Is the church’s official stance pro-choice or pro-life? For most of my life, growing up, I would have said “pro-life.” In the 90s when the Clintons said that abortion should be “safe, legal and rare,” I realized that their stated “pro-choice” position was also consistent with the church’s official stance. Suddenly I became aware that there were many church members who agreed with the church’s stance and considered it to be a more pro-choice perspective.

The church opposes (and always has) elective abortion for “convenience,” outlining 3 areas of exception (rape or incest, health of mother, fatal birth defects). Each of these “exception” areas contains plenty of gray area into which reality will intrude, and ultimately, the church’s policy is to make the decision prayerfully and in conjunction with a competent physician. (It also advises that one’s bishop should be consulted, although there’s a big open space here for bishops with biases or minimal understanding of these complicated issues to muck things up). The word “convenience” is itself problematic, implying a flippancy that is probably absent from most abortion decisions, certainly from most LDS abortion decisions (and we are the only people at all bound to follow the Handbook guidelines, after all).

I did a post at By Common Consent discussing some of the theological implications of Mormon doctrine of the soul as well as quoting the Church Handbook. I also asked in that post whether it’s better for an unwanted pregnancy to result in diverting that spirit to a “wanted” pregnancy (through abortion) or whether it was better to force the mother who doesn’t want the child to endure the pregnancy and the ensuing parenthood, making an “unwanted pregnancy” an “unwanted child.” The scenario in which an unwanted pregnancy becomes a happy family is mostly a pleasant fiction we can believe from our comfortably middle class, drug- and abuse-free families with a built in support network. In today’s post I wanted to explore whether the church’s stance is actually pro-life or pro-choice.

Given the recent attacks on Roe v. Wade, including Alabama’s anti-abortion bill that attempts to outlaw all abortion except when the mother’s life is in jeopardy (no exceptions for rape or incest), suddenly, the church’s position is looking more pro-choice than where the rest of the GOP is shifting. Something similar happened when the GOP took what many considered Draconian measures to curb immigration; the church’s stance was more moderate than the party’s.

Mitt Romney came out with a statement that matches the church’s position, stating: “I don’t support the Alabama law. I believe that there ought to be exceptions. I’m pro-life, but there ought to be exceptions for rape and incest and where the life of the mother is at risk.” The other exception the church makes that he didn’t mention is when the fetus has severe birth defects that will make its life short and painful, non-viable in a reasonable sense of the term. While Mitt claims he is pro-life, he finds it necessary to caveat that with a “but” and a list of exceptions.

That’s similar to saying (as I used to say in my younger days): “I’m pro-choice prior to conception.” There’s a whole lot not being said in saying that. If conception occurs without consent, then it’s not been chosen. Women don’t abort pregnancies they intended–unless there are severe health risks to themselves or the fetus. What about areas where consent and intent don’t match? What about birth control failures? What about coerced consent? [1] What about mothers living in poverty who can’t afford to go through a pregnancy safely? What about those in abusive situations or addicted to drugs that are harmful (but not fatal) to the fetus?

Alyssa Milano has called for a “sex strike” while abortion rights are under siege, and she has a point. Women don’t require penetrative sex to experience sexual pleasure. In fact, only a third of women are capable of sexual climax during intercourse (as opposed to so-called foreplay–it’s obvious which sex is naming these terms). Since pregnancy is the result of penetrative sex, which is designed for male pleasure, it is unfair that only women bear the consequences of unwanted conception. If we want to prevent unwanted pregnancy, we could just eliminate penetrative sex to level the playing field.

But, of course, thanks to male wheedling, that’s probably impractical across the board, and our church is actually sex-positive (within marriage anyway).[2] So let’s talk about birth control, and then more specifically, birth control failures. If you want to prevent abortion, you need to grant easy access to birth control (ideally free) and the sex education to know how to use it. (Male unwillingness to take responsibility for birth control is a whole ‘nother post done better at this link). But sometimes it will fail. For example, birth control pills can be rendered temporarily ineffective if the mother takes antibiotics. And of course, some women experience severe symptoms from birth control. It works when it works, and unlike some of our conservative interfaith co-politicos (not mine personally, but the church’s), our church doesn’t ban birth control, leaving it up to couples to decide how to handle family planning. Unlike Justice Clarence Thomas’s preference, we recognize birth control as a valid choice couples can make. Married sex doesn’t have to be procreative.

A good friend of mine used to joke that they used two forms of birth control to prevent pregnancy: abstinence and condoms. Certainly married Mormon couples, whether pro-choice or pro-life, are unlikely candidates for elective abortion for “convenience.” They are also less likely candidates for abortion due to exigent circumstances like drug addiction, lack of economic means to support self or child (the church sometimes steps in to help where governments and families fail), and while domestic abuse occurs within marriages of all denominations, it’s very hard to get people to admit it due to the perils involved. When I was growing up, I had a hard time imagining the lives of people who are living so close to the poverty line or with drug or alcohol addictions would imperil their health or cause birth defects if they became pregnant. As an adult, I am more aware of the variety of situations in which women live, into which volatile mix unwanted and unsupported children are added. Is terminating that pregnancy for “convenience” or due to perilous circumstances or simply somewhere in between? Regardless, those individuals exist. An unwanted pregnancy can ruin an already shaky life.

The pro-life movement has a credibility issue when conservatives are seen having a poor track record on issues that would reduce unwanted pregnancy:

  • Listening to and believing women
    • Protecting victims of rape or incest
    • Punishing perpetrators of incest or rape
  • Promoting free contraception
  • Promoting sex education
  • Reducing income inequality
  • Providing a better safety / support network for those most at risk
  • Eliminating sex discrimination in the workplace
    • Parental leave policies
    • Women’s health coverage for birth control

How does the church fare on these issues? Unfortunately, not great on most of them, but change may be in the wind. The recent Title IX changes at BYU in response to the Rape Scandal (in which students who were sexually assaulted were referred to the Honor Code Office and threatened with discipline and expulsion) indicates an improved understanding, albeit achieved under duress. More could be done by taking steps to eradicate the sex discrimination in BYU and other church organizations’ hiring and benefits practices. More could be done by Mormons in government improving sex education in schools and providing healthcare coverage for birth control. Those steps would benefit members of the church.

But eliminating abortion beyond the borders of church membership, if it is to be a godly, humane solution, can’t ruin the lives of already vulnerable women in the process. It needs to include providing better financial resources and a better safety network for women who are at risk. It needs to aim to eliminate the great differences in access to affordable health care. It needs to reduce the fact that poverty skews female (a fact exacerbated by unwanted pregnancy). It needs to refuse to put women on trial for making difficult decisions, and it needs to respect that only women can make this decision ultimately–and give them the tools to make the best decisions possible.

The church institution has been mostly silent about this recent debate. The topic has been brought up less often in General Conference, perhaps due to the dramatic drop in abortions in this country, or perhaps because Roe v. Wade has until very recently been largely a settled matter.[3] Perhaps it simply feels that the policy is still the ideal, and it’s not necessary to impose church policy on a non-LDS population.

The current legal landscape says that the state cannot place an undue burden on women in requiring them to justify their decision to abort a fetus before the viable stage (usually around 20 weeks). Church policy is stricter than this in stating that even in the exceptional circumstances listed, the persons (not just the woman) responsible should consult with their bishop and also receive divine confirmation through prayer. In giving equal weight to a (possibly abusive) husband and a (likely uneducated and unimpacted) bishop, a woman in the church may have an undue burden to justify her decision. Doctors, even competent ones, may disagree about the health risks of a pregnancy and about the health risks to the fetus.

Resorting to prayerful confirmation seems like a useful solution for women seeking to make a very difficult decision given the potential for mistakes, biases, and misinformation. But never should her prayerfully confirmed choice be in a position to be overridden by her husband, bishop or doctor. Which makes me, oddly, both pro-choice and (mostly) aligned with the church’s statement (although I wouldn’t apply it to women outside the church).

  • What changes, if any, would you propose to the church’s policy statement on abortion?
  • Do you think the church is pro-life or pro-choice or somewhere in between? Defend your answer.
  • Do you think the church’s policy is clearly understood by the majority of church members and bishops? If not, what misunderstandings do you see?

Discuss.

[1] Which is not consent, IMO, but many GOP legislators, particularly those who will never be pregnant, would disagree.

[2] We’re so sex positive our early leaders were the opposite of a celibate clergy, requiring multiple wives per church leader.

[3] Even Kavanaugh and Gorsuch are on record as uninterested in overturning precedent in this matter.