Edited with author’s note on the comments at end of post.
Abortion is a hot-button issue. Maybe the hot-button issue. That’s why–after finishing a draft of this post in November of 2019–I sat on it for almost a year. I’ve rewritten it and am posting it because I’ve realized it’s important to understand not only the what of the Church’s position, but also the why.
This is tough, since the Church has a publicly available policy on abortion but no single, authoritative theological rationale for the policy. This provides a certain amount of leeway in interpreting and applying the Church’s policy, although not nearly as much as some Latter-day Saints would like to believe.
Let’s begin with the Church’s official position on abortion:
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.
Latter-day Saints who wish to reconcile this statement with a pro-choice political position tend to rely on the principle of agency. According to this notion, the Church might be morally opposed to abortion, but it doesn’t follow that the Church (or its members) must be legally opposed. After all, it says right there, “The Church has not favored or opposed…”
This misconception drew an explicit take down by Elder Oaks back in 1999. (The devotional address was republished in the Ensign in 2001.) Since a large portion of the article is expressly against the use of agency to support a politicaly pro-choice position, I urge you to read the whole talk. The one quote I’ll include here is Elder Oaks’ explicit repudiation of the morally pro-life / legally pro-choice position:
If we say we are anti-abortion in our personal life but pro-choice in public policy, we are saying that we will not use our influence to establish public policies that encourage righteous choices on matters God’s servants have defined as serious sins. I urge Latter-day Saints who have taken that position to ask themselves which other grievous sins should be decriminalized or smiled on by the law on this theory that persons should not be hampered in their choices. Should we decriminalize or lighten the legal consequences of child abuse? of cruelty to animals? of pollution? of fraud? of fathers who choose to abandon their families for greater freedom or convenience?
So much for the idea of being personally pro-life but politically pro-choice.
The argument that got me to write my original draft of this piece was a little bit different, however. I encountered it on Facebook where Aaron Brown claimed:
There are many socially conservative Latter-day Saints who are very, very frustrated — even angry — with LDS leadership over the LDS Church’s position on abortion. Although the Church’s position is quite conservative by many standards — and a bit more conservative than many LDS progressives will acknowledge — it isn’t quite as conservative as very conservative Latter-day Saints want it to be. This is a source of great consternation and anxiety.
According to this view, the Church’s view on abortion is a moderate one between the pro-life and pro-choice camps. How so?
Folks bend over backwards to pretend that the Church sees no ethical or moral distinction whatsoever between the unborn and the born, even as it allows for morally-justifiable abortion in very limited circumstances (where it would not allow for termination of born life in analogous circumstances). And when you point out that this claim of moral equivalence simply isn’t true, the level of anger and frustration rises and rises and rises…
So the main claim here is that the Church allows the killing of unborn human beings when it wouldn’t allow the killing of born human beings in “analogous circumstances”. If this is true, then the Church has one set of principles for determining when it’s permissible to kill unborn human beings and another set of principles for determining when it’s permissible to kill born human beings. And if that’s true, then the Church is rejecting the fundamental premise of the pro-life movement that all human beings–born and unborn–merit the same legal and moral consideration.
And I do appreciate that Aaron got the consensus pro-life view right. The proposition that all human lives are equal is the beating heart of the pro-life movement and the central tenet of the pro-life philosophy. So if the Church’s official violates that position, then it would make sense to say that the Church is materially not pro-life.
So the question is: does it? Does the Church’s position contradict the principle that all human lives ought to be treated equally? That every human being has an equal moral and legal right to life?
No, it doesn’t. Each one of the Church’s exceptions where abortion may (not is, but may) be permissible is consistent with the principle that all human lives are equal. As long as it’s possible to derive these exceptions without reference to an intrinsic difference between born and unborn human beings, then the Church’s position can be reconciled with a pro-life position.
We’ll start with the simplest case. This is the second exception, where abortion can be permitted to save the mother from serious jeopardy to her life or health. It is possible to derive this exception from a general principle something like, “If one person is threatened by another person, they may act with minimum force to protect themselves, even if the threat is unintentional.” Since this principle doesn’t make any reference to a born/unborn distinction, exceptions that allow abortion in the case of serious threats to the mother’s life and health are compatible with pro-life philosophy. (Indeed, it is standard for pro-life legislation to include such caveats.)
Moving to the first exception on the list–for rape and incest–we can rely on Judith Jarvis Thomson’s “A Defense of Abortion.” Insofar as this essay was intended to show that abortion should be generally permissible even if the unborn human being is considered a person, it fails. Thomson’s central thought experiment involves waking up and finding that somehow you’ve been surgically attached to a concert violinist who depends on you to stay alive for the next nine months, after which they can be detached without harm. Her point is that pregnancy can’t be enforced.
It fails in the first case because pregnancies that result from consensual sex are not analogous to pregnancies that result from rape. There may be no general duty to sustain the life of another human being who is randomly attached to you in the middle of the night without your knowledge or consent, but that doesn’t hold up if you cause the violinist to be in that predicament in the first place. The idea that you don’t have to proactively save someone else’s life doesn’t handle cases when you’re the reason that a person that someone is in a precarious position to begin with. Parents–both of them, mother and father–do have a positive duty to sustain the life of their children.
It fails in the second case because, generally speaking, abortions are not accomplished by severing the umbilical cord to withdraw positive support from the fetus, whereupon they die. Such an abortion would be akin to a withdrawal of support rather than active, direct killing. But abortions, as they are accomplished in practice, do just that: actively kill the unborn human being (often through physical dismemberment). Even if there were a right to refuse to keep someone alive, that’s not equivalent to the right to kill them. A right not to share food with someone starving, should it exist, would not automatically extend to a right to shoot hungry people.
And so what Thomson actually proves is that some forms of abortion–those that do not entail the direct killing of a fetus–may be permissible in the exceptional case where the pregnancy did not arise from consenual sex. This is a pretty close match to the Church’s position, and once again we haven’t relied on any differentiation between born and unborn human beings. (That’s the whole point of Thomson’s essay.)
As for the third exception on the list–that of severe defects-I won’t sketch out an entire argument, but simply point out that the topic of mercy killing–and the line between it and palliative care that may shorten life–is technically, ethically, and legally fraught when it comes to born human beings. There’s no reason to expect cases involving unborn human beings to be any less so.
What I’ve illustrated so far is that, although it allows for exceptions to the general prohibition on abortion, the Church’s position is indeed compatible with the pro-life principle of treating all human beings as person’s with a right to life. After all, it’s right there in the first sentence: “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believes in the sanctity of human life.” There’s no distinction between born and unborn human life, and it’s therefore the task of the pro-choice advocate to invent and defend one.
That stops short of saying that the Church’s position necessarily entails the pro-life position. That is the position that I hold, but the Church has not been so explicit. Although this may frustrate some pro-life Latter-day Saints, it’s a far cry from the logical conflict Aaron described.
It’s also not unusual. One of the distinctive features of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the lack of formal theology. The Church, as a general rule, does not exhaustively explain its positions. That creates a lot of room for individual variation, something that is vital to our growth, maturation, and independence as disciples.
But it doesn’t create infinite room, and on moral matters in particular the Church has staked out some pretty clear lines. Elder Oaks’ 1999 sentiments (cited above) have been consistently echoed, such as in (then) Elder Nelson’s 2008 Ensigh article, Abortion: An Assault on the Defenseless. In the piece, President Nelson explicitly compares the death toll from major wars to the death toll from elective abortion. This comparison along with the rhetoric he uses throughout clearly imply an equivalence between the lives of born and unborn human beings.
And this brings me to my final point. So far it may be possible to read this whole thing as an attempt to show the Church is on my side. I’d like to think that rather I’m on the Church’s side, but that’s not actually my point. My argument shows that the Church’s position is compatible with the pro-life position that all human lives merit equal moral and legal regard and also that it suggests this position, but stops short of asserting that it explicitly requires it (although it clearly rules out conventional pro-choice positions). There’s still a potential, theoretical gap between the pro-life position (all human lives are equal) and the Church’s anti-abortion stance. But in that case–if it’s not regard for human lives–then what is left to motivate the Church’s position?
The final piece to the puzzle–and the reason I decided to revise and post this piece–is that the Church’s position on abortion is really only intelligible in the context of the pro-life position. If unborn human beings do not deserve full moral and legal consideration, then abortion becomes a secondary consideration that merits neither the strong policy nor the strong rhetoric against it. There’s no compelling interest for the Church in staking out such a pro-life compatible position if it’s not largely pro-life. One would have to posit that the Church is acting out of something like habit or knee-jerk affinity with social conservatism, in that case, if not even worse, more nefarious motivations.
But if the Church does share the pro-life consensus view that all human lives are equally valuable, then the Church’s position becomes indispensable. If the General Authorities of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are truly prophets, then it is their inescapable duty to speak out for the oppressed and vulnerable and voiceless. If all human beings are equal, than the most vulnerable constituency, now and forever, is not defined in terms of race, gender, or sexual orientation, all of which are imperfect proxies for vulnerability and power. No, the human cohort with the greatest exposure to harm from others and the least ability to deflect that harm is and always will be: children.
So, when it comes to vulnerable groups in general and particularly when it comes to children, the Church has staked out some clear and definitive moral positions. Abortion is perhaps the most extreme case–where the very weakest are threatened with death–and the Church’s position is commensurately clear and strong. Not out of political consideration, but in furtherance of the ancient and solemn duty of all prophets to speak for the vulnerable and defenseless.
Any discussion of whether the Church is pro-life or not is incomplete without the consideration of why the Church would take its position. And the only motivation that makes sense–and one fully commensurate with both the policy and the consistent words of the General Authorities–is that the Church is pro-life because it cannot shirk its duty to speak up for the poor, the oppressed, and the vulnerable.
So, while I stop short of saying that the Church has any official statement that is explicitly pro-life, I insist that only a pro-life interpretation of the Church’s policy is rational. The imperative to speak up for the powerless, when properly expanded to cover the entirety of the human race, leaves the Church no room to equivocate on the matter of elective abortion.
Author’s note from July 15: Due to a technical glitch that I still haven’t fixed, I’ve been unable to post comments on my own post, which is the primary reason I haven’t participated. With some great exceptions, the conversation was more acrimonious than I’d’ve liked and also tended to miss the fundamental point I was trying to make. Yes, I’m pro-life. Yes, I argue that the Church is also pro-life. But these points are old news. What I hoped to contribute (and maybe didn’t make clear enough) is that the Church’s rationale for being pro-life is really important. The Church is not pro-life out of some kind of abstract commitment to general moral principles nor even out of a slightly narrower commitment to sexual ethics, which would lump opposition to abortion alongside the Church’s teachings on pre-marital sex or masturbation. No, the Church’s opposition to abortion–while obviously related by practical considerations to sexual ethics–is not essentially a question of sexual morality. It is–according to my argument–a commitment to defending human lives.
Even if you reject the Church’s pro-life stance in whole or part, I think it’s important to understand what is motivating it. Although the Church can and does speak against immoral sexual practices, that’s not where the opposition to abortion comes from. You will misunderstand the Church’s motivations for opposing abortion and the depth of its commitment if you don’t understand that abortion, for the Church, falls in the category of “Thou shalt not… kill, nor do anything like unto it.”
I’m closing comments on this post until I figure out how to leave them myself. (Which, practically speaking, means I probably won’t open them again at all.)