Last week I came across some controversy on the internet. On Twitter, to be more precise (who would have thought it!?). A man called Patrick S. Tomlinson, who goes by the handle @stealthygeek, had quite a bit to say about those of us who believe that human life begins at conception. I had never heard or come across Tomlinson before, but from a cursory glance at his Twitter profile, I gather that he is a science-fiction author with 21 thousand followers on Twitter. He seems to have accrued a few thousand of these followers from a series of tweets made on 16 October. At the time of writing, the first tweet in the series has 3.8 thousand replies, 26 thousand retweets, and 53 thousand ‘likes’.
Tomlinson claims he has been asking a single question to what he describes as the “Life Begins at Conception” crowd for 10 years, and has never been given an answer. It centres around a fictitious scenario in which you find yourself in a fertility clinic which is on fire. As you’re running out of the building, you hear a child’s cry and you open a door to find a 5 year old child in one corner of the room. In another corner is a container labelled “1000 viable human embryos.” Funnily enough, you can only save either the 5 year old or the embryos. Which do you save? Tomlinson claims that no one who believes that life begins at conception can answer the question. He states that there is a correct answer, but those who believe that life begins at conception cannot give it because it would refute their own argument.
This is where it gets interesting. Ben Shapiro (political commentator, lawyer, author, and member of the “‘Life Begins at Conception’ crowd”), among many others, gave the answer that Tomlinson claimed no one who believes that life begins at conception would ever give. Shapiro and many others stated, without hesitation, that they would save the 5 year old (thus ending Tomlinson’s claim that no one in this ‘crowd’ would share that response, as it would show that they put more value the life of a single 5 year old than a thousand unborn humans). Shapiro then went on to explain exactly why Tomlinson’s thought experiment was fundamentally flawed (if you want to read more of Shapiro’s argument, you can find it here). Tomlinson did as all good debaters do. He blocked Shapiro.
It isn’t my intention to get embroiled in this particular debate, but to share with you a story that actually happened just over 10 years ago in America. Perhaps it may offer some perspective for those, like Tomlinson, who vehemently oppose the idea that life begins at conception. The following passage is an excerpt from Fr Brendan Purcell’s From Big Bang to Big Mystery: Human Origins in the Light of Creation and Evolution.
“Human beings come into existence months and years before they’re conscious of themselves as persons, yet I’d argue that who they are later is identical to who they were before they were born. Robert George, a professor of jurisprudence, and philosopher Christopher Tollefson open their book, Embryo: A Defense of Human Life with the news story they call ‘Noah and the Flood’. It tells how police saved Noah from the hospital where he was trapped during hurricane Katrina which devastated new Orleans in September 2006. Noah existed as a human embryo, frozen in one of several canisters of liquid nitrogen along with 1,400 other human embryos. Sixteen months later, Noah was born, and his parents Rebekah and Glen Markham named him in honour of the survivor of an earlier flood. If he hadn’t been saved, Noah would have perished. The authors write:
Let us repeat it: Noah would have perished. For it was Noah who was frozen in one of those canisters; Noah who was brought from New Orleans by boat; Noah who was subsequently implanted in his mother’s womb; and Noah who was born on January 16, 2008.
The writers say that if Noah were asked if it was he who was rescued that day, he would say ‘Of course’. And they continue: ‘…what Noah would be saying in these two words – and his answer is confirmed by the best science – is that human embryos are, from the very beginning, human beings, sharing an identity with, though younger than, the older human beings they will grow up to become.’
It is vital that we see human beings as a whole, right from conception. Within the container that the police saved in 2006 was not a component of a whole person, not one viable part of personhood, but Noah himself, a person then and a person now. A society that values its weakest and most vulnerable is surely a stronger society for it.