On LDS Abortion Exceptions and the Angel Mother

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:

  1. Pregnancy resulted from forcible rape or incest.
  2. A competent physician determines that the life or health of the mother is in serious jeopardy.
  3. 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.”

~ ~ ~

And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good. Genesis 1:31


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5 thoughts on “On LDS Abortion Exceptions and the Angel Mother

  1. Jane

    What I find interesting, is that many heath doctrines of the church have proven true, even supported by facts and reasoning much later. I would put tobacco as a example, tea, herbology …. I have a friend, she had an abortion because of an abusive relationship. Basically, if she had the baby he would angrily stay and make her life miserable–or she could end the pregnancy and he would go his poisonous way. I asked her why she just didn’t lie to him, she never thought of it. …The damage she has had to overcome almost daily because of her choice to have an abortion, the child she morns that her mind comes back to just as often, my heart breaks for her. To each family, or mother, I honor their choice because they have to reap the consequences of their decision. I know what I would choose for myself, while agreeing that i am not in an emotionally charged moment or living with the threat or reality of violence.

    This life was meant to be suffering, but the challenge is finding the things that make that suffering worth while (a little Jordan Peterson, I agree with his sentiment). I often look at others choices and think how I would do differently, but I also have thought that I have not had the same experiences or people in my life that they have had. I am working hard to barely manage my life and I have come to my own conclusion that I don’t want the responsibility to manage and suffer for another in addition to my own, excepting my own motherhood.

    I want to suggest responsibility. No matter how we feel, what stress we are under, we make choices. We suffer the repercussions for our choices and often others suffer for our choices as we often suffer along with others because of their choices. Women should be taught self care, for if we are dead or tired, someone else has to pick up the slack, or more often it is left wanting.

    There are natural consequences for abortion. Emotional, physical, short term, long term, things that pass and things that stay. That is not all, and not specific. I honor the right to choose for each person, but, personally, i am happiest being the most informed I can be. So when I make a choice, I am to the best of my ability choosing my consequences. Outcome based decision making. I will admit, If my children had to die, I would much rather it not be because of my choice. I would push my child out from in front of a moving bus, even if it ended my life, because i worked so hard to have them. I do try to be a mother that will not be easily missed and let my children know of my love!

    My own mother, didn’t care for herself, she cared for me in words, mostly in public. She didn’t protect me and she didn’t value herself, or her husband, in fact she has made herself quite the victim while covering up my own childhood sexual abuse. I value the lessons I have learned from her and many others. I value myself, I tell my kids of my value, I share my exploits, the good, the bad, and the ugly. My kids can learn from me and value my struggle in my imperfections. We cheer our efforts and our successes and we talk through our weak places. I am not replaceable…yet if i were to die, I hope another wonderful woman would help in my stead.

    my point…My friend, she regrets it. She knows she ended a life, to limit suffering in her own. She was so stressed, she didn’t take time to think about it, past the act itself. She has created her own personal hell. She wanted that baby. She couldn’t see past the moment. It has affected her ability to care for the children she already has. Her repercussions have been legion. She has thought on it a lot and has a set path for- if somehow, she ever let herself in such a place again, although she has created boundaries to protect against it.

    My opinion on the LDS church’s stance on abortion, is that it is meant to save women from its great cost to the divine feminine. I think it is compassion to direct women away from the damage of abortion. As always, it is a choice. We alone are responsible for what we choose and we choose who we are with every choice. We also choose our suffering and hand tailor our leaning paths.

    Thank you for your article, I found it interesting and I enjoyed hearing your thoughts. I appreciate the meat for my mind to chew.


    1. Thank you for your thoughtful response, Jane. I’m glad to know someone as introspective as you are is reading here. You sound like a compassionate person.

      I’m left, after reading the little bit of your friend’s story, I’m reminded that I’ve never heard of a woman who didn’t mourn after terminating a pregnancy. It’s a brutal decision. What’s important for us, as women who stand outside of those decisions but within the circle of a woman who has had to make that decision, is that we do what we can to support her emotionally. From the little you’ve said here, her decision sounds reasonable. To protect oneself is rational behavior and I’d say a divine priority. Abusers can be relentless. There is no way to know how her life might’ve looked if she’d carried out the pregnancy, or if she’d be alive. But what we do know is that she is here, alive, and hurting. Regret and mourning are not the same thing. Help her to mourn; maybe she hasn’t identified what she is feeling as mourning. After all, self-loathing is something our culture nurtures, especially in women, and we often can’t quite see the difference between the two. One thing I do know is that she is very fortunate to have you in her corner. I also feel confident that our Savior would hold no ill will for her, but meet her wherever she is with an embrace. Next time you hug her, a little part of me will be sharing that embrace with her.


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