In 2013 when we were still living in Singapore, our family spent a week in China, touring around. While in Beijing, we took a hutong tour. Hutongs are local neighborhoods of communal houses that share a courtyard in the middle (similar to some neighborhoods in NYC) and neighborhood bathroom halfway down the block, one side for women and one for men (and no private partitions–going to the bathroom in Asia is generally a social affair, the place one goes to gossip with or confide in one’s neighbors and friends). We met with a woman and her family in her home as part of the tour. She was a few years older than me, but we shared one surprising thing in common: we are both the youngest in a family of seven children.
Because her child-bearing years were during China’s One Child Policy which was still in effect when we visited with her (the policy ran from 1979-2015), she only had one child (unlike my three): a daughter. She didn’t have much to say about the policy other than that her daughter was growing up in a world with no siblings, a very different life than hers with such a large family.
I recently watched the acclaimed documentary One Child Nation. It is well worth watching. The policy was implemented when China’s government forecast widespread famine and even cannibalism if the population wasn’t brought under control. Citizens were informed using propaganda including signs on walls, community dance performances, award ceremonies for family planners, and even lunch boxes sporting the slogans. Anyone who attempted to have more than one child was subject to having their belongings taken away and their homes destroyed. Women were forcibly sterilized after being rounded up and trussed like animals. Pregnant women were subject to forced abortions as one community family planner explained, recounting her role as a midwife:
“In those days, women were abducted by government officials, tied up and dragged to us like pigs,” Yuan, the midwife, recalls in the documentary. She describes traveling the country performing sterilizations and abortions, most of which were coerced by family-planning officials. Parents who resisted were detained, their homes demolished, Yuan says. The most haunting scene of the film is wordless—a nearly unbearable sequence of images revealing what appear to be full-term fetuses discarded in garbage heaps.
One byproduct of this policy was the prevalence of female infanticide. The preference for male children to “carry on the name” meant that daughters were less desired and might be abandoned. If nobody claimed them, they often died from exposure. Some were snatched up and sold to adoption clinics by so-called “matchmakers” working independently to save children, but soon enough, family planners who worked for the state, enforcing the policy (including forced abortions and sterilization) began selling these infants themselves after also fining the families for being out of compliance. If twins were born, one was sent to the orphanage to be adopted by a foreigner. This became a huge human trafficking issue. By some accounts, the One Child Policy led to over 330 million abortions in China.
Yuan continues her confession, stating that she performed between 50 and 60 thousand forced abortions and sterilizations:
“I counted this out of guilt, because I aborted and killed babies,” the midwife, Huaru Yuan, continues. “Many I induced alive and killed. My hands trembled doing it.”
Despite these terrible experiences, most of the adults who lived through the policy and even enforced it on others still defend the policy and see it as ultimately a positive for China. The refrain “policy is policy” is echoed by several of them. Their experience is that the state dictates policy, and individuals cannot choose right or wrong; they are duty-bound to fill the role the state has assigned them, and even their very emotions are handed to them through propaganda. Their moral reasoning is suspended by the authoritarian regime’s decision-making for them. They are convinced that without the policy, there would have been poverty, famine and cannibalism, that China could not survive. Those who attempted to break the policy were seen as foolish traitors threatening the survival of their country, showing disregard for their fellow citizens.
The film concludes with the observation that the film-maker left China for the US where women’s access to abortion is restricted, and that in many ways this is the same problem.
“I’m struck by the irony that I left a country where the government forced women to abort, and I moved to another country where governments restrict abortions,” Wang, who lives in New Jersey, narrates toward the end of the documentary. “On the surface, this seemed like opposites. But both are about taking away women’s control of their own bodies.”
Living and working in Singapore, I found that having three children indicated to others that I was wealthy. I was told there were five “C”s that people were judged on: cash, car, credit card, condo and country club membership, but a few also added children as a sign of one’s affluence. Singapore, like China, had felt their population was out of control for the size of the nation, and they discouraged children, doling out cash incentives for having fewer kids. Unfortunately, it had caught on so much that the population was shrinking too quickly, and that combined with the ability to be wealthier with fewer children created a real problem. To reverse the trend, the government worked with Mentos (yes, the candy) to create a “rap” for National Day to encourage people to make babies.
While China used policy and physical enforcement to reduce the population, Singapore relied on financial incentives to have fewer children, and then reversed with financial incentives to have more children.
Historically, the Church has been mostly conservative, but not truly authoritarian, in its encouragement for LDS families to have many children. It continues to encourage this when speakers at General Conference discourage birth control, encourage early marriage, or talk about replenishing the earth. However, the Church used to be more forceful when it encouraged “unwed” mothers-to-be to put their children up for adoption through LDS Services to increase the number of children being raised by Church families.
This policy in the handbook has undergone a major reversal, however, as detailed by J Stapley at By Common Consent. The new wording at last talks about the woman being the one to make choices about herself and her child:
When you experience unwed pregnancy, you will have to choose one of four options: marriage, adoption, single parenting, or abortion . . . What you choose will depend on your unique circumstances. . .Remember that whatever you decide for you and your child, some people will agree with your decisions and others will not. Every individual’s situation is different, so the answer for one person may not work for another. One thing you can be sure of is that no one will have given as much time, effort, and thought to the unique circumstances of your situation as you and the Lord.
This is a remarkable shift, one that points a woman toward her own moral reasoning, advising her to research, to pray and seek divine inspiration, and also to own her choice even if others disagree, which they inevitably will. In a Church with a terrible history of disregarding women’s choices (polygamy being a HUGE violation of women’s choice); this is a great turnaround in thinking.
- Do you think the Church is too intrusive about family planning or is it a cultural issue shared by many churches? Does the Church do better or worse than other churches at letting couples make family planning decisions?
- Do you think the new policy on unwed mothers is designed to respect women’s choices or to prevent single mothers from being barred from church participation or conversion?
- Does the Church use propaganda? If so, can you cite examples?
I think the Church is much less intrusive about family planning than it once was. When’s the last time you can recall off the top of your head a General Conference address that really railed against birth control? Elder Gong has only two children (as do at least a few other General Authorities), and I didn’t hear anyone say boo about it. It also appears (that the Handbook of Instructions has been recently updated to remove statements that men are discouraged from getting vasectomies and should speak to their bishop before doing so (that’s a big change). However, even when the policy was in effect, I can’t recall it ever being publicly announced let alone discussed (granted I’m only a young Gen Xer) and wouldn’t that kind of a policy absolutely need to be publicized?
As to abortion, the Church website just happens to have a page of conference talks that reference abortion. There are only ten on there and the latest is President Oaks from 2012 and before that was President Hickley in 1998 (and four of them are from 1974-75) and three of those are President Kimball’s):
I would never call the Church pro-choice, but I don’t think anyone confuses us with much more hard-line pro-life churches.
I completely blew it on the Gongs. The apparently have four sons. The Uchtdorfs have two kids. The Renlunds have one.
Not a Cougar: Regarding whether Handbook 2 has changed on the topic of vasectomy, I just checked the updated copy and it’s still in there (at Section 21.4.15).
A Happily Sterilized TBM
I’m personally aware of many LDS families of my parent’s generation (boomer) and older who had far more children than they could reasonably take care of, often against the mother’s better judgment. I recall on that PBS documentary from the late 2000s, “The Mormons”, there was a story of an LDS woman who, against competent medical advice, sought to have “just one more” and used LDS pseudo-doctrine about spirit children waiting in the pre-existence to justify her decision. She died shortly after giving birth, with her husband portraying her as a martyr. It’s sad to see women being coerced by cultural pressure or the demands of a prideful husband to put their own physical or mental health at risk. To me, that is equally as bad as a total ban on abortion–in both cases, the woman’s self-determination is taken away from her.
Gideon, my apologies. I was looking at 21.4.4 under birth control. I guess that makes my point a little stronger. If the policy on discouraging vasectomy is still in effect, how many average members even know about it as I’m not aware of any attempt to enforce the policy and what percentage of members even contemplate talking to their bishops before having the procedure?
This topic is like so many others that we encounter as LDS and I’m always left asking the same question: what does this have to so with Christ or the Gospel? I used to believe that it was the Church’s place to guide members through the major and even minor / symbolic decisions in life. Therefore, it made sense to me that they (the Brethren) were right to comment on such things as marriage, children, modesty, media, finances, food storage, emergency preparedness, suicide, cremation, etc. But now none of that makes sense to me. We live in a very diverse world and even Church membership is now <50% US. So our culture-based opinions and initiatives are less and less relevant (goodbye Boy Scouts). I now believe that the Church (Brethren) should focus on simple Gospel truths and totally avoid all this other stuff. What business is it of theirs to tell me how to live other than to remind me to "Follow Christ"? I've learned to tune in and tune out certain messages depending on what they are talking about. I can honestly say that I really value the Q15's perspective on Christ and the Atonement but I have no interest in hearing other lifestyle topics.
Not A Cougar: No apology necessary!
More generally, my awareness of this particular policy came about solely because of the leadership positions which I have held over the years, during which times I frequently utilized the Handbook(s). (While the sterilization statement in H2 is now publicly available, such wasn’t always the case.) When the time came for me to get the Big V, I can tell you that I absolutely did not consider consulting with my bishop… even at a time when I was serving as his counselor and we were as close as brothers and thick as thieves. Truly, this is a decision to be made between the member and the Lord, and eventually I am hopeful that the Church’s policy statement will reflect that. Until then, I guess I’m just an apostate TBM on this subject. (And a few others, haha.)
This policy in the handbook has undergone a major reversal,,,,,This is a remarkable shift, one that points a woman toward her own moral reasoning, advising her to research, to pray and seek divine inspiration, and also to own her choice even if others disagree, which they inevitably will. In a Church with a terrible history of disregarding women’s choices (polygamy being a HUGE violation of women’s choice). this is a great turnaround in thinking.
Saw the BCC post but didn’t comment. How is this a shift? All the language does is explain the principle of personal revelation. (Search, ponder and pray.) The pecking order of choices remains the same. The unwed mother has always had the choice to make, subject to federal/state laws, father’s rights, and so forth. Can you point to old language somewhere that encourages a young woman not to use her own moral reasoning? Common sense would hopefully dictate that a young woman approached the decision prayerfully and after careful consideration. I don’t see where anything has changed at all.
Josh h – bless you for capturing what has occurred in the hearts and minds of millions of members over the last 30+ years. Spot on.
Hawkgrrl, to address your last question about propaganda, I think that’s very much in the eye of the beholder as one person’s advertisement is another’s propaganda. For example, the Meet the Mormons movie and the I’m a Mormon campaign were supposed to be an advertisement that “Mormons really are just like you” but don’t really touch on Church history or practice. Critics might describe that as propaganda.
Likewise with many of the materials on Church history approved for Church-wide use in the latter half of the 20th century (I’m thinking in particular of the Our Heritage booklet put out with much fanfare in the mid 90s as well as many of the Church history videos). These materials were absolutely misleading on several points (the video on translation of the gold plates for one – I believe Richard Dutcher of God’s Army fame played Oliver Cowdery in it – no hats or seer stones to be found https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NdJXwsizeBY). Whether there was an intent to mislead or obfuscate on the part of Church leadership, I have clue, but it certainly influenced my understanding of Church history that caused a lot of dissonance when I found out Church history wasn’t nearly so straightforward as I had been taught. Does that qualify as propaganda?
Yes, the vasectomy question is truly baffling. It’s something no reasonable person would ask their bishop about, so how would anyone know it’s discouraged (?) and why is it any of the bishop’s business (presumably, someone who is not in any way equipped to advise on such a thing). These types of policies actually put local leaders in a “family planning” role like the ones described in the One Child Nation documentary, putting their noses in other people’s business in a way that is generally considered intolerable in the US and other western countries. But that’s why nearly every bishop I know (and member) ignores the handbook on these issues. Beware the authoritarian who takes the handbook seriously!
However, there is another area where the Church is really over the line in “family planning” and that’s among those employed by the Church, including at its universities. One reason the Church is all for so-called “religious freedom” is that they don’t want to provide coverage for birth control or tube tying or vasectomies. This puts couples in a huge bind, and also points to the fact that the Church hasn’t yet realized (being run by men) that birth control is prescribed for MANY women’s health issues, not only to prevent pregnancy. But what do we care if women have problems that are easily fixed with an inexpensive solution? So long as they have lots of babies we don’t care what their quality of life is.
Enjoyed reading your comments on China’s one-child policy. Two observations:
1. One of the more horrifying consequences of the imbalance in live male-female births (about 120 males to 100 females in China) is that okay, you got your male heir by aborting until the fetus was male, a very important goal in traditional Chinese society), but who is he going to marry when he grows up? How are you going to get your grandchildren? There is a whole large population of unwilling bachelors in China who cannot find women to marry; there are simply not enough to go around. The Chinese call them “bare branches.” This has also resurrected another horrible tradition in rural areas: paying the local crime lord to kidnap a young woman to be a wife for your son.
2. Now that China, aware that it needs MORE people born, allows more than one child, the birth rate has not significantly risen. Women, in a China that has many more personal life options than before, are generally not interested. China’s society is heavily Confucian in outlook, which means that women deal with the kids. So a woman works a full-time job and goes home at nite to deal with the House and kids; husband/father involvement minimal. The response has been “no, thank you.” Birth rates dived long ago in other Confucian societies: S. Korea. Japan, Taiwan, for same reason.
Don’t See It: I was contrasting this language for “Unwed mothers” with two things: 1) the instructions unwed mothers were given when the Church ran its own adoption agency, and when I was growing up, and 2) the language in the section on abortion which hasn’t changed in the handbook, but stands in contrast to this more recently written piece.
The old instruction to unwed mothers (most of whom were teens, partly because teen pregnancy rates were higher in the 80s and 90s than they are now) was that being a single mom was never an option. The unwed mother had to either marry the father (preferred) or was strongly encouraged to have the child adopted through LDS services. Abortion was unmentionable. The stance was that a teen marriage was better than single motherhood.
The section on abortion demonstrates less respect for a woman’s choice than this new unwed mothers section in that the woman considering abortion should be consulting with several men in making her decision: the bishop, a doctor (could be a woman, of course), and her husband (if she has one). This new “unwed mothers” piece could have been very different with that mindset and could have also included instructions to rely on bishop’s counsel or parents or the man who impregnated her. But it doesn’t do that. I call that a different perspective on women’s agency. But I realize it’s a small step.
I have heard, fwiw, that BYU athletics personnel ensure that married female athletes take birth control (and I believe they supply it). That policy is unlike that of church insurance which refuses to cover birth control, even for medical need.
It was always my understanding, when I was a younger person, that conference talks were essentially doctrine. Disagreements between brethren were kept from us and there was a belief that righteous church members must follow the talks given in conference. So maybe not propaganda, but in some ways worse as there was a lot of manipulation and it was considered apostate in most TBM circles to express or discuss disagreement with the brethren. Some of those talks were pretty forceful about how it was wrong to limit or delay childbearing. I don’t remember any consideration being given for the damage many cumulative pregnancies exact on a woman’s body.
The Ensign has had articles about women who were faced with serious health conditions during pregnancy but still chose to carry the pregnancy to term. Has there ever been an Ensign story about a woman who learned she had cancer during her pregnancy, and after prayerful consideration chose to terminate (a decision that is well within church policy regarding abortion)?
Hawkgrrrl, thanks for a thought-provoking post.
Does anyone else remember then-Elder Nielsen stating in general conference (either Oct 1984 or April 1985) that abortion is not murder? It ended up not being in the published version in the Ensign. (Am I the only one who remembers this? I’m quite certain I didn’t make it up.)
Yes, anon, April 1985, but it’s more complicated than that. RMN:
“President Spencer W. Kimball said, “We decry abortions and ask our people to refrain from this serious transgression.’
Why destroy a life that could bring such joy to others?
Now, is there hope for those who have so sinned without full understanding, who now suffer heartbreak? Yes. So far as is known, the Lord does not regard this transgression as murder. And ‘as far as has been revealed, a person may repent and be forgiven for the sin of abortion.'”
But he clearly asserts that abortion is categorically a sin and implies that murder cannot be the subject of repentance and forgiveness.
For a long time, the Church has had a policy that approves of abortion in some limited circumstances. Apparently, in those circumstances it is not even a sin. If it is ever OK, then it cannot be generally equated to murder despite the still common member jargon that insists on calling it murder. Of course, not being murder doesn’t prevent a conclusion that it is homicide of some variety, which may or may not be a sin in various circumstances, but I’m not going to get into whether or when it is homicide at all.
In answer to Hawkgrrrl’s first question, having been an adult convert to the Church since 1974:
1. It is my impression that most Church members are pro-natal. They want to have children. The Church welcomes kids. I think that most Mormons use birth control to control WHEN they have children, rather than to simply NOT have them at all. They are gradually having fewer children than in the 1950s or 1979s, and are more closely aligning with national trends, so I think it is mostly a cultural thing.
2. The issue of birth control is IMO an example of trickle-up change and inspiration. Per Not a Cougar’s reference to GC talks, two references to abortion in the last 21 years is telling. I think Church leaders realize they have lost the battle on birth control, as indicated by the very brief paragraph in the GHI under birth control: it is an extremely private matter to be decided alone by the couple, as they consult with God prayerfully.
3. We might run across the occasional Church leader who insists on offering his or her opinion on birth control as God’s truth (some are RS Presidents!), but most church members just quietly go their way and do what they think best. I can also give sad examples of church families who had more kids than health or finances could handle, but most people make their own decision on what is best for them. If someone tries to bring up either birth control or evolution in church (thankfully seldom), my impression is that they are ignored. They are seldom confronted with an opposing viewpoint; silence is more effective.
4. I appreciate Church leaders’ counsel and advice, but I am the one to decide how, or if, to apply it to my life. I do not think that I am uncommon. Most observant Church members are I think the same. They are just not vocal about their views, the way we are on W and T!
I should have added, whether or not RMN’s April 1985 comment on abortion and murder was then published in the Ensign, it is now on the church website as I quoted it.
The following is a quote from President Oaks at the 2018 Women’s Session of General Conference. After I heard this, I was thinking, really? This is what LDS women need to hear? They need to be reminded to have babies and have a good number of them? And everything other amazing thing they accomplish aside from motherhood is insignificant?
“Children are our most precious gift from God—our eternal increase. Yet we live in a time when many women wish to have no part in the bearing and nurturing of children. Many young adults delay marriage until temporal needs are satisfied. The average age of our Church members’ marriages has increased by more than two years, and the number of births to Church members is falling. The United States and some other nations face a future of too few children maturing into adults to support the number of retiring adults.1 Over 40 percent of births in the United States are to unwed mothers. Those children are vulnerable. Each of these trends works against our Father’s divine plan of salvation.
Latter-day Saint women understand that being a mother is their highest priority, their ultimate joy. President Gordon B. Hinckley said: “Women for the most part see their greatest fulfillment, their greatest happiness in home and family. God planted within women something divine that expresses itself in quiet strength, in refinement, in peace, in goodness, in virtue, in truth, in love. And all of these remarkable qualities find their truest and most satisfying expression in motherhood.”
He continued: “The greatest job that any woman will ever do will be in nurturing and teaching and living and encouraging and rearing her children in righteousness and truth. There is no other thing that will compare with that, regardless of what she does.”2”
“ Has there ever been an Ensign story about a woman who learned she had cancer during her pregnancy, and after prayerful consideration chose to terminate (a decision that is well within church policy regarding abortion)?”
I almost faced this very issue after cancer was discovered on an ovarian cyst. Luckily, my obstetrician said it was safe for me to continue the pregnancy and planned for me to have a c-sect at 36 weeks which would include a gynecological oncologist who would then remove my ovary etc.
I think these issues are best left to women, her pertinent family members and her physician.
How about young children separated from
parents at our southern border due to the current administration’s changes in applying for asylum?
The new guidelines concerning unwed mothers is a great improvement to what they used to be. I got pregnant in college, (not a teen!) and I was told by both my bishop and the LDS adoption agent that my eternal salvation was at risk. The adoption agent even used the words eternal damnation if I kept my child. I know they must have thought the end justified the means but the coercion was unbelievable. I was terrified and did what they told me to do. My child ended up being raised in a “broken” divorced family while I have been married almost 20 years. So he was raised by a single mother after all.
Do you think the new policy on unwed mothers is designed to respect women’s choices or to prevent single mothers from being barred from church participation or conversion?
I hope they changed the policy and got rid of the adoption agency because they recognized that single pregnant teens and women were not being respected but I have no idea. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt…
On our Hutong tour we met a man who was very enthusiastic about breeding fighting crickets.
Decisions of church leaders have created problems in my life until I lost faith in their judgement. My father had a business building houses and motels. He joined the church in 1958 in a tourist area called the Gold Coast. By 1961 we were on a mission in Scotland building chapels (normally building supervisors were retired americans who went for 2 years) for some reason our mission did not end, until the programme changed. I spent all my teenage years on a building mission moving every 18 to 24 months, which is not good for your education.
I went on a mission, and there was a conference talk telling missionaries their next duty was to get married and have children. I was married in march 1970 (50th anniversary coming up) but there were also conference talks about the evils of birth control, so we had our first daughter in 1970, and after the birth my wife spent a week in intensive care. After 3 children my wife was told she would not survive another pregnancy. Bishop said he couldn’t oppose the Prophet, SP said just be quiet about it.
So youth and education sacrificed to a church programme that was then abandoned.
Father would likely have grown his business, and left something for his children.
Spent first 10 years of marriage in poverty because a prophet was teacing his culture as gospel and we were obedient to getting married before education complete, then not using birth control. Another programme abandoned, without apology, just quietly not mentioned anymore.
When we joined the church in 1958 we were the first members in the area. So our only source of information about the church were the missionaries. No mention of racism, or polygamy, or right wing politics.
I remember for a while Emma was out of favour in church magazines, and we were pleased when she became more acceptable. We were shocked when the internet arrived to find there were other women/wives.
We had been aware of Brigham, but little detail.
None of the detail about first visions, or translation, or seer stones, Much was sanitized/lied about.