One reason many LDS voters chose to elect Trump is that they, like many social conservatives, oppose abortion.[1] However, LDS theology is not nearly as anti-abortion as many other conservative religions. Like many other platforms, this is one where both parties’ views are potentially consistent with the church’s stance. From the Church Handbook of Instructions:

21.4.1

Abortion

The Lord commanded, “Thou shalt not … kill, nor do anything like unto it” (D&C 59:6). The Church opposes elective abortion for personal or social convenience. Members must not submit to, perform, arrange for, pay for, consent to, or encourage an abortion. The only possible exceptions are when:
  1. 1. Pregnancy resulted from forcible rape or incest.
  2. 2. A competent physician determines that the life or health of the mother is in serious jeopardy.
  3. 3. A competent physician determines that the fetus has severe defects that will not allow the baby to survive beyond birth.

Even these exceptions do not justify abortion automatically. Abortion is a most serious matter and should be considered only after the persons responsible have consulted with their bishops and received divine confirmation through prayer.

Church members who submit to, perform, arrange for, pay for, consent to, or encourage an abortion may be subject to Church discipline.

As far as has been revealed, a person may repent and be forgiven for the sin of abortion.

Image result for soulI remember the one time this issue came up on my mission. We met a woman who asked us to come teach her. She was distraught because as a Catholic, abortion was considered a mortal sin, and she was seeking absolution. According to Catholicism, there is forgiveness in confession. I suspect she wanted to hear from another minister whether it was a mortal sin or not, and that she wanted us to absolve her. She may have also felt more comfortable talking to women. As Mormon missionaries, we could not recommend her for baptism without the mission president interviewing her, and in retrospect, I don’t think she was looking to change religions. At the time, I was far too young and naive to really understand her motives. She was nearly hysterical when she spoke with us, and fear of her husband was a big part of that, as well as fear that she had committed an unpardonable sin. As a Catholic, she was taught that the fetus has a soul, and in a church that believes in original sin, that meant to her that her unbaptized fetus would be consigned to limbo upon death. Catholic abortion policies are based on protecting the unborn.

Other motives to prevent abortion include:

  • The rights of fathers. To those deeply invested in patriarchal culture, allowing a woman to relieve herself of the burden of motherhood was a direct threat to the “rights” men had to impregnate a woman. Abortion was usually considered related to witchcraft, particularly since an abortion was often procured by drinking a concoction of poisonous herbs. This dangerous practice could result in killing the mother if not done right. Abortion has usually put the mother’s life at risk, but then again, so has childbirth.
  • The rights of women. Most who favor allowing abortions do so based on the argument that women should not be compelled to carry or raise a child that they either don’t want or don’t feel they can support. This includes pregnancy caused by rape or incest, in which case the woman did not consent to the sexual act that created the life. LDS policy (see above) also states that abortion is permissible in these circumstances. Likewise, the health of the mother is considered in allowing abortions as some pregnancies carry a high risk of the loss of the mother’s life. Again, this is a permissible reason per LDS policy.
  • Quality of life. This covers a range of concerns, including birth defects that would render the child’s life painful or onerous to support, requiring artificial means. At the most liberal end, it would also include elective abortions due to poverty or other lack of economic or emotional support. Studies in the book Freakonomics describe the decline in crime that occurred in inner cities 20 years after Roe v. Wade made abortion legal in the US, illustrating that when abortion is illegal, unwanted pregnancies to poverty-stricken mothers often create a vicious circle of crime. Children grow up with too little money and support, often in dire circumstances with minimal care and sometimes neglect or even abuse. Is it better for them not to be born?

Which brings us to the real question when religions weigh in on abortion: the theology of the soul. When does the soul enter the body? When does a fetus go from a living thing to a living person? [2] And what happens to the souls of the unborn?

In Abraham 3, scripture that is unique to the LDS tradition, we learn in v. 18 that spirits are eternal:

if there be two spirits, and one shall be more intelligent than the other, yet these two spirits, notwithstanding one is more intelligent than the other, have no beginning; they existed before, they shall have no end, they shall exist after, for they are gnolaum,[3] or eternal.

Mormon theology is murky on when the spirit enters the body. Other religions are on record with stronger opinions. The Book of Mormon provides some possible insight in 3 Nephi 1: 13:

13 Lift up your head and be of good cheer; for behold, the time is at hand, and on this night shall the sign be given, and on the morrow come I into the world, to show unto the world that I will fulfil all that which I have caused to be spoken by the mouth of my holy prophets.

Image result for soulIf this is the pattern for all humans, the spirit enters the body soon before birth. If this is so, it means that abortions are killing a body but not dispossessing the spirit. It doesn’t necessarily follow that abortion cannot be a sin, or that it’s morally positive, but it does de-escalate the comparison to murder that many non-LDS opponents of abortion use; for Mormons to call abortion murder is theological hyperbole because we don’t share a set doctrine that the spirit resides in the body in utero. Theologically, at least, our stance on abortion is more neutral and less fraught than that of other conservative religions.

This doctrinal gray area may provide some comfort, but it also brings up new questions:

  • When are spirits assigned to specific bodies? If those bodies are not born, do they just get assigned to a different one?
  • Do our spirits look like our bodies? If not, what do they look like?
  • Is spirit to body assigning random or is there something specific about the bodies and situations to which we are assigned?
  • Is it worse to be born to a bad circumstance that might make us more likely to have either genetic predisposition to sin or to live in circumstances that lack support and will be more likely to lead to unhappiness or sin? Or does God handicap our score at the judgment bar to allow for these differences of circumstance?

Legislating morality

What moral choices do we need to legislate and what choices do we allow individuals to choose, even though many religious people would not personally participate? Liberals tend to focus on individuals making the choices that directly affect their lives, and conservatives tend to focus on the law preventing immoral actions, perhaps operating on a belief that without legislation, people will act in immoral ways that are selfish and will not exhibit sound moral reasoning. Since abortion has always existed, pro-choice voters promote abortion being safe, legal, and rare, emphasizing preventing unwanted pregnancy rather than relying on post-conception choices. Given the poor track record of religious groups when it comes to promoting contraception and sex education, there seems to be more going on than an effort to reduce unwanted births. Churches that see procreation as a duty and moral imperative, for example, will have a negative view of anything that reduces the birth rate, regardless the circumstances of those births.

In a church like ours that has become increasingly conservative over time, we often lose sight of the nuances that set us apart from other conservative faiths. A few years ago, a Gospel Doctrine teacher in my ward was trying to drum up some easy enthusiastic answers and asked what the church’s stance on abortion was. A sister who was a previous Relief Society President in our ward raised her hand and said “It should only be done prayerfully and in rare circumstances.” The teacher was frustrated with this answer. He tried again, “But are we for it or against it?” Another sister raised her hand, “It’s up to the individuals in counseling with their bishop and doctor.” He began to be very agitated. He tried a third time, but just could not get the rousing pro-life battle cry he was seeking. I’m sure results would vary in another ward, but these sisters were in fact more consistent with church policy than he was.

Jumping back to Catholicism which does officially oppose divorce and birth control and is a pro-replenishing the earth religion, an article in Time revealed that even their stance on abortion has more nuance than is usually acknowledged.

The Catechism contains only six paragraphs on abortion, including: “Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable.”

The Catholic church has long taught that abortion is a sin, but the reasons have changed over time. The early prohibition of abortion was based on a belief that only people who engage in forbidden sexual activity would attempt abortion. Many church officials and anti choice Catholics now focus on the argument that the fetus is a person from the moment of conception. This view, however, is based on faulty science from the 17th century, when scientists looked at fertilized eggs through primitive microscopes and imagined that they saw fully formed animal fetuses.

The church hierarchy has since rejected the notion that a fetus is a fully formed person. In its most recent statement, the 1974 Declaration on Procured Abortion, the Vatican acknowledged that it does not know when the fetus becomes a person: “There is not a unanimous tradition on this point and authors are as yet in disagreement.” Neither St. Augustine nor St. Thomas Aquinas, two of the most important Catholic theologians, considered the fetus in the early stages of pregnancy to be a person.

Image result for soulThere are a few other nuances to how theology is set in Catholicism that are of interest to this argument (also from the article in Time):

  1. Catholicism doesn’t declare that laws that govern a country must comply with Catholic doctrine, even if Catholicism is the predominant religion in that country. Catholics support many public policies that honor the freedoms of non-Catholics.
  2. The notion of papal infallibility still allows for question, and there is a long-standing tradition of scholarly discussion on Catholic doctrine. Theologians are encouraged to think and write about Catholic doctrine in challenging ways.
  3. The concept of reception (similar to the law of common consent in our early church history) means that Catholic people must accept a church law in order for it to be considered in effect, and the Catechism states that “a human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience,” even when it conflicts with Catholic teachings.

Although both Catholics and Mormons have common ground on abortion, our own policies support making abortion legal, safe, and rare. What is considered out of bounds is for a member in good standing to encourage or participate in an elective abortion that is motivated by “personal or social convenience.” And even then, policy only states that such a church member “may be subject to church discipline.” That stance does not require that abortion be illegal, merely that it be taken very seriously. And if we take human reproduction seriously, we will take contraception and sex education seriously.

  • In your experience, do church members share this nuanced understanding of abortion or are they more forceful than the actual policy?
  • Is this an issue that your Trump-supporting friends considered a hot button topic that justifies voting for him?
  • Do you think Roe v. Wade will one day be overturned in the US? Would that be a good or bad thing in your opinion?
  • What do you think motivates abortion regulation by churches: protecting the unborn, controlling reproductive choices, discouraging consequence avoidance, or something else?
  • International friends: what’s your experience with abortion legislation in your countries and in your congregations?

Discuss.

[1] Given that the likelihood that Trump has personally paid for abortions is high (unless he simply refused to pay for them), this seems ironic to me.

[2] I’m thinking around the age where they start wearing deodorant and brushing their teeth regularly.

[3] Nice made up word. Well, apparently it does come from Genesis, according to “Joseph Smith’s Use of Hebrew” by Louis C. Zucker: “One word remains: gnolaum (3:18) – “Yet these two spirits. . . shall have no beginning. . . no end, for they are gnolaum, or eternal.” This, again, is an exact Seixas transliteration; however, the Hebrew word is not an adjective but a noun, which in the plural may act as an adverb. The phrase “an everlasting covenant” (Doctrine and Covenants 45:9) is taken from Genesis 17:13, where gnolaum, in the English idiom “everlasting,” is, in the Hebrew idiom, a noun, “eternity.” Maybe that’s true, maybe not, but there sure aren’t a lot of sources out there on this one.