Why No 5K to Save the Zygotes?

In the manner of explaining why she lost faith in the pro-life movement, Libby Anne says this sort of argument made an impression on her:

Due to hormone imbalances, genetic anomalies, and a number of unknown factors, between 50 percent and 75 percent of embryos fail to implant in the uterus and are passed with the monthly menstrual flow. If we agree with pro-life advocates that every embryo is as morally valuable as an adult human, this means that more than half of humans immediately die. This fact provides pro-life advocates with an opportunity to follow through on their convictions. Surely, a moral response to a pandemic of this magnitude would be to rally the scientific community to devote the vast majority of its efforts to better understanding why this happens and trying to stop it. Yet the same pro-life leaders who declare that every embryo is morally equivalent to a fully developed child have done nothing to advocate such research. … Even if medicine could save only 10 percent of these embryos — and we don’t know because no one has cared enough to ask — it would be saving more lives than curing HIV, diabetes, and malaria combined. One could say that this massive loss of human life is natural, and therefore, humans are under no obligation to end it. But it is not clear why the same argument could not be used to justify complacency in the face of AIDS, cancer, heart disease, and other natural causes of human death.

The above paragraph is from Jonathan Dudley’s Broken Words: The Abuse of Science and Faith in American Politics. I think this is an interesting argument; it can be stated more formally like this:

[1] If the pro-life movement were morally consistent, it would advocate for research to mitigate the loss of human life naturally lost in the womb [premise].

[2] The pro-life movement fails to do this [premise].

[3] Therefore, pro-life movement is morally inconsistent [MT 1, 2].

Suppose this is right. Then the pro-life movement should make an effort to advocate for research to be morally consistent. But so what? That just says something about what the pro-life movement fails to do; it doesn’t say anything about the truth of what the pro-life movement believes about the human embryo, which is what ultimately matters.

Naturally enough, some question this. People who make up the pro life movement are not the sort who are complacent in the face of human death. Thus, it seems that members of the pro-life movement do not truly believe human embryos have a right not to be killed. The argument can be stated like this:

[3] If the human embryo has moral status, then we are under an obligation to mitigate the loss of human life naturally lost in the womb [premise].

[4] We are not under an obligation to mitigate the loss of human life naturally lost in the womb [premise].

[5] Therefore, the human embryo does not have moral status (MT 3, 4].

Taken together these two arguments generate a dilemma. As Fred Clark puts it:

Either these pro-life advocates are complacent monsters every bit as callously unconcerned with saving unborn babies as those they oppose. Or else, just like those they oppose, these folks do not really believe that “every embryo is morally equivalent to a fully developed child.”

What can be said in response? One strategy would be to embrace one of the horns of the dilemma and change one’s practices accordingly. Libby Anne embraced the second horn of the dilemma and came to believe that human life inside the womb has no moral status until the event of birth. But this comes at too high a price, because it reduces one’s moral status to a matter of location. If being inside another’s body eliminates one’s moral status, then surgeons, dentists, and men have no moral status when they perform appendectomies, drill fillings, or have sexual intercourse. Furthermore, embryos created in a lab would not have their moral status eliminated rendering embryonic stem cell research immoral. But at least one or both of these outcomes are absurd for the moral-status-at-birth proponent (the birther?). Perhaps there is some earlier event than birth and later than conception to which the critic can point to save her position, but I think we are justified in looking for a better strategy.

What if we were to to embrace the second horn? While this state of affairs would be embarrassing to the pro life movement, it is not something that cannot be changed. The response to the rhetorical question “Why no 5K to save the zygotes?” would be “Why not?” Research in this area might help alleviate underlying conditions of infertility, which would benefit both human embryos and their parents. This is where I personally land, but it seems doubtful that the pro-life movement will adopt this strategy. I hope I am wrong, but let us explore one last strategy that is available to the pro-life movement so as to avoid the dilemma.

The pro-lifer might deny the first premise of the second argument:

[3] If the human embryo has moral status, then we are under an obligation to mitigate the loss of human life naturally lost in the womb [premise].

What reason might be given for the denial of [3]? One might think that [3] is committed to [6]:

[6] We are always under the obligation to save the lives of beings with moral status.

But why assume that? In certain end-of-life contexts we are not obligated to save the lives of patients who have elected to die naturally. While this assumes that there is a morally relevant distinction between killing and letting die, the point is that having moral status is not a sufficient condition for generating the relevant moral obligation stated in [4]. It is up to the critic to supply the additional condition(s) that will make it sufficient, and the pro-lifer is justified in denying (or suspending judgment on) [3] until one is furnished. If conditions like “the embryo has a future like ours” are given, then the pro-lifer has to respond or be impaled on the second horn of the dilemma. But that would not be as bad as it would be for the pro-choicer who goes this route: for if it is true that the human embryo has a future like ours then it seems abortion is seriously immoral.