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The Church’s New Statement on Abortion

As mentioned previously, I’m very pro-life. As far as we could tell, we were the only “Latter-day Saints” for life sign at this year’s March for Life, and living in the DC area I’ve had the opportunity to do pro-bono work for pro-life organizations.

However, I also have no desire to consume the remainder of my weekend with some grand Latter-day Saint Pro-life versus Pro-choice fight (fellow blogger Nathaniel Givens has already done much of that), so instead this post is about something much narrower: the Church’s new statement on abortion. (For a more general take on the Church’s stance the abortion question, along with primary sources, etc., see Mormonr’s great synopsis of the subject).

I say new because it is in fact different. The new statement replaced the line

The Church has not favored or opposed legislative proposals or public demonstrations concerning abortion

which is a clearer statement of neutrality, with the somewhat ambiguous:

The Church’s position on this matter remains unchanged. As states work to enact laws related to abortion, Church members may appropriately choose to participate in efforts to protect life and to preserve religious liberty.

Of course, this is ambiguous because, while not going all-in on pro-life activism, it is clearly tilted towards the pro-life side of the scale, and it leaves unsaid whether Church members may appropriately choose to participate in contravening efforts. It kind of sounds like a compromise document. Latter-day Saint Vaticanology is always a fraught game, but it sounds like there are some voices in leadership that want the Church to clearly tilt in the pro-life direction, but there are also some hesitations with going all in on this issue a la the Catholic Church.

In terms of the implications, three points:

  1. I have a hard time seeing local leaders successfully discipline somebody over pro-choice activism. Over at Wheat and Tares there was some speculation this could happen, but the Tribune’s reporting on the subject brought up the fact that the Church’s political neutrality statement provides a sort of legal-theological cover for politicians at variance with the Church. While there is still a concern that a lower-level official could go rogue, this is where the comparison with Pelosi breaks down and becomes apples and oranges. If an LDS bishop were to go crazy and start trying to excommunicate deacons for skateboarding on Church property (I’m not saying that’s the same as being a pro-choice activist, but for the sake of argument), there are many rungs of potential levels of appeal. Theologically, a lot of priesthood holders lie in between the LDS bishop and President Nelson. In the Roman Catholic world, according to my understanding, theologically nobody lies between Pelosi’s bishop and the Pope. Literally the only person who can order the bishop to give Pelosi communion would be Pope Francis himself, which is why a Catholic bishop denying communion is much more definitive than an LDS bishop denying communion.
  2. I don’t suspect this new statement will change much on the ground. On the left and right in the Church I think people use “follow the prophet” as a cudgel for political purposes and then conveniently ignore it when it doesn’t fit their views. For what it’s worth, my Latter-day Saint pro-life activism doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the fine-grained exegesis of past leadership statements or particularistic scriptural interpretations; it’s clear that the Church’s position could easily shift a few centimeters here or there over the next couple of decades. I enjoy a good proof-text as much as anyone, but for me it’s much more deep, more primal than that, frankly having more to do with 3D ultrasound imaging technology, some bloody miscarriages we experienced, and Levinas’ Face of the Other than some highly speculative theological game about the exact moment the breathe of life enters the body.
  3. Finally, in the spirit of speculative Latter-day Saint Vaticanology, for me this is kind of another nail in the coffin for the idea that there’s some secret liberal fifth-column in high Church leadership ready to shake things down after biding their time (and don’t pretend like that wasn’t whispered about back in the day). The November Policy gave that view a rude shakedown, and little shifts like this suggest to me that, regardless of what your aunt working at the COB might suggest, if there are meaningful theological-ideological groupings among the brethren, it’s probably between “moderately conservative” versus “very conservative.”



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