February 6, 2019

Dr. Norman Metzler deserves commendation for addressing abortion. His recent article, “Sanctity of Life: The Complexities of the Abortion Issue,” in the Winter 2018 edition of The Daystar Journal (thedaystarjournal.com/category/2018/winter-2018) identifies biblical, theological, and scientific dimensions of the practice. He perceives implications beyond the political, cultural, or personal ones that often limit how Christians consider abortion. By taking up the difficult topic, Dr. Metzler exemplifies how incumbent it is upon all pastors and congregations to engage an admittedly sensitive issue, and he laudably overcomes the reticence of many in our church body (the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod) to speak about abortion for fear of the Word of God causing offense.

The professor also demonstrates a welcome sensitivity. Life issues like surprise pregnancy involve more than merely popular opinion, political controversy, media narratives, or private choices. Dr. Metzler recognizes that life issues involve people, neighbors with whom sharing life is our privilege and responsibility. He rightly senses that another person’s crisis should never serve as excuse for me to indulge in excesses. He affirms that all Christians (and not just the woman directly affected, as the “my body, my choice” mantra insists) have blessed obligations related to procreation. He appreciates that abortion is always tragic rather than something to be celebrated (in the way that New York’s governor and the “shout your abortion” crusade recently have). He reminds us that “humans have accountability for dealing with the complex medical, moral, and spiritual factors” abortion entails. And he pastorally exhorts that “Christians should reach out with compassion … to women who for whatever reasons have had an abortion.”

However, it does seem that Dr. Metzler’s sympathy gets the better of his critical thinking. Illogical, unsupported, and inaccurate assertions – philosophical, theological, and scientific ones – riddle his article. Though he laments and disputes what he believes to be “simplistic ways of framing the issue,” he repeatedly resorts to peddling abortion advocacy’s own stereotypes and clichés. First, Dr. Metzler contends that all “problem pregnancies” are “by definition … tragic.” But he allows for “widely varying definitions” of “problem,” from life-threatening to “simply ‘inconvenient.’” This conceivably encompasses every pregnancy. Is he suggesting that all pregnancies are tragic? Nobody would disagree that carrying a child causes pain and comes with burdens, but our Lord maintains that joy still prevails: “When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world” (John 16:21).

The professor then appeals to “the sordid history of illegal abortions in our recent national history prior to Roe v. Wade.” He states that this alone should justify keeping abortions legal. Thankfully, research has shown that reports of casualties to women from “back-alley” abortions have been wildly embellished. Bernard Nathanson, co-founder of the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL), famously admitted:

[I]t was always “5,000 to 10,000 deaths a year.” I confess that I knew the figures were totally false, and I suppose the others did too if they stopped to think of it. But in the “morality” of our revolution, it was a useful figure, widely accepted, so why go out of our way to correct it with honest statistics? The overriding concern was to get the laws eliminated, and anything within reason that had to be done was permissible.[1]

Planned Parenthood’s own medical director, Dr. Mary Calderone, attested in 1960 that “90% of all illegal abortions are presently being done by physicians.”[2] She noted that “in 1957, there were only 260 [maternal] deaths in the whole country attributed to abortions of any kind,” and “abortion, whether therapeutic or illegal, is in the main no longer dangerous.”[3] By 1966, that number had declined to under 200.[4] Of course, our hearts break over any death from abortion. But antibiotics, not laws, most substantially reduced maternal fatalities from abortions even before the 1973 Supreme Court decision. And according to the Centers for Disease Control, 10-20 American women annually (not including California or Maryland) continue to suffer deaths related to legalized abortions,[5] not to mention the other well-documented physical and psychological aftereffects.[6]

Furthermore, almost any crime would prove less hazardous if given legal protection. Robberies, for example, frequently result in collateral damage such as destruction of property and injury to bystanders. Ought we insist that the government offer police escorts to facilitate safe stealing for would-be thieves? But it is not merely the inadvertent harm that makes robbery wrong. Its express intent, to deprive another person of rightful property, is unjust. In fact, the risk of unanticipated casualties provides a natural deterrent. Rewriting penal codes likewise won’t render abortion any less violent; whether licensed or illicit, it’s always lethal to the child.

Dr. Metzler goes on to advance a dangerously misleading analogy. “Not every acorn becomes an oak tree.” He then catalogs a series of (undocumented) statistics intended to establish that, as an acorn has less value than an oak tree, so “God’s own human reproductive design clearly demonstrates a differentiated valuation of the incipient human life … compared with the status of a post-natal person.” Since only a fraction of zygotes implant after fertilization, and since a majority of embryos miscarry after implantation, he would have us suppose that unborn human beings matter less to our Creator than adult ones.

This analogy ends up inappropriate for two reasons. First, it actually corroborates the opposite of what Dr. Metzler sets out to show. Every acorn is already an oak. Its genetic signature, its scientific classification, is nothing other than oak. At no point in its maturation will its DNA change such that it transfers to a different genus or species. To be sure, an oak acorn is not an oak tree, just as a human embryo is not a human toddler is not a human teenager is not a human adult. But an acorn embodies exactly what an oak should look like at its early stage of development. And a zygote or embryo possesses the same undeniable humanity as a preschooler or grown-up.

Moreover, the difference the professor alludes to is one of instrumental value. An acorn is less valuable because it is less useful to us than a tree – for landscaping, for shade and shelter, for kindling or construction. Surely Dr. Metzler agrees that valuing my neighbor primarily as object for my consumption is patently offensive both to the Christian faith and to common sensibilities. Human value is intrinsic rather than instrumental, that is, because of what and who they are, not because of what they can do for me. A more productive person is not a more precious one. With or without particular abilities or accomplishments, each member of the human race bears the image of God and all the worth pertaining thereunto.

An honest and responsible theology of human life cannot ignore this image. Yet the professor conspicuously omits any consideration of it. Nor does he attend at all to the impact of Jesus Christ, and in particular His gestation, upon the sanctity of the unborn. This represents perhaps the article’s most egregious error. Jesus incarnates the image of God fully and flawlessly in human flesh to hallow humankind. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14) first in Mary’s womb (Matthew 1:20), and His residence there consecrates our embryonic existence by linking it to the life of God Himself (Hebrews 2:14-17). Even there He was the Son of God, beloved and well-pleasing (Matthew 3:17) to the Heavenly Father, and even there He redeems human weaknesses (Hebrews 4:15). He devoted words from His prayers on the cross to declaring it – the same Psalm 22 that opens with “My God, why have you forsaken me” (22:1) also avows that “from my mother’s womb you have been my God” (22:10). So dear to Him are the littlest of children (Luke 18:15-16) that He charges us to behold and regard them as we do Him (Matthew 18:5, 10).

Dr. Metzler also misstates the scientific description of human beginnings. He falsely equates procreation with human life: “The human reproductive process, or ‘human life,’ does not begin at birth, nor even at conception.” While the gametes perform principal functions in procreation, “a human life” does not begin with a “viable human egg and a viable human sperm,” as the article claims. Sperm and egg cells certainly participate in human life, as constituents of an organism existing independently of them. But it is incorrect to identify them as even the beginning of “a human life,” that is, a distinct individual human being. The professor knows this, and so he substitutes the one (gametes) for the other (embryos) behind the veil of “the trajectory of human life.” The corn flakes one eats for breakfast also figure in the trajectory of human life, yet no one attempts to reckon them as even a “potential” human life. He indicates that birth converts the “potential human life” into “an actual child” but never specifies anything about birth that accomplishes this critical operation in the “trajectory.”

Indeed, he prefers rhetorically expedient language to biologically precise terminology. He inexplicably shifts from calling the conceptus a zygote to speaking of “the fertilized egg.” Embryologists know of no such thing, since upon commencement of fertilization the cell known as ovum or egg no longer exists, having chemically, structurally, and genetically transformed by incorporation of the sperm material into something else.[7] As soon as sperm and egg fuse, we classify the human being as zygote, then morula, then bilaminar and trilaminar embryo, then fetus, and so on. The article also alleges that some embryos “self-abort,” another argumentative flourish that has no foundation in medical vocabulary. Dr. Metzler realizes as much and then clarifies by adding “or miscarry,” which is the correct expression. He appears to confuse himself also with the linguistic gymnastics, referring in one paragraph to the “incipient human life” while in the next calling it a “potential human life.” The first designation is the factual one, but even the modifier “incipient” is unnecessary, as science defines the embryo a human life, whether in utero or ex utero.

The professor makes it his main point that mortality reveals God’s own cheapening of embryos. Since many ova go unfertilized even after insemination, and since many (most?) embryos die before implanting or prior to viability, God must not love or value embryos as much as infants. Dr. Metzler finds this to be God’s “plan” or “design,” but he overlooks the impact of original sin. “[S]in came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men” (Romans 5:12), affecting even embryos (Psalm 51:5). If death be comprehended in God’s dominion, it belongs to His foreknowledge and not His will: “I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God” (Ezekiel 18:32). The Lutheran Formula of Concord professes,

This foreknowledge extends alike over good people and evil people. But it is not a cause of evil or of sin which compels anyone to do something wrong; the original source of this is the devil and man’s wicked and perverse will … God’s foreknowledge merely controls the evil and imposes a limit on its duration, so that in spite of its intrinsic wickedness it must minister to the salvation of his elect.[8]

It is therefore improper (and insensitive) to insinuate that death strikes according to God’s design or plan (see Job). God never intended miscarriages to come about. He grieves them with us and even more so. Had the fall into sin never transpired, perhaps every act of marital consummation would have led to live birth.

Even so, greater percentages of Haitians have perished in natural disasters of recent memory than have Canadians. Shall we deduce the Almighty Maker favors one over the other? Octogenarians depart the earth at greater rates than adolescents. Does aging diminish our significance in the sight of God? The Lord Jesus forcefully denies any connection between mortality and value: “those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:4-5). And Isaiah delivers divine comfort about it: “[You] have been borne by me from before your birth, carried from the womb; even to your old age I am he, and to gray hairs I will carry you” (Isaiah 46:3-4).

In fact, Dr. Metzler posits too many theological propositions without adducing scriptural support. He identifies himself with the Lutheran tradition, which distinctively insists that “the prophetic and apostolic writings of the Old and New Testaments are the only rule and norm according to which all doctrines and teachers alike must be appraised and judged,”[9] but he neither draws nor authenticates any of his ideas from the Bible. When he does turn to the Word of God, he dismisses its testimonies with a ham-fisted non-exegesis. “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.”

Setting aside the question of Luke’s literary genres, “poetic utterance” need not mean “inexact.” “Poetic” denotes form, not content (and in many cases only in the beholder’s eyes). Statements can be both poetic and utterly factual.[10] One wonders how many other promises and commands of our Lord can be discarded by labeling them “poetic utterances.” In the same way, ancient Jewish law is not ipso facto invalid. “You shall not steal” is an ancient Jewish law. Would the professor advocate dispensing with it? If one is not careful, one may find oneself nullifying the entire Christian faith as “ancient Jewish law.”

The article’s notion of personhood likewise leaves much to be desired. Dr. Metzler assumes “we” associate four essential qualities 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.” Whence he derives these universal standards he does not make clear. However, birth does not impart any of these qualities to a person, and many individuals we esteem as persons do not possess or exhibit some of them. Hospital patients who need ventilators to work their lungs do not have an independently functioning body. Are we to infer that the professor disqualifies them as human persons? A baby’s distinctive personality does not manifest until weeks or even months after delivery. Does the professor endorse the extermination of six-month-olds? If so, which ones? Every zygote has, from the moment of fertilization, a fully defined, unique physical appearance, albeit different from that of childhood or adulthood. A man’s appearance varies as much from a girl’s as an embryo’s does from yours. Who determines which falls short of human? And embryos interact with others, most immediately their mothers. Comatose patients do not (but did before incapacitation and will again upon recovery). Neither do hermits. Is one’s personhood genuinely dependent upon acceptance into a particular community?

Yes, Dr. Metzler, it really is this simple. Scripture and science agree. Conception (fertilization) furnishes the natural and obvious beginning of a human person. The zygote meets the commonly accepted scientific criteria for living (grows, metabolizes, reproduces, responds, adapts). The zygote belongs genetically and exclusively to the species Homo sapiens. And, as Dr. Maureen Condic, Associate Professor of Neurobiology and Anatomy at the University of Utah School of Medicine, documents, the zygote operates as an organism (self-directs coordination of parts and processes for development of the whole) rather than as part of another.[11]

So the Jesus who lived, loved, bled, rose, and reigns for us men and for our salvation is the same Word who became flesh first as an embryo in Mary’s womb. By the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:21), Elizabeth confessed her – poetically or otherwise – the “mother of my Lord” (Luke 1:43) and not “almost-mother of my Lord-to-be.” Just the same, the “me” who speaks with you and undertakes the four characteristics of personhood you require is the same “me” whom God knit together in my mama’s belly (Psalm 139:13), sinful from the moment of conception (Psalm 51:5). While our feelings about surprise pregnancy and aggravating circumstances may be complicated, our knowing is not. If the unborn one is not a human being, no justification for abortion will be necessary. If the unborn one is a human being, no justification for abortion will be sufficient.

Finally, Dr. Metzler’s distaste for “pro-life” caricatures clouds his judgment. He uncharitably construes actual life-affirming folks, some of them his own brothers and sisters in Christ, as stingy and partisan. Though one can hardly disagree that “Christians … should feel particularly obligated to take the lead” in supporting pregnant women in difficult circumstances,” this obligation is incumbent because we are Christians, not because we oppose abortion. Hypocrisy is a serious complaint, and a fair one, even concerning Christians, but it still amounts to the ad hominem fallacy.

His parting accusation, that pro-life folks are “expending relatively so little energy and resources on rescuing from death the many millions of … living children,” is just false. He offers no substantiation for it because none can be found. Presumably he feels frustrated that some individuals and organizations do not vote or pay for his favorite social policies or agencies. But this author continually shares company with exactly the people the professor slanders, and they think, speak, and act with exemplary and entire generosity, selflessness, sacrifice, and sensitivity, opening hearts and hands and homes to serve, safeguard, and embrace everybody they encounter, especially the least of these.

Perhaps if Dr. Metzler mingled more among such people, he too would come to know the joy and hope and purpose in every human life. We invite and encourage him to welcome absolutely every human being as gift and privilege, for God Himself has created, redeemed, and called them all to be His own precious treasures forever, regardless of age, appearance, or ability. After all, we Lutherans hold that a human creature has worth because of God’s gracious actions and not his or her own works. And what a profound blessing we have, to share life with each one, warts and all, just the way our loving Heavenly Father receives us!

Rev. Michael W. Salemink
Executive Director, Lutherans For Life
Epiphany II, A.D. 2019

[1] Nathanson, Bernard. Aborting America (New York: Doubleday, 1979), 193.

[2] Calderone, Mary. “Illegal Abortion as a Public Health Problem,” American Journal of Health 50, no. 7 (July 1, 1960), 949.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Guttmacher Institute, https://www.guttmacher.org/gpr/2003/03/lessons-roe-will-past-be-prologue, accessed 01-25-19.

[5] Centers for Disease Control, https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/67/ss/ss6713a1.htm#T23 down, accessed 01-25-19.

[6] See Ring-Cassidy, Elizabeth, and Ian Gentles, Women’s Health after Abortion: The Medical and Psychological Evidence, (deVeber Institute, 2002).

[7] Irving, Dianne N. “When Do Human Beings Begin? ‘Scientific’ Myths and Scientific Facts,” International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy 19, no. 3/4, 22-46.

[8] Tappert, Theodore G. The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959), 494.

[9] Ibid., 464.

[10] One is reminded of William Whewell’s postulate in his 1819 Elementary Treatise on Mechanics, The Equilibrium of Forces on a Point: “Hence no force, however great, can stretch a cord, however fine, into a horizontal line which shall be absolutely straight.”

[11] Condic, Maureen L. “When Does Human Life Begin? A Scientific Perspective,” The Westchester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person White Paper 1, no. 1 (October 2008), 6-7.

Also see: Does Capacity Define Dignity? A Response to Norman Metzler by by John T. Pless