Clear Answers for Ethical Problems?
You flee a burning building and find a scared child. In the same room, there is a container labeled „1000 viable embryos“. You can save only one. Which one do you pick? This question is asked by journalist and author Patrick S. Tomlinson. He wants to demonstrate that the death of an embryo is not „infanticide“, as pro-life activists like to point out. Is this fair criticism?
Tomlinson presents this scenario in a series of tweets that are going viral on social media. It was shared more than 30.000 times and praised as „the best argument against anti-abortion activists”. The possible answers given are A, “you save the child”, or B, “you save the container”. He claims to never got a clear answer on this question in a decade and that the “beating around the bush” of the critiques is just proving that he is right. For an Orthodox Christian, this question is hard to answer, but it doesn’t have anything to do with opposing or tolerating abortion.
Instinctively, most people would probably save the child, but that is where Tomlinson sees the hypocrisy of pro-life activists: If you chose to save the child, you are admitting that there is a difference between an embryo and a child. On the other hand, If you save the container, you let a child die, that is contradicting your very core principles. When you take the challenge as an Orthodox Christian, you cannot get off lightly, regardless of what you chose. Beside the fact that this scenario is absurd: It is comparing things that should not be compared in the first place. Say in the burning building there was a man and a woman, it would be absurd to conclude that women have no right to live when you chose to save the man. Tomlinson’s question is not problematic because it questions Christian values, but because the outcome is negative either way. The loss of a life, born or unborn, is tragic from an Orthodox point of view, even if it is viewed as “necessary” evil, due to social pressure or medical necessity.Orthodox Christians are called to protect life. Indeed, the church has understanding for human weakness and powerlessness. Selflessness goes hand in hand with sacrifice. Being there for people in need requires investing one’s own time, money, and energy. Because of that, it is usually not possible to help everyone. One is forced by external circumstances to pick a side, like in Tomlinson’s scenario. But that does not negate the fact that every human deserves help when needed.
Life is holy
God created the human being his image, his icon, and a temple of the Holy Spirit. This temple is worth being protected, from the moment of its conception. There are feast days in church tradition that are explicitely dedicated to the miracle of conception. There are, for instance, the feast of the conception of Saint John the Baptist (September 23) or the conception of the Allholy Theotokos by Saint Anna (December 9). Also, the incarnation of Christ is celebrated 9 months before the actual nativity, namely at the feast of the annunciation (March 25). Philosophers and scientists will continue discussing whether embryos are mere „clusters of cells“ or living beings worth protecting. That is a legitimate and important question, but it doesn’t change the anthropology of the church that understands the very conception a divine gift.
Therefore, the church regret the loss that results from abortion. Regardless of what embryos are in the light of philosophy. Tomlinson’s critique doesn’t do justice to an Orthodox worldview, because he is not open for alternatives. Since antiquity, there were philosophical movements that were characterized by a dualist worldview, according to the formula „A or B“, without alternatives. The church was affected by that when it came to the understanding of Christ’s human and divine nature. Is he god or man? At least since the council of Chalcedon it is clear: He is both, fully human and fully God. The Orthodox church proved herself to be capable of conciliating apparent contradictions and demonstrated that dualist woworldviews are too narrow. Facing Tomlinson’s question, Orthodox Christian can go the same way of conciliation.
A or B?
Unfortunatelly, even today it seems to be hard to find the „golden mean“. The medial landscape create the impression that the „either-or“ rules the world. Middle ways are out of the question. If someone is not a racist he or she is accused of collectively declaring immigrants to be saints. Every act for women’s rights are equated to misandry and an attack so called traditional values. Ignoring the shades and thinking in categories of black and white, one can easily fall into a worldview that does not live up to the complex reality. That would be too simplistic.
Our world is vibrant and dynamic, shaped by relationships and experiences. But, to quote the German cabaret artist Volker Pispers: „When we know who the villain is, the day has structure“, so we are standing here between left and right, veganism and meat consumption and all the A’s and B’s in our society and condemn the other parties, instead of making compromises. Moral conflicts cannot be solve with a simple Yes or No. An option C is necessary: A life in balance, in which you are able to see the good in other people’s opinion and question your own. We should honestly seek truth instead of insisting on „winning“ an argument. We should make „I don’t know“ an acceptable statement. Tomlinson complains that in all these years he never got a clear and definite answer to his question. But, Mister Tomlinson, these are good news.