The baby and the petri dish

A discussion with Andrew Wilkow about that "trick question" on abortion.

Published March 8, 2006 9:44PM (EST)

We reported Tuesday on the on-air confrontation between talk-show host Andrew Wilkow and Mike Stark, a fellow who writes a blog that encourages liberals to give the what-for to right-wing radio personalities. Stark called into Wilkow's show the other day and tried to pin him down on a hypothetical that touches on abortion rights and the moment that life begins: Imagine that you're in a burning fertility clinic with a 2-year-old baby and a petri dish containing five blastulas. You can't save both, so which do you save?

Wilkow refused to answer what he called a "trick question," and he turned the tables on Stark with a hypothetical of his own. We quoted from the audio, and the item sparked a spirited debate among readers who posted comments in War Room.

Wilkow e-mailed us today to tell his side of the story. We thought you'd be interested in this slightly abbreviated version of the exchange that followed.

Wilkow: Allow me to back the story up a bit. Mike used to call my program every day. I nick-named him "Commie Mike," a name he too thought was funny. We used to have heated, spirited-but-civil debates ... When my call screener told him he couldn't come on every day he got angry. Since then he seems to be on some mission to get to me. Anyone can rattle anyone else if they put their mind to it. Liberal, conservative, professor or talk-show host, it doesn't matter ...

The situation he put me in was intended to make me look like either a blind conservative nut or a phony in my beliefs who is just taking that position to sell myself to conservative listeners. That's what bothers me. Plus, that clip is a moment of his choosing. What I mean is, there is more to me and this program that I do on WGY and Sundays on WABC in New York. It would take forever in an e-mail for me to explain what I mean. In the end, I don't take anything personally. This all comes with the job.

War Room: The back story is interesting, but I'm not sure it changes the nub of the thing: He asked you whether you'd save the baby or the petri dish, and you wouldn't say ... As for his putting you in an awkward position or seizing on a moment of his choosing, isn't that what a lot of talk radio folks do all day, every day?

Wilkow: Like I said, I don't take it personally. But he's got people e-mailing me who have no idea what they are talking about. I didn't answer his "Catch 22" because there was no right answer that would satisfy him. He would paint me wrong no matter what I said. In the end, all I would ever ask is to be viewed through a lens of fairness.

War Room: Well, why should we care what answer satisfies him? What answer satisfies you? Is a petri dish with five blastulas in it as important to you as a 2-year-old child?

Wilkow: Are you asking me what I would do in a real life burning building situation -- or a hypothetical situation designed to open a second debate on when life begins? See, I won't let someone put me in a box where they pre-determine how I will be viewed in the outcome. That again is not fair.

War Room: I'm asking you what you'd do in the hypothetical situation that was presented to you: You're in a burning fertility clinic, you see a 2-year-old baby and a petri dish with five blastulas in it, and you can't save both. Which would you save?

Wilkow: ... I'm not going to answer hypotheticals. Mike didn't answer mine. Look, obviously, in a real burning building I wouldn't have time to debate in my head the fundamentals of the pro-life/pro-choice dynamic. Again, you're not picking up on what I said: The whole question was designed by Mr. Stark to present me either as a fake conservative or as a right-wing nut.

War Room: But Stark's motivations don't change the fact that you wouldn't answer the question. I don't know what your views on abortion are. But if you take the view that life begins at conception, then aren't five "lives" in a petri dish worth more than one life in diapers? They are, unless you believe that a "life" in a petri dish is something less than an actual child. And if that's the case ... absolutist positions on abortion become pretty impossible to defend. If it's "a child not a choice," then those are five children in that petri dish, and I'm not sure how anyone could say that you wouldn't save the five before you'd save the one. Or would you? You still haven't answered.

Wilkow: This situation is triage. You save who can be saved. Let's say I leave the 2-year-old and save the five petri dishes. How would I sustain them? Why can't I grab the kid and the petri dishes? This is nonsense. Why does this one situation sum me up?

My response "Catch 22" to Mike was this: You're on a bus with your two children, your son and daughter. The bus crashes on a bridge and splits in half. Your half is hanging off the edge. You're injured. The kids have slid to the gaping hole in the bus, almost sliding to the drop-off. You grab one kid in each hand. You are sliding, they are hanging off the edge, you can only hold onto one. Which one do you drop?

War Room: Your hypothetical is flawed. You've framed the question with equal weights on each side of the scale: one undeniably living human being versus another undeniably living human being ... I don't know how I could choose to save one and let another go. I'd like to think that I'd die trying to save both. But Stark didn't ask you such an equally weighted question. On the one side of the scale, he put a 2-year-old child. On the other, he put five blastulas -- or "unborn children," in the vernacular of the antiabortion movement. If you believe that those five blastulas are, in fact, living human beings, then you've got to say that you'd save the five rather than the one, don't you? To put it in the frame of your hypothetical, let me imagine that I've got six kids, we're in a bus accident, and circumstances require that I make a choice between saving five kids and letting another die or saving one and letting five die. I hate to think about the possibility, but the answer is pretty obvious: You save five rather than one.

So let's do apples and apples now. You're in the bus with six children. Do you save five or do you save one? Now imagine that you're in the bus with one child and a petri dish with five blastulas. Do you save five or one?

If the answers to the two questions aren't the same, it seems to me that you've got to explain why. And to do that, it seems to me, you've got to acknowledge that a blastula in a petri dish isn't really a child. But I'm getting ahead of myself. I'd like to hear your answers first.

Wilkow: This could go on for hours. My hypothetical was designed to have no real answer. His was designed to make an ass out of me. My answer, no matter what, will/would be used either against me or to open up a whole other argument. It seems to me that you are more apt to support Mr. Stark's attempted take-down of a conservative-leaning talk host. I'll bet there would be no celebration if a conservative activist did this on Air America ... We both have better things to do. So this is where this ends.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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