Sanctity of Life: The Complexities of the Abortion Issue

Dr. Norman Metzler

Emeritus Professor of Theology

Concordia University, Portland, Ore.

The abortion issue has become central to much of what is happening in our nation politically, morally and spiritually. Many would contend that it is one of the top issues, if not the single most influential issue, behind our presidential election, the selection of Supreme Court justices, and coalescing otherwise rather diverse factions in our country in support of various candidates. Because it has become such a central and contentious issue, it is disheartening that this issue is framed so simplistically in the public discourse. For example, a Missouri Synod pastor in a recent issue of Lutheran Forum Letter stated the matter thus: if human life begins at conception, legal abortion becomes untenable…if human life begins at birth…then restrictions on abortion become untenable. While I certainly affirm the sanctity of human life along with those in the “pro-life” camp, I believe such simplistic ways of framing the issue is misleading and does a significant disservice to those seeking earnestly to understand this complex problem in our world today in relation to their Christian faith and values.

The tragedy of problem pregnancies

It must be stated very clearly at the outset that the issue of abortion only arises in the context of a problem pregnancy. Part of the complexity is that there are widely varying definitions of when a pregnancy is a “problem;” from when it threatens the life of the pregnant woman, to when it is simply “inconvenient.” In any case, it is safe to say that no woman gets pregnant so that she can choose an abortion.

So we are talking about problem pregnancies, which by definition are tragic. One would wish that all pregnancies were both wanted pregnancies and healthy viable pregnancies. In our broken world, sadly this is not the case, and we Christians we must deal with this tragic and complex reality. If there are situations where terminating a problem pregnancy is considered the best of tragic alternatives, then in such situations, it seems reasonable to hold that the abortion procedure should be legal and safe. The sordid history of illegal abortions in our recent national history prior to Roe v Wade alone should be sufficient grounds for keeping abortions legal and therefore medically safe and responsible.

The typical over-simplification of the abortion issue by the anti-abortion forces fails to acknowledge the actual complexities associated with human reproduction. One cannot fairly discuss the issue of human reproduction and pregnancy without taking into account the larger fundamental reality of fecundity in God’s creation, such that not every acorn becomes an oak tree. This is true across the spectrum of nature, including human reproduction. God’s design provides far more potential for reproduction than actual fruits of reproduction. This divine benevolence in nature provides for sufficient potentialities that there will in fact be adequate actual offspring to continue the species, even though most potentialities do not result in actual offspring.

The trajectory of human life

The human reproductive process, or “human life,” does not begin at birth, nor even at conception. Within the abortion discussion, one must acknowledge that the trajectory of potential human life moving through stages of development toward the birth of an actual child begins much earlier.

  • A human life begins with a viable human egg and a viable human sperm, which, given the proper circumstances between a male and a female — barring any intervention — would naturally combine to form a human zygote. This is the basis for Roman Catholic moral theology’s opposition to contraception; it artificially and unnaturally intervenes in a process which could otherwise naturally result in a person.
  • The percentage of human eggs and sperm actually combining to form human zygotes is obviously extremely small.
  • Of the eggs and sperm that do combine to become zygotes, only 50% successfully implant in the uterus.
  • Of those zygotes that do successfully implant as embryos, some 50% to 75% self-abort or miscarry within in the first 4-5 weeks of pregnancy, because of health issues with the woman or problems within the embryo, often before a woman is even aware of being pregnant.
  • Miscarriages continue to occur as the pregnancy progresses, although modern medicine is increasingly capable of intervening to preserve pregnancies until the fetus is sufficiently developed to survive outside the womb.

Given these facts inherent in the trajectory of human life, one must face the obvious question: if God values every conception as highly as the anti-abortionists assert, and the fertilized egg has the same moral and spiritual value as a fully developed post-natal person, then why did God build fecundity into the human reproductive process? If every fertilized egg is already a full human being, a person from the very first stages of gestation, why does God allow such a high percentage of these “persons” to spontaneously abort, or miscarry, as part of his plan?

A critical theological perspective

The fact that only a miniscule portion of potential life, including human life, becomes actualized within God’s creative plan provides a critical theological perspective on the status of pre-natal human life. God’s own human reproductive design clearly demonstrates a differentiated valuation of the incipient human life during its stages of gestation, compared with the status of a post-natal person. While our loving creator God loves all of his creation in all of its fecund potentiality, by far most fertilized eggs do not survive the total gestation process, more so in the earlier stages of the process. Roe v Wade reflects human reproductive fecundity and the increasing chances of a fetus reaching viability, and accordingly allows for increasing restrictions on legal abortions as the pregnancy progresses. Contrary to the popular claim of anti-abortionists, there is no provision in our legal system for unrestricted “abortion on demand” throughout pregnancy. In most states, abortion is actually illegal after the fetus becomes “viable,” typically around 24 weeks into the pregnancy.

Within the reality of naturally occurring spontaneous abortions or miscarriages throughout nature, a unique factor in human life and reproduction is that a woman may view her pregnancy, the potential human life developing within her, as a “problem pregnancy.” In this case – in consultation with her doctor, spouse, family, or other support network – she may choose to terminate a pregnancy that is otherwise not self-aborting. She may make this choice due to various circumstances that cause her to see the pregnancy as a problem, whether due to rape or incest, due to the fetus having major viability issues, or because the timing of the pregnancy is undesirable. Whatever the circumstances may be that the woman (and those around her) may consider problematic, only humans have accountability for dealing with the complex medical, moral, and spiritual factors involved in making decisions regarding problem pregnancies.

“Letting God decide”; simplistic and untenable

The argument that in the case of miscarriages or still births we are simply “letting God decide” or “letting nature take its course” is simplistic and untenable. As in many other areas of medicine, modern reproductive medicine is able to intervene in some cases of problem pregnancies to avoid miscarriages, and therefore effectively to override “God’s decision” or “the natural course.” Given the possibilities for human choice within the human reproductive process, it is very appropriate for Christians to work toward minimizing problem pregnancies so that women have less occasion to make hard choices regarding abortion to end a problem pregnancy, although it is unlikely in our broken world that problem pregnancies will ever totally go away.

In light of the above, it is misleading (if not emotionally manipulative) for anti-abortionists to refer to abortion as taking the life of a “child” or of a “person,” equivalent, for example, to murdering a two-year-old. Such biblical references as the baby leaping in Elizabeth’s womb, an individual being known by God from the womb, or proscriptions against violence toward pregnant women, are either poetic utterances or provisions of ancient Jewish law, and understandably do not reflect an awareness of the modern medical and moral complexities in the current abortion discussion. (Indeed, there are biblical references to God knowing us individually from all eternity, not just from the womb.)

Therefore, these biblical references do not justify using the terms “child” or “person,” as we understand them today, in reference to pre-natal human life, at least within any serious discussions about abortion. While the egg and sperm, the zygote, the embryo, and the fetus, all have the potential to develop into a child, an individual person, they do not yet have that status before they are actually born. At none of the stages of pregnancy does the potential human being possess those essential qualities we associate with actual personhood: an independently functioning mind and body; a fully defined unique physical appearance; a distinctive personality; and interaction with others in a network of human relationships.

Committed to life

Regardless of one’s position on the legality of abortion, I trust all are agreed that Christians should reach out with compassion and support to women who for whatever reasons have had an abortion, just as we should deal compassionately with those who grieve the loss of a pregnancy due to a miscarriage. Furthermore, Christians who fight to make abortions once again illegal should feel particularly obligated to take the lead in providing long-term support systems for those women who choose to carry to term but may be in very difficult circumstances – unwed, poor, addictive, depressive, caught in a bad marriage, or otherwise lacking family or community social networks to turn to in their struggles.

Finally, “pro-life” individuals and organizations that claim to be truly concerned about the sanctity of human life should take a hard look at the irony of their expending so much energy and resources on the narrow goal of preventing legal abortions, while expending relatively so little energy and resources on rescuing from death the many millions of actual – not potential — living children who are full human persons with unique names, appearances, personalities, and relationships. One can only imagine how many of these children could be helped if the financial and political resources currently spent on fighting to make abortion once again illegal were invested in these children’s survival.

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16 thoughts on “Sanctity of Life: The Complexities of the Abortion Issue

  1. Murdering children is a lot easier before you get to know them and actually care, but it doesn’t make murder moral. It’s the same old time Satanic religion, which openly embraced child sacrifice to get blessings like better crops.
    Believing big people or governments can attain benefits by spilling the blood of children is demonic, a belief system embracing a curse of self destruction.

    Psalms 106:37-38 (KJV) Yea, they sacrificed their sons and their daughters unto devils,
    And shed innocent blood, even the blood of their sons and of their daughters, whom they sacrificed unto the idols of Canaan: and the land was polluted with blood.

    Or what Jesus said……..
    Mark 9:37 (KJV) Whosoever shall receive one of such children in my name, receiveth me: and whosoever shall receive me, receiveth not me, but him that sent me.

  2. Dr. Metzler, I humbly offer a defense of the “simplistic answer”. I do consider abortion to be murder – and yes, it is a complex issue. But holding to the position I do the questions that come to me in this article are like, “So, Tim, is there not ANY part of murder you could support?” My simplistic answer would be a respectful “No” – how could it be otherwise? Another analogy: “Tim, I know you are a Christian, but is there not any part of atheism with which you could agree when it comes to what atheists declare about God?” Simplistically: “No”. Or perhaps one such as: “The Holocaust was brutal and horrible and nobody denies that – but in the end can you not find in your heart any support of those who carried out the holocaust in Hitler’s name?” Perhaps I could try and forgive those who murdered in the Holocaust – but I cannot defend the Holocaust itself. I know you will receive some biting replies to your article and as my older brother in Christ I humbly offer this point of view to you from my heart.

  3. “Abortion is just semantics for MURDER!!!

    Go read the 10 commandments if you are confused!

    THOU SHALT NOT MURDER!!!”

  4. Dr. Metzler, you stand against the full weight of Biblical authority, the clear teachings of Scripture, and a completely unbroken line of 2000 years of church tradition on this issue. Abortion is murder period. Please Dr. Metzler, repent of this. One day we will all stand before the judgement throne and we will be called to account. Repent.

  5. 100% of people die. Why would God permit such a high mortality rate if he valued all people as persons? Your argument on fecundity doesn’t work for one major reason: God is God. He decides who lives and dies. Your defense of the murder of the unborn is untenable before the God before whom you will stand on the last day (or perhaps you think those passages are just poetic as well). Repent! Are you a pastor!? You will be judged with greater strictness. I pray God protects his sheep from this wicked teaching.

  6. Do you seriously write this as a doctor of theology? How could you have attained such a high level of education with such horrible lapses of logic and gaps of intellect? First, a human baby is not analogous to an acorn. Second, miscarriage isn’t part of God’s plan of fecundity. Clearly, it is the result of being a fallen creation living in a fallen world. Third, with all your scientific talk of zygotes and fetuses, you deny the simple scientific fact of DNA. The child in the womb is human, and is such from the moment of conception. This is not only a theological statement, it is a scientific one. With all your talk of “potentiality” you deny the simple fact that the child is fully formed before 12 weeks. Fourth, children as young as 16 weeks in the womb have a demonstrable personality and very much can relate to their mother and father. They respond to voice, touch, and even singing and other music. By that time, many of them are even named. Try and tell the mother with a 20 week child in her womb that she doesn’t have a relationship with him/her. Fifth, the idea that any pregnancy might be deemed a “problem” goes directly against the Scriptures which explicitly teach that children are a gift from the Lord, and they do not differentiate between healthy or malformed children. This article is beyond foolishness. It smacks of the craftiness of the devil. Please rethink and publicly repent.

    • As a mother of a 22 weeker who dis not survive I can attest to the loving relationship I had with my child from the moment I found out I was pregnant! We were devastated when he died and no one will ever convince me that my beautiful fully formed boy was not a human being! He was made in the image of God, formed by God, known by God, and loved by God and for Dr. Metzlers to insinuate that his life and death was not as devastating to us as the murder if a two yeold would be is an insult to all of us who grieve the deaths of our children whom we did not get a chance to care for and raise!

  7. You shall not murder a child by abortion, nor kill what is begotten
    -the didache

    Women who resort to some sort of deadly abortion drug kill not only the embryo, but along with it, all human kindness
    -Clement

    And when we say that those women who use drugs to bring on abortion commit murder, and will have to give an account to God for the abortion, on what principle should we commit murder?
    -Athenagoras of Athens

    Whence women, reputed believers, began to resort to drugs for producing sterility and to gird themselves round, so to expel what was being conceived on account of their not wishing to have a child either by a slave or by any paltry fellow, for the sake of their family and excessive wealth. Behold, into how great impiety that lawless one has proceeded by inculcating adultery and murder at the same time! And withal, after such audacious acts, they, lost to all shame, attempt to call themselves a Catholic Church
    -Hippolytus

    The woman who purposely destroys her unborn child is guilty of murder. With us there is no nice enquiry as to its being formed or unformed. In this case it is not only the being about to be born who is vindicated, but the woman in her attack upon herself; because in most cases women who make such attempts die. The destruction of the embryo is an additional crime, a second murder, at all events, if we regard it as done with intent
    -Basil the Great

  8. Pastorally speaking, I was quite saddened to read this article, primarily because it removes any semblance of a Gospel voice for those in the womb. Just receving news that a young couple in our congregation experienced a miscarriage at 12 weeks along, what should I now say? If one follows Dr. Metzler’s reasoning, there is nothing to say, for there was no life in her womb, nothing to be sanctified, redeemed or resurrected. Our God speaks otherwise and with great certainty, not doubt, that all such little ones, born or unborn, are precious in His sight . . . that faith comes from hearing the Word of God, even in the womb. This article causes only confusion and doubt and I encourage all who read it to mark and avoid it as false teaching. For an organization that claims to be about “Gospel voices”, know that you have now discriminated against our brothers and sisters in Christ, in the LCMS, that are yet unborn. Recant and repent, for the sake of our Lord, who created and redeemed these little ones with His holy precious blood and innocent suffering and death.

  9. This is nothing more than Dr. Metzler’s prescription for itching ears.

    2 Timothy 4:3-4 “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.”
    Or maybe instead of myths it would be better translated: “poetic utterances or provisions of ancient Jewish law, and understandably do not reflect an awareness of the modern medical and moral complexities in the current abortion discussion.”

  10. Dr. Metzler, your article is neither biologically nor theologically accurate. You’ve repeated several old and tired arguments from the pro-choice movement that have been debunked thoroughly, plus serious theological errors that deny God’s nature and misunderstand the nature and origin of evil and death in our world. The fact that humans die does not negate their humanity – in fact, it confirms it. Death also does not negate God’s love for us, since it is because He loves us and because we are mortal that Jesus came to die for us.

    Most importantly, it must be understood that not only are the preborn human, but they are redeemed by Christ. He came first as a preborn child, little more than an embryo (who would normally be at high risk of miscarriage) when John the Baptist leapt in Elizabeth’s womb in response to His mother’s voice.

    The life in the womb is actual, real life. Not potential, not future life, but actual, current life. The zygote exhibits every biological marker of a living organism, and within three weeks of conception the heart begins to beat.

    Your argument seems to originate not from theology, biology, or logic, but from a desire to show compassion to post-abortive women, pregnant women, and others in need. This desire is certainly admirable, but the method by which you attempt to do so abandons the 41-42 million children killed by abortion worldwide just last year, not to mention the 41-42 million women who were hurt physically, emotionally, and spiritually by the lies and false promises of abortion.

    We can love both the woman and the child. We can have compassion for the woman who has had an abortion and for the woman who is contemplating abortion. We do not need abortion in order to have compassion. In fact, true compassion demands that we reject abortion in favor of protecting human life.

    Also, your argument flies in the face of Scripture, church history and tradition, and the Lutheran Confessions. You do not become a better person or a better Christian by condoning the destruction of human life.

    Please retract this article and take time to learn from those who have studied this issue in great depth with all of its “complexities” and have come to conclusions that do not deny the power and love of God. Please read the response from Lutherans for Life, please read the Logia article, and please consult God’s Word on life, children, and the love of God despite the evil of our fallen world.

    Katie M.
    Austin, TX

  11. “Finally, “pro-life” individuals and organizations that claim to be truly concerned about the sanctity of human life should take a hard look at the irony of their expending so much energy and resources on the narrow goal of preventing legal abortions, while expending relatively so little energy and resources on rescuing from death the many millions of actual – not potential — living children who are full human persons with unique names, appearances, personalities, and relationships. One can only imagine how many of these children could be helped if the financial and political resources currently spent on fighting to make abortion once again illegal were invested in these children’s survival.” Where is your evidence? Rather than resort to ad hominem and anti-christian cliche to make your point, back up your claims with actual evidence. If you have none, repent. Christians have been striving to care to the sick and the infirm, the widowed and the orphaned for two millennia. And today, throughout this country, Christians strive to care for women with crisis pregnancies. Your remarks here, like virtually everything you’ve said in this article, are nothing more than baseless assertion.

  12. I was disheartened by this article. Dr. Metzler spoke for God while insisting that the prophetic and apostolic witness to the Word of God made flesh for us men and for our salvation was not relevant to the complexities of a “problem” pregnancy today. I don’t know where he got his word from God about God. He claimed that God built “fecundity” into reproduction and did not plan to protect all human life in the womb and that it was not worthy of His protection. He therefore claimed that followers of Christ Jesus should be despised and rejected for their efforts to protect human life in the womb.

    He also presumed to speak for pregnant women experiencing “problem” pregnancies even though he could not possibly have any real, actual knowledge of this. I was one of those women with a “problem” pregnancy as I suffered extreme nausea and a 15 lb. weight loss during the first trimester of my daughter’s gestation. My daughter was one of those women with a “problem” pregnancy as she suffered extreme fibroid pain which could be medicated only during the second trimester of her son’s gestation.

    The Virgin Mary was one of those women who suffered with a “problem” pregnancy as she suffered the threat of a stoning death by her community or the threat of abandonment (divorce) by her betrothed.

    In each of these pregnancy problems, God our gracious and loving heavenly Father protected these pregnancies – all for our sake so that we might believe that His Son is the Christ and that by believing in Him we might have life in His Name.

    My knowledge of God comes from His Holy Word – the prophetic and apostolic witness proclaiming this good news – “You do well to pay attention…”

    1 Timothy 4:5: “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the Word of Gad and prayer.”

    Romans 14:23: “For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.”

    1 John 1:8-9: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

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