Mormonism and politics/Abortion

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Abortion


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Question: What is the Mormon position on abortion?

Except in certain circumstances, the LDS Church opposes abortion and denounces it as a serious sin

LDS Newsroom, "Abortion"

LDS Newsroom,  LDS Newsroom
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believes in the sanctity of human life. Therefore, the Church opposes elective abortion for personal or social convenience, and counsels its members not to submit to, perform, encourage, pay for, or arrange for such abortions.


The Church allows for possible exceptions for its members when:

  • Pregnancy results from rape or incest, or
  • A competent physician determines that the life or health of the mother is in serious jeopardy, or
  • A competent physician determines that the fetus has severe defects that will not allow the baby to survive beyond birth.


The Church teaches its members that even these rare exceptions do not justify abortion automatically. Abortion is a most serious matter and should be considered only after the persons involved have consulted with their local church leaders and feel through personal prayer that their decision is correct.

The Church has not favored or opposed legislative proposals or public demonstrations concerning abortion.

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Except in certain circumstances, the LDS Church opposes abortion and denounces it as a serious sin. However, unlike some movements, the Church does not equate abortion with murder. Further, the Church acknowledges that women and men who have been involved in abortions can be forgiven and become members in good standing. The exceptions to the commandment prohibiting abortion highlight the Church’s commitment to women’s rights and to our intrinsic value apart from our biological roles as mothers.

Question: Are there exceptions where abortion may be appropriate?
Answer: Yes.

The Church has not adopted a simple, all-or-nothing approach to abortion. While the Church stands firmly by the commandment “Thou shalt not . . . kill, nor do anything like unto it” DC 59:6 and Church members are cautioned that participating in abortion will usually bring their membership under scrutiny, allowances are made for situations where abortion may be appropriate.

The Church recognizes there are cases when abortion is medically necessary. When a woman or girl’s health would be severely threatened by carrying a pregnancy to term, the Church offers counsel and support while mothers themselves decide how to proceed. The same approach is taken even when the mother's life is not at risk but a pregnancy is medically deemed to have no chance of being viable. In such cases, the Church leaves the final choice of whether an abortion will be performed to the parents themselves. There is no universal formula for how the exceptions to the Church's usual stance on abortion must be applied.

The list of situations where abortion may be appropriate showcases the Church’s commitment to women’s rights to make choices. In cases of rape or incest (crimes sometimes known by other names but likely meant to describe any non-consensual sexual intercourse brought on by force or by the abuse of a position of power), the Church does not require victims to accept pregnancies arising from someone else’s abusive choices. If a woman does not consent to sexual contact, the Church does not consider her morally obliged to accept the consequence of it.

At a gathering of university students, Member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Dallin H. Oaks quoted the following:

The woman’s right to choose what will or will not happen to her body is obviously violated by rape or incest. When conception results in such a case, the woman has the moral as well as the legal right to an abortion because the condition of pregnancy is the result of someone else’s irresponsibility, not hers. She does not have to take responsibility for it. To force her by law to carry the fetus to term would be a further violation of her right.[1]

The fact that an impending threat to the mother’s health is accepted by the Church as a valid reason for opting for abortion suggests that the Church prefers the life of the adult woman to the life of the unborn fetus -- especially if there is no chance the fetus would be able to live if the pregnancy took its natural course. This preference is controversial to many in the mainstream Pro-Life movement. However, it is a strong indication of the value the Church places on individual women. Clearly, we are not valued solely for our reproductive abilities. We are free to protect and preserve our own lives even if doing so directly compromises our reproductive abilities.

Though denounced by the Church, abortion is not considered murder

In a revelation given to Joseph Smith, the ancient Biblical commandment “Thou shalt not kill” Ex 20:13 was expanded to read “Thou shalt not…kill nor do anything like unto it.” D&C 59:6 Abortion seems to fall into the category of “anything like unto it.” Though denounced by the Church, abortion is not considered murder. It is a less serious sin and one for which men and women can be forgiven.

Member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Russell M. Nelson has said:

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.” Gratefully, we know the Lord will help all who are truly repentant.[2]

This doctrine sets the Church apart from some of the other organizations that denounce abortion. The Church does not persecute or demonize people involved in abortion. Instead, it reaches out to them with compassion and the promise of a possible redemption.

The Church itself has not been involved in the politics of abortion

As explained in the Church’s official statement on abortion, the Church itself has not been involved in the politics of abortion. However, Church members are free to express their own opinions and to be involved as individuals in political causes including abortion legislation.

The Church has come under criticism from conservative groups for not taking a stronger stance against abortion. At the same time, the Church is criticized by “pro-choice” groups for its extremely limited tolerance for abortion. Both sides of the argument accuse the Church of trying too hard to please the opposite side. Clearly, the Church’s stance on abortion cannot be the result of political pandering. If it's meant as a compromise, it would be a poor one that leaves both sides of the abortion argument angry and unsatisfied. In an argument as polarized as the abortion debate, no compromise would ever be acceptable. Rather than crafting a position that fully pleases either side of the debate, the Church position is a tempered one – one based in a real, complicated world where difficult situations must be reckoned with on careful, individual bases.

Despite its lack of direct engagement in abortion politics, some Church leaders have warned members against aligning with movements that would promote the use of abortion beyond the circumstances of rape, incest, and catastrophic health outcomes accepted by the Church.

Dallin H. Oaks said:

Pro-choice slogans have been particularly seductive to Latter-day Saints because we know that moral agency, which can be described as the power of choice, is a fundamental necessity in the gospel plan. All Latter-day Saints are pro-choice according to that theological definition. But being pro-choice on the need for moral agency does not end the matter for us. Choice is a method, not the ultimate goal. …In today’s world we are not true to our teachings if we are merely pro-choice. We must stand up for the right choice.[3]

Adoption is encouraged as an alternative to abortion

Wrote the First Presidency in 1999:

Every effort should be made in helping those who conceive out of wedlock to establish an eternal family relationship. When the probability of a successful marriage is unlikely, unwed parents should be encouraged to place the child for adoption, preferably through LDS Social Services. Adoption through LDS Social Services helps ensure that the baby will be reared by a mother and father in a faithful Latter-day Saint family.

Unwed parents who do not marry should not be counseled to keep the infant as a condition of repentance or out of an obligation to care for one’s own. Generally, unwed parents are not able to provide the stable, nurturing environment so essential for the baby’s well-being.

When deciding to place the baby for adoption, the best interests of the child should be the paramount consideration. Placing the infant for adoption enables unwed parents to do what is best for the child and enhances the prospect for the blessings of the gospel in the lives of all concerned.[4]


Question: What do the scriptures say about the issue of abortion?

Introduction to Question

The issue of abortion is one of the most hotly contested issues in the United States of America and in many other parts of the world. This debate has naturally led many people of the Christian and Jewish faiths—including offshoots and branches of them—to ask what the authoritative texts of their traditions say about the issue.

This article aims to lay out some of the most important texts that are relevant to considerations about abortion and interpret them. It will ultimately conclude that while there are some questions about abortion, the scriptures provide a clear basis for treating abortion and especially for intentional, elective purposes as a serious moral failing. It will provide commentary as to why The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints might validly take the position it does on abortion today in light of the moral commitments laid out in the Jewish, Christian, and uniquely Latter-day Saint scriptures.

Response to Question

Exodus 21:15-16

One of the most commonly cited and discussed scriptures relevant to considerations about abortion is Exodus 21:15-16. There we read the following:

22 ¶ If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, :and yet no mischief follow: he shall be surely punished, according as the woman’s husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine.
23 And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life,
24 Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,
25 Burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.

This is a type of casuistic law. It stipulates what kind of punishments should be inflicted on a person if they alone or in concert with other individuals engage in certain kinds of acts. This is a case where two or more men (applied broadly this scripture almost certainly involved just any two or more people) are fighting and accidentally hurt a woman and her fetus. Again, to be perfectly clear, we are talking about an accidental miscarriage or premature birth of a woman while two people are fighting. The two people engaged in the altercation hurt a woman that is pregnant such that she either miscarries or the child is merely born prematurely. Exactly which is not clear. The scripture stipulates that if the men make the woman miscarry/have this premature birth, that the people engaged in the fight must first be confronted by the husband of the woman. The husband along with judges will jointly determine what kind of fine to impose on the people who engaged in the fight. This seems to be the same procedure followed if the husband himself was one of the combatants in the altercation.

The passage further stipulates that if the woman herself is injured or dies (exactly which is not clear), then the people who engaged in the fight will be served capital punishment and other punishments lex talionis. It’s important to note that lex talionis “is a principle of fair treatment of assailants and not necessarily a literal prescription for retaliatory treatment in all cases.”[5]

Some have argued that this passage and, consequently, Israelite law treats the value of the mother as greater than the value of the fetus. But this argument depends on how one interprets lex talionis and the term אָסוֹן (ʾason). Is the talion to be taken in its literal, retaliatory sense? If so, then that interpretation of the mother being of greater value clearly follows. But if lex talionis is understood in its looser, compensatory sense, then it could be argued that the passage is not treating the respective value of mother and fetus differently. Depending on what type of harm is being induced, the punishments and what they correlatively imply about the value of the mother and fetus respectively changes. These crucial details are simply not clear and the questions about them don’t seem answerable.

The very least that we can conclude from these passages is that this was an accidental situation, that both the mother and fetus were seen as valuable at least in some way, and that damages needed to be paid or punishments incurred commensurate with the harm inflicted on mother and fetus.

Other scriptures may need to be prioritized higher in order to resolve this dilemma. We outline that other scripture below.

Numbers 5

Numbers 5:11-31 outlines what is known today as the Ordeal of the Bitter Water.

The major talking point is concerning verse 27 and what happens as a priest makes a woman partake of the water.

27 And when he hath made her to drink the water, then it shall come to pass, that, if she be defiled, and have done trespass against her husband, that the water that causeth the curse shall enter into her, and become bitter, and her belly shall swell, and her thigh shall rot: and the woman shall be a curse among her people.

The word “thigh” is a translation of the Hebrew yarek (יָרֵך) which does mean thigh but euphemistically refers to the genitals and other reproductive organs of a human being.

The passage is saying that a woman’s belly will swell up and that her uterus and perhaps vagina will either shrivel up or fall out.

Some have interpreted this passage to refer to miscarriage. The NIV translates this verse to say that “your womb [will] miscarry and your abdomen swell”. But the passage doesn’t apply to just pregnant women. It applies to all those that have been caught in adultery whether pregnant or not. The curses that the 5:27 is establishing refer to infertility. Thus, it’s not that a woman loses her baby because of the trial, but loses her ability to conceive entirely.

Thou Shalt Not Murder

Texts that may be relevant to the abortion debate include those that condemn murder. There are many such texts in the scriptures that citing them here seems pointless. The question of course is “does abortion really constitute murder”? It’s a fair question and one that continues to be debated by theologians and philosophers.

Certain leaders of the Church have analogized abortion to murder in the past.[6]

The current position of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is that abortion does not necessarily constitute murder. The Church most frequently cites a text contained in the Latter-day Saint canon: Doctrine and Covenants 59:6. It tells the Saints “Thou shalt not…ekill, nor do anything flike unto it.” Abortion has typically fit into that last “nor do anything like unto it.” The first mention of “kill” clearly refers to murder. But there are obviously other categories of killing that are not murder. This is where abortion is thought to be for the Church: not necessarily murder, but still an act of unjustified killing.[7]

The question may involve when the soul enters the body since that may be where personhood begins. Do the scriptures provide any answers as to when the soul enters the body?

The Scriptures Provide No Guidance as to When Ensoulment Happens

This is another great question that has been debated by Christian and Jewish theologians. Some believe that the question is resolved by Genesis where God grants Adam his “first breath” so that he becomes a living soul. According to them, one can know that the soul has entered the body when a person breathes. Though this scripture doesn’t need to be a statement of when the soul enters the body, but only when Adam was permitted by God to take his first breath. The Latter-day Saint temple appears to teach that God first places Adam’s spirit in his body and then afterwards grants him his first breath. Furthermore, if first breath is truly when personhood is thought to begin, then we might point out that fetal breathing can begin as early as 10 weeks of pregnancy and about as late as a fullterm, right before birth. Thus a “first breath” standard for when personhood begins would prohibit a large number of abortions.

Some believe that the answer is when a fetus is “quickened” or when it first begins to move inside of a woman’s womb. There are some scriptures/statements from leaders of the Church that may be used to justify this view.

  • Luke 1:44, “For, lo, as soon as the voice of thy salutation sounded in mine ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy.” This scriptures discusses John the Baptist and his mother Elizabeth. The New Testament mentions that Elizabeth hid herself for five months. Thus we might deduce that a soul was in John’s body after five months when Mary visited Elizabeth
  • President Brigham Young said that “when the mother feels life come to her infant it is the spirit entering the body” (Journal of Discourses, 17:143).

President Young’s view stands in mild contrast with an official statement from the First Presidency in 1909 which is less certain about when life enters the body

The body of man enters upon its career as a tiny germ embryo, which becomes an infant, quickened at a certain stage by the spirit whose tabernacle it is, and the child, after being born, develops into a man.

Thus there is no definitive answer about when the soul enters the body for the scriptures nor The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Though this still might not settle the question since there’s an argument to be made from biology about personhood.

Biology as it May Relate to Personhood

95% of biologists agree that a new, distinct human life begins at conception: when a woman’s egg is fertilized by a man’s sperm.[8]

Our laws do tend to treat human bodies as persons regardless of their current brain function, heart function, lung function, sentience, etc. If a person doesn’t have full brain activity, we still do everything to keep them alive. If a person doesn’t have a heart that functions on its own, we still do everything we can to keep them alive. If a person is in a comatose or vegetative state, we still do everything we can to keep them alive.

It may be argued that, even if we don’t know when the soul enters the body, that we should shape our ethics around keeping the fetus alive as much as possible.

Conclusion

Hopefully this has been a balanced presentation of what the scriptures teach about abortion and how we can better keep God's commandments.

Notes

  1. Dallin H. Oaks, "Weightier Matters," BYU Devotional, Feb. 1999.
  2. Russell M. Nelson, "Reverence for Life," Ensign (May 1985), 11. See also Russell M. Nelson, "Abortion: An Assault on the Defenseless," Ensign (Oct 2008), 32–37.
  3. Dallin H. Oaks, "Weightier Matters," BYU Devotional, Feb. 1999.
  4. Cited in "Policies and Announcements," Ensign (April 1999), 80.
  5. Carol Myers, “Exodus,” in The New Oxford Annotated Bible, ed. Michael Coogan (New York: Oxford University Press), 114. Importantly, Myers further states on the same page: “Note that compensation is sometimes acceptable (vv. 22, 26, 27) and that the rabbinic understanding of talion calls for paying damages.”
  6. Daniel Ortner, “The Consistency of Prophetic Abortion Teaching,” Public Square Magazine, June 7, 2022, https://publicsquaremag.org/faith/gospel-fare/the-consistency-of-prophetic-statements-about-abortion/.
  7. The Church may change its view of this in the future.
  8. Steven Andrew Jacobs “Biologists’ Consensus on ‘When Life Begins’,” SSRN, August 6, 2018; “Life Begins at Fertilization,” Princeton, accessed May 7, 2022, https://www.princeton.edu/~prolife/articles/embryoquotes2.html; Steven Andrew Jacobs, “Balancing Abortion Rights and Fetal Rights: A Mixed Methods Mediation of the U.S. Abortion Debate,” (Dissertation, University of Chicago, 2019); Steve Jacobs, “I Asked Thousands of Biologists When Life Begins. The Answer Wasn’t Popular,” Quilette, October 16, 2019, https://quillette.com/2019/10/16/i-asked-thousands-of-biologists-when-life-begins-the-answer-wasnt-popular/.