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.