Abortion has been in the news of late. Given the polarized times we live in, particularly those of us in the United States, it’s perhaps unsurprising that states are pushing extreme bills. New York’s passed a very liberal law at the beginning of the year making it purely a health care issue. Georgia, Alabama and a few other states effectively banning abortion with no exceptions for rape or life of the mother. Both sides are up in arms over what they perceive as extremism by the other side. I don’t want to get into the politics here – I’d say in many ways the focus of these laws is more symbolic. After seeing many Latterday Saint comment on these in various places, I thought a short primer of our differences from other Christian sects might be in order.
There’s a fundamental different ontology for us as compared to our friends in most other forms of Christianity. Most Christians, following medieval reasoning such as by Aquinas, assume that the soul is created at conception. This affects their view of abortion quite a bit since in some sense nothing is lacking in a fetus except development.
For us things are quite a bit more complex. We existed prior to birth. Our body is a part of us, but in a fashion more analogous to how an arm is a part of us. Perhaps that is underplaying things somewhat given how huge a role the brain plays in our way of choosing and thinking. Yet fundamentally we have a mind independent of our mortal body. Further it’s completely unclear when our spirit and body are unified and at what point a miscarriage leads to a spirit entering a different fetus versus just being dead and going to the spirit world.
Often people have assumed that this transpires when the mother feels the fetus moving. However as we’ve come to better scientific understanding we can see that movement as instinctual on the part of the developing nervous system and not necessarily an intentional (meaning here tied to its spirit) action. The Church hasn’t taken a formal position when a body is “quickened.” This is significant since from the time a woman knows she is pregnant (roughly around 12-14 weeks) about 15% of pregnancies miscarriage. The number of miscarriages is much higher earlier in the pregnancy. Many miscarriages a person may not even know happened. Church policy is that miscarriages aren’t put on family records and thus in one sense don’t count as people. Stillbirths (typically death in the third trimester or at normal time of birth) are and can be given a name. While this tends to suggest that the Church assumes third trimester fetuses are fully people, it’s also largely a policy open to change and not intended as a doctrinal claim. The line between miscarriage and stillbirth is also extremely blurry, and mostly up to the family’s discretion.
These differences have a huge implication on the abortion debate. The distinction between part and person in particular is important. If a fetus is a part for a pre-existing spirit that doesn’t mean killing it isn’t wrong. We’d say, after all, that cutting someone’s arm off without their permission is quite wrong even if it’s not the same as murder. While the rhetoric of abortion has tended to be about murder in religious circles, it’s important to realize that the logic leading to that is different for members of the Church compared to Catholics, Protestants and others holding to the creation of a spirit at conception. For us it may well be murder once the spirit is essentially tied to the body. I suspect most members would assume that by the third trimester that is the case. I think few members would assume that a fertilized egg not yet implanted in the uterus is fully a person. (Some do, although it’s not clear upon what basis they make that judgment) In general theologically most members see first trimester abortion or miscarriage as fundamentally different from third trimester abortion or miscarriage. Most importantly the consequences for the person are quite different. In one case the person simply is born to a different family. In the other case their mortal probation ends before it really began. Our practices correspond to that distinction.
One common argument on the pro-life side of the US political debate is that abortion is the killing of an innocent person and thus always wrong. However if the fetus is a part of a person rather than the person, that argument fails. After all an arm is made up of human cells but is not equivalent to a full person. So many pro-life arguments depend upon when the spirit is essentially joined to a fetus to function in a Church context.
An other argument that has come up due to recent laws in a few states is the issue of the life of the mother and rape or incest. The question is how to balance the rights of the woman abused with a resultant pregnancy with the fetus. Again it’s important to note that the Church takes no clear position here beyond clearly treating rape different from elective abortion in general. Their position is that it should only be decided upon after sincere prayer with God to know what to do. No Church discipline is supposed to follow an abortion for rape nor if the mother prayerfully thinks it necessary because of medical conditions.
I don’t want to here take a position on the legality of abortion in the United States. After all sins that we consider exceedingly grave and serious such as adultery are legal. In general though the Church has condemned abortion, one can suffer Church consequences for abortion, and abortion is typically an issue for interviews of those considering baptism in the Church. (I don’t know the current policy but we had to refer it to the Mission President when conducting such interviews – although in a few cases he’d approve it over the phone)
Given the grave seriousness many, and perhaps most, members of the Church oppose abortion. According to the last Pew poll 70% of members think abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. While some might suggest this simply reflects the fact most American members of the Church are Republican, it’s also quite likely that abortion was a major driving force of moving members, particularly in the west, to adopting the Republican party in the 1970’s and 1980’s after Roe v. Wade.
On the pro-choice side, the assumption tends to be that abortion is unfortunate but should not be illegal. Sometimes this argument rests upon the distinction between what should be illegal and what is immoral and should be opposed. The analogy to adultery is rather common among pro-choice proponents who are members. However once the spirit is essentially joined to the fetus, the choice is not really akin to adultery. Rather is the permanent ending of a person’s mortal probation before they get a chance to really consciously experience it. In that sense it really is very much akin to murder. That doesn’t mean that balancing arguments can’t be made. So balancing the chance of a mother dying against the rights of the life of the person as a fetus is something the mother will have to prayerfully make.
Rape is much trickier. Appeals to balance and the psychology of the mother and her mortal probation are necessary. Different people will simply come to different conclusions here. Those differences may well manifest themselves politically and can’t easily be evaluated in terms of what we know. At a minimum not knowing the particularities of a case along with the Church’s policy here suggest that one should leave this open as an option.
With the Church’s exceptions to abortion that doesn’t mean that individuals can’t make egregiously wrong decisions. However the Church’s policy seems to suggest that is their choice to make and their consequences to take up.
Unfortunately politics, particularly at this point in time, is much more about tribalism and emotion rather than firm supported arguments. As such the politics of abortion seem difficult to discuss constructively. I’ve just seen a lot of bad arguments on both sides of the debate in a Church context. At minimum we have a radically different ontology of birth from both atheists as well as Catholics and Protestants. That difference entails that we must we think through the problem differently from how the public discourse tends to proceed.
1. By ontology I just mean the nature of being that can’t be known using current science. So the question of spirits typically is seen as metaphysical even if for members of the Church we typically see the spirit as material and thus in principle open to scientific inquiry.
2. While in one sense the distinction between policy and doctrine is blurry at best, in general one relates to practices while the latter relates to claims about the actual state of the world. In this case the Church is not making a claim about when a spirit enters a spirit or when a spirit can go to a new attempt at a body. It’s also important to note the Church has no doctrine on a spirit being “determined” to go to a particular family. That tends to be a folk doctrine and one that at least a few General Authorities have disparaged.
3. I’d add that the term “innocent” does a lot of work in these debates. There’s often a lot of equivocation over the term. I’ll not get into that debate here, beyond suggesting that killing an innocent is not always wrong.
4. The cases of incest worried about are all for minors which is a particularly egregious type of rape even if done by an underage sibling. So I’m here just going to talk about rape.