Monday, April 30, 2007

Fire in the Fertility Clinic [Serge]

A good friend of mine e-mailed me this post that is meant to illustrate an ethical dilemma:

I just caught the end of today’s NPR’s Talk of the Nation: Science Friday. The panelists were discussing stem-cell research, and this philosophical dilemma was posed to the lay-man caller by one of the scientists:

If there was a fire in a fertility clinic, and you had the choice to save either a six year old girl or 24 frozen embroyos, which would you choose?

This illustration which is quite common is meant to show that pro-lifers really don't believe what they claim - that all human beings possess intrinsic human value. If they did, then clearly they would choose the greater number of embryos over the smaller number of children. Is that true?

The problem with the analogy is the presupposition that our human value depends on whether some would choose to save us in a particular situation. In other words, our human value is not intrinsic, but is dependent on whether another human being desires to save us in a dangerous situation. It is easy to demonstrate that this presupposition is false. Let's change the scenario in which there is a fire in a jail that I was visiting with my wife (My wife was not in jail - we were visiting together - stick with me here :-)). I only have one option - I either can run to save her, or run to open the doors of 24 murderers. Regardless of the option that I choose (and I would almost certainly choose the former), what does it say about the human value of those left behind? If the majority of us would choose to save our wives, does that mean it is justified to intentionally kill the prisoners to use their organs - even if it does save someone else? That simply does not follow.

Allow me another personal example. I must admit that I have different emotive feelings about many of the patients that I have the honor of treating. Let's take three patients - one is a good friend of mine, one I have never met, and one has been sent to me by the ER after messing up his face in a drunk driving accident where he killed a child (yes, this has happened to me). Clearly, I have have very different feelings of worth for each one of these patients, but I am still expected to treat them as valuable human beings regardless of how I fell about them at this point in time. Their value, and thus the expectation of care is completely independent of how I feel about them. That is the way it should be.

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