Wednesday, July 22, 2020
The Gaping Hole in the Church’s Official Policy on Abortion
Several years ago, my high priests group had a lesson on a topic I can’t now recall. But somehow in the course of the discussion, the issues of abortion and same-sex marriage came up. My memory of the discussion is pretty fuzzy, but someone must have asked about the importance of these two issues, because I will never forget the response one of the high priests gave. Let’s call him Mark. Mark answered with a question of his own: “Well, what other issues are there?”
I could have taken the next two hours answering his question, but I didn’t. Mark was a good friend of mine, and he was also my home teacher. But his answer is probably the reason a lot of Latter-day Saints are Republican, even today with their party devoted to a disastrous president and devoid of any serious policy initiatives on our most pressing concerns. For one neighbor of mine, abortion is THE issue. She insists on calling it “infanticide” any chance she gets. I tell her this is like tossing a verbal Molotov cocktail into any conversation, but she insists on flinging it with reckless abandon.
Since I fled the Republican Party years ago and more recently officially became a Democrat, I have more or less avoided the topic of abortion. There were too many other pressing issues that I was more interested in. But recently I have done some reading and thinking about abortion, enough to offer some of my thoughts on this fraught topic. First let me say that it is (as is almost everything) a lot more complex than it might appear at first glance. I brought it up a couple of posts ago, in the context of utilitarianism, but today I want to address it head on, primarily through the lens of the Church’s official position on the topic.
First, let’s be clear that the Church’s position is certainly not the same as the position the Republican Party has gravitated toward in recent years, which is an extremist position the Church certainly could not support, even though many members do (as I’ve said before, many Latter-day Saints are more Republican than Mormon). The Church, for instance, would never publicly label abortion as “infanticide.”
But what most people on either side of this issue do not recognize is that the Church’s official position leaves a gap on which it has not taken a stand. And it is a very sizable gap. Here’s the Church’s official position, copied straight from the Newsroom:
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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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What does the Church specifically oppose? Elective abortion for personal or social convenience.
It also allows exceptions for rape, incest, the jeopardized health of the mother, and severe defects in the fetus. In other words, abortion is not equivalent to murder. It is certainly not infanticide. There are exceptions, in which other factors weigh more heavily than the life of the unborn fetus. In other words, the Church’s position is not that an unborn fetus is the same as a fully living human being. But I don’t want to focus on the question of when life begins or when the spirit enters the body, although scripture suggests it is not at conception but at birth. I want to focus instead on the large gap between what the Church opposes and the exceptions mentioned.
That hole in the official policy includes a very broad category of abortions that are not covered by the exceptions listed, nor are they for personal or social convenience. They fall somewhere in between. Often they are a matter of the survival or well-being of a struggling family. Take, for instance, the case of a single mother of two elementary-school-age children who is barely scraping by in a minimum-wage job (because she is not qualified for better work). She becomes pregnant—perhaps through her own unwise decision or the passion of the moment, but that is beside the point. Unfortunately, the future father is a deadbeat who disappears from the scene and who, anyway, would not be able to support either her or her children. This leaves her in a predicament. If she has the baby, she will lose her job, her apartment, and, likely, her children. The decision here does not involve an abortion of convenience. It’s the life of the baby vs. the survival of a struggling family. Self-righteous finger-pointers can say she brought this predicament on herself, and that is certainly true, but it does not provide a solution to her predicament. Neither the ultra-conservative pro-life position nor the Church’s official policy has an answer for this situation and hundreds like it.
As I’ve pointed out before, the Church does subscribe to some utilitarian thinking regarding the value of some lives over others. Take Nephi, for instance, when he is standing over Laban’s senseless body with a drawn sword. The Spirit “constrains” him to kill Laban, which would be murder, and it uses a utilitarian argument to justify this action. The death of this one man is outweighed by the need of an entire population to have the scriptural record Laban possesses. So it’s not even one life vs. another life. It is one man’s life vs. the ignorance of many. Of course, as I’ve pointed out previously, this is a false choice. If Nephi had not received the plates, God could have revealed to him anything on those plates that Nephi’s people really needed. Or God could easily have had an angel retrieve the plates and deliver them (like the Liahona) to Lehi in the Valley of Lemuel. So, the story has some inherent flaws in it, but that’s another topic altogether. What’s important here is that LDS scripture insists that it is okay to kill a living man (not an unborn fetus) in order to accomplish a greater good. This seems very relevant to the situation I presented above of the struggling single mother.
In my own opinion, the Church needs to fill the hole in its policy by addressing circumstances that are not “convenience” but also do not involve the exceptions spelled out in the policy. What if it is a horrifying choice between one evil and an even greater evil? Not addressing this choice does not mean it does not exist—in hundreds and thousands of permutations that fall very short of “convenience.” Perhaps this is the best argument for a pro-choice position: There are countless circumstances in which the abortion is not for “convenience” and yet is also not due to rape, incest, the health of the mother, or severe fetal defects. Perhaps this is why such weighty decisions should be left in the hands of the mother, the doctor, and maybe the clergy. These circumstances are far too numerous and too individual for a blanket law that prohibits an act that may be more morally defensible than Nephi’s slaying of Laban.
As I suggested above, abortion is a lot more complex than many on the extremes would make it, and the Church has managed to oversimplify the issue by ignoring this gaping hole in middle of its policy.