baby has more years ahead of it
  • Because the chances of the baby surviving are greater

StephenB,  interestingly, says that if he could be sure that 50% of the frozen embryos would subsequently be born, he’d save the Vat.

All these answers are predicated on the idea that an embryo is a full human being from “the moment of conception” (which one? I ask) and that the ethical dilemma is of the  do you save a hundred strangers or one friend? type.  Zachriel’s question, on the other hand, is designed to elicit the acknowledgement that gestation is a process of becoming, and that the reason people “save the baby” is an implicit acknowledgement that a baby’s death is a bigger deal than a blastocyst’s.

Well, I’m in the latter camp, not simply because of the additional dimension that most embryos are attached to another human being, whose human rights are also an issue, although that is huge.  The other reason I’m in that camp is that I think we make ourselves.  As we we develop from babyhood to adulthood, increasingly we own our past and possess our future.  So to the death of a seven year old – or even a two-year old – to me, is actually a bigger deal than the death of a baby – it is the cancellation of an imagined future and a remembered past.  Which is NOT to argue for the legitimacy of infanticide.  Legally, it seems to me, the absolutely right place to mark the beginning of full human rights is birth. It’s clear, it’s intuitive, it’s pretty unambiguous, and it’s well before the baby has any conception of her own future or remembrance of her own past.

Nor is it to dismiss the tragedy of infant death.  But infant death, I argue is the death of the hopes of the infant’s family – it is not the death of the infant’s hopes, because the infant’s hopes do not yet extend much beyond the next moment.  I would save the baby, not the Vat because the baby is someone’s child.  But if the choice was between a baby and a two year old, so help me, I’d save the two year old.

What would you do?

57 thoughts on “Baby or Vat?

  1. Elizabeth: Whatever one thinks about the ethics of abortion, I find it extraordinary that anyone can compare the moral issues raised …

    Yes, extraordinary. We all could have a terrific slanging match about any of the related questions of IVF, “snowflake babies”, elective abortion, jail for pregnant women who drink or smoke …

    They’re among the most serious moral questions we face. They’re most likely the questions we will face in our individual lives: not likely any of us will personally have to re-think “should I shoot this bastard or should I obey the Commandment?”. Not likely any of us will be in a real-life “trolley dilemma” (or at least, not in time to realize it and think it through). But likely every one of us knows an infertile couple who had to decide what to do with the surplus embryos from a round of IVF. It’s a certainty that every one of us knows a woman who has chosen an abortion (even if we aren’t aware of that fact about her).

    Even if it were a slanging match, instead of a reasoned conversation, it would at least be on topic.

    I did think it was a rather lovely post, and the one following it too

    Umm, thanks. *blush* I chose my words with care. That one seemed particularly important to get right because I know I’m expressing some unorthodox ideas. I want to make myself clear.

  2. Well, I had several rounds of (unsuccessful) IVF. And at least 7, and almost certainly more, pregnancies that never got beyond a few weeks at most.

    One of the things I was very aware of when I lost those pregnancies was that what I experienced was the loss of my hopes – and even the loss of a state I had thought I was in but turned out not to be – not the loss of a person. The tissue didn’t seem so much a dead person but a person that would never be. And actually the same was true of each menstruation, regardless of whether it contained a zygote or not (impossible to tell).

    The one that lasted the longest went to 11 weeks. The day I finally passed the unambiguous evidence of loss was the day my sister got a positive pregnancy test (first grandchild for my parents). She felt terrible about having to tell me, but actually it helped hugely – it was almost that the hope got transferred, rather than dashed. Oddly enough, the name she chose for the middle name of her son was the same as the one I’d thought of my hoped-for one as having.

    Contrast that with the death of my father a couple of months ago. Boy was that the death of a person.

  3. I should have said that eventually (on my last egg!) I had a son. It wasn’t even an IVF conception. He’s now 22! And the apple of my eye of course.

    So those earlier losses are behind me.

    But I do miss my father. It’s been a tough year. Thanks.

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