Robert VerBruggen agues that pro-lifers should support the promotion of contraceptives that sometimes may act as abortifacients (“On a LARC,” December 31). The death rate for unimplanted embryos is high, he points out. He then posits that if we had a moral imperative to prevent an embryo from being killed, we would have an equal duty to try to prevent its natural death. But the lengths to which we would have to go to prevent its natural death would be “absurd enough to call into serious question the premise that unimplanted embryos must be protected” at all.
No, what is absurd is the notion that, if we forgo heroic measures to save a human life from natural death, we have no moral ground to stand on when we try to save it from death by artificial means. Here VerBruggen backs into the “Oxfam argument,” formulated by Peter Singer: Every dollar you spend on a cup of coffee is a dollar you don’t send to a charity that could provide food or medicine to people for whom it is all that stands between them and death. Drink your coffee, but know that you have just killed someone. So there’s no sound reason for trying to stop Boko Haram from finishing the job for you.
As many of us know who have had to give directions to doctors reporting that an elderly family member was dying, sometimes heroic measures would not even be for the better, although the difference between when they would be and when failure to take such measures amounts to a sin of omission is never clear and certain. Always clear and certain, however, is the difference between letting someone die and hastening her death. VerBruggen’s blindness to this distinction is the weak link in his argument, which otherwise is careful, fair-minded, and free of rancor. No small achievement, given the strong emotions surrounding this issue.
Robert VerBruggen responds: My argument is not quite the Oxfam argument: I am not saying that causing the death of X and failing to save X are morally equivalent. I am saying that if we value X and Y equally, not only will we give X and Y the same protection from artificial harm, but we will go to the same lengths (whatever those are) to save them.
That said, Ms. Klimchock is correct that sometimes it can be best, if heartbreaking, to let loved ones die of natural causes. But we allow this only in certain situations — specifically, when there is little hope that medical intervention would do more than delay the inevitable. So this analogy might apply in certain cases where a woman’s body keeps an embryo from implanting (such as when, due to a genetic disorder, her child would be destined to have a painful and very short life), but it wouldn’t hold up in others (e.g., if her body were aborting a healthy embryo, or an embryo with a genetic problem more akin to Down syndrome).