For most Latter-day Saints, the answer to the abortion question is a resounding no. Yet, the official Handbooks of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints clearly state that abortion is allowable when:
- Pregnancy resulted from forcible rape or incest.
- A competent physician determines that the life or health of the mother is in serious jeopardy.
- A competent physician determines that the fetus has severe defects that will not allow the baby to survive beyond birth. (See 24.1.4)
In a recent Salt Lake Tribune article, Peggy Fletcher Stack demonstrates this stance on abortion suits the faithful of both political parties. The unanswered question, then, is how most practicing LDS came to their strident opposition to abortion.
Last week, Ziff at at Zelophehad’s Daughters took a stab at answering that question when he published a compelling analysis of the contradiction between the Church’s exemption policy and the presentation of high-risk pregnancy anecdotes by the Brethren, all of which encourage women to reject the life-saving medical advice of their physicians. In these anecdotes, women don’t die and babies don’t suffer (or not too-too much). There aren’t stories of an endangered mother-to-be following the handbook exemptions by prayerfully following the counsel of her physician, terminating a dangerous pregnancy, and living to raise her children. Ziff’s article demonstrates that hierarchal support for the exemption abortion policy is jaw-droppingly absent. Why?
I participate in a lively Mormon discussion group in which Ziff’s article became a hot topic. A comment by Olivia Meikle, a university professor and co-founder of What’s Her Name podcast, wrote:
I realized a few years ago that [the way the Brethren praise women who risk their lives in child-bearing] is the real proof that Mormonism doesn’t actually care about motherhood. They care about childbearing. They will prioritize a woman making a baby over a woman being able to care for their existing and new children every. single. time. It’s as if mothers aren’t important to their children’s lives because they are replaceable by new, substitute mothers. It seems giving birth is the only task that a Mormon woman is for.
Polygamy culture lurks in every corner of this religion, but nowhere more insidiously than in the cult of Mormon childbirth. When wives and daughters are celestial trading cards, who cares if you lose one or two if you acquire a powerful new priesthood holder for your pack? Mother cards are dime a dozen, and you can pick a new one up anywhere. [qtd in this form with permission]
Meikle’s frustration may, at first, sound extreme. However, dismissing her observation out-of-hand is risky. The Brethren can’t consistently put mothers-to-be who reject life-saving medical counsel on a pedestal and, at the same time, claim our divine appointment is to nurture our current and future children without undermining their credibility and collapsing that pedestal. No woman can nurture her children when she’s dead. So what is the value of a woman? Meikle’s conclusion is painful, but it’s likely more accurate than anyone wants to consider.
I think, however, she misspoke in suggesting the life-risking anecdotes devalue motherhood: they devalue woman. I’ve never heard the Brethren preach a story of a man who exercises his faith in God by ignoring a life-saving medical recommendation. That’d be absurd. Yet it’s not absurd to encourage women to take that risk.
When motherhood is the one true, inherent value of female life, the woman herself becomes an abstract concept. From a distance, it’s easy to recommend a path on which, if things don’t go well, she can be replaced. Motherly nurturing can continue with another wife. This unspoken and probably unrecognized attitude has its roots deep in our polygamous past. Sister wives are available.
Across my Mormon life, I’ve seen the harsh residuals felt by families in which mothers-to-be have rejected medically-necessary and recommended termination as a matter of faith. I list them in order of my encounter and as memory serves:
One of my YW leaders had a very large family when she was warned by her ob/gyn to stop having children or the next pregnancy would kill her. She had faith in the divine call to multiply and replenish the earth. She became pregnant, gave birth, and lingered a bit before proving her physician correct. Her husband was sealed to another woman.
A young LDS woman I met was advised to abort the twins she carried due to the medically proven, severe disabilities each would face on the very low chance they survived. In faith, she continued the pregnancy. One child perished. The other was so severely disabled (both physically and cognitively) as to literally require round-the-clock vigils to maintain her life. This woman and her husband had lived every moment of their toddler-aged child’s life fearing some oversight on their part would end it. In the meantime, ward members unthinkingly pressured her to have another and fulfil her divine call.
A bishopric counselor explained to me that he grew up without his mother because she chose to follow the prophet instead of the advice of her physician to terminate a dangerous pregnancy. She and the baby she carried are interred in the same coffin. He believes his mother made the right choice.
A ward member and mother of several children confided in me that the unplanned-for baby she carried was deceased in her womb and had been for a month or more. Yet, she couldn’t bring herself to have the requisite abortion. Her physician warned her that carrying a decomposing fetus was life-threatening. But shouldn’t she wait on God to begin labor? Her husband interceded and labor was induced.
Relatively rare? Sure, considering the number of Mormon pregnancies I’ve seen come to fruition. But when faith leads to tragedy instead of a miracle, rare is irrelevant.
I’m not suggesting the Brethren who’ve told these anecdotes are colluding against women, but the disconnect between the Handbook policy on abortion and their faith-promoting stories is dangerous. It’s hard to feel highly esteemed when my life is a gamble some of them would encourage me to make. The Handbook may ask women to counsel with the Lord and their bishop on abortion, but those words, measured against their public discourse, makes the exception policy sound like double-speak.
And then there’s this, copied from the same section of the Handbook:
Church members who submit to, perform, arrange for, pay for, consent to, or encourage an abortion may be subject to Church discipline. (See 24.1.4)
Draw your own conclusion as to the possible impact of that in decision-making.
Members can’t change the rhetoric the Brethren use, but, in a culture that pushes women toward disregard of their needs, we can publicly praise mothers-to-be who make the wise choice to follow medical recommendations that will ensure well-being. We don’t need any more of this kind of “angel mother.”
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And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good. Genesis 1:31