The Church is Pro-Choice

Note: this post mentions rape, incest, abortion, stillbirth, death of infants, etc. If those topics are going to be triggering, please honor your health and pass on reading.

A few months ago, we were discussing the need for modern-day prophets in Sunday School. One woman raised her hand and said that she was grateful for modern-day revelation because of issues like abortion. I fought my urge to exclaim, “Yes! Isn’t it great that the Church is pro-choice?!” because it would really derail the lesson, so I’m going to say it here.

Isn’t it great that the Church is pro-choice?!

The section in the Church Handbook of Instructions Volume 2 (2010) on birth control states:

It is the privilege of married couples who are able to bear children to provide mortal bodies for the spirit children of God, whom they are then responsible to nurture and rear. The decision as to how many children to have and when to have them is extremely intimate and private and should be left between the couple and the Lord. Church members should not judge one another in this matter.

Married couples should also understand that sexual relations within marriage are divinely approved not only for the purpose of procreation, but also as a way of expressing love and strengthening emotional and spiritual bonds between husband and wife.

I think it is wonderful progress that the rhetoric around birth control has gone away from the word “selfish,” though I will point out that the Eternal Marriage Student Manual (2003) still uses quotes laden with guilt over the issue. I also think the line that sex is for binding a couple together and not just for creating babies is an important move, too.

I would suggest it’s fair to say that the Church supports each couple in their own personal decisions as to how many children they should have.

But pro-choice is more than being ok with any family size. It brings abortion into the debate. The handbook gives three circumstances in which abortion is justified.

  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.

First, I want to say that I’m impressed about #3 there. I had always heard that the three exceptions were 1. rape, 2. incest, 3. health of the mother. The addition of health of the fetus was new to me. Second, the term “forcible rape” is a legal term used to differentiate statutory rape from other kinds of rape. It does not mean that force was used or that a struggle happened. The rape of someone who was passed out is considered “forcible rape” as is the rape of someone who said “no” but then retreated into themselves and did not struggle against his/her attacker.

I think these exceptions are very merciful. Can you imagine forcing a woman or girl who had been through the violating act of rape or incest to then force them through the ordeal of labor and childbirth? Even if a mother was 100% anesthetized, the fact that other people (doctors, nurses, etc) would be completely in charge of her experience/body for a time could be very triggering. It is also merciful that the Church does not expect women to sacrifice their lives for the possibility of a child or for a couple to have to go through the trauma of waiting for a stillbirth or possibly months of waiting for a labor and birth that they know will not mean that they get to decorate a nursery.

These exceptions are full of the mercy that I imagine Christ has for these women. I am so proud to be in a Church that recognizes that these instances are not black/white and that women are people and their quality of life matters.

But what does this mean politically? It means that if we really are as merciful as we state here, we have to support laws that allow women to have abortions and have full control of their bodies throughout pregnancy.

If we want abortion to be available to victims of rape or incest, we need to have it available to everyone, no questions asked. Someone close to me was raped and I’m glad that her support people were ok with Plan B (which does NOT cause an abortion) as an option. Luckily her rape did not result in pregnancy, but if it had, it would have been imperative for abortion to be an option for her without any limitations on “proving” it was rape. It took her a couple days to even tell anyone and then did report it to the police. That resulted in months and years of court dates. If you expect a woman to wait until a rapist is convicted of rape, then a resulting pregnancy would have already resulted in a child. And she’s lucky that it even got to court! So few do.

In the case of incest, there are no good statistics. Incest is alarmingly underreported and very rarely prosecuted. Forcing a child to carry the pregnancy of a family member is just wrong. Abortion needs to be available without restrictions for these girls and women.

If we want abortion to be available in cases where the mother’s health is at risk, we need it to be available for further into a pregnancy than just a trimester. Health issues are going to show up at any time. I would also suggest that beyond the physical health of the mother, the mental health of the mother is also important. Will another pregnancy or child “break” her? Would ending this pregnancy allow her to heal and be in a healthier place for a future one? On the LDS topics page on birth control it states about birth control, “Issues to consider include the physical and mental health of the mother and father and their capacity to provide the basic necessities of life for their children.” Health is much more than physical health and the mental and emotional health of a mother is going to impact relationships with the spouse and possible other living children. Her mental health will impact her ability to hold down a job, nurture her children, and even her ability to leave the house to buy basic necessities. If we value women, we need to have abortion available for them to protect their health and families. Being pro-choice is pro-family because it allows mothers to have all options available to protect and preserve their families.

In the case of the health of the fetus. I can not purport to say I have any personal experience with the loss of a child, wanting one badly and knowing I was going to lose that chance. Only someone in that situation can best make the decision of if and when to end the pregnancy. We need abortion available as a choice for women in this situation, if they want it.

We do not know when the spirit of a baby/child enters a the body of a fetus. I personally believe it is variable. I have had 3 children and I felt that they had “spirits” at different times in the pregnancy, varying from the moment I knew I was pregnant to much later. If I had miscarriages, for the one that I felt was there immediately, it would have felt like a loss of a child. For the pregnancies where it seemed later, I think a miscarriage would have been more like the loss of a chance for a child. I trust women who feel their miscarriages mean the loss of a chance to raise a particular spirit. I also trust women who feel that perhaps that spirit will come at a different time. I believe every situation is different.

I can’t imagine a God who would tell a spirit who missed a chance to be born due to miscarriage or abortion, “Well, that was your one chance, but since your mother’s progesterone levels were too low/because of your mother’s health/because such and such happened… you’ll never get another chance. Too bad for you.” If there are spirits waiting to come down, I believe each one is going to get a fair try at earth life.

ChoicesWe Mormons do believe that abortion should be allowed in many cases. We believe in being merciful to the experiences of the mother. Because of this, we need to protect women’s rights to abortion. Whether or not we individually would consider abortion for ourselves in a particular situation is irrelevant to the fact that we need to protect the rights of women who need them. In the United States, 1 in 3 women will have had an abortion. While we Mormons might imagine that number to be smaller amongst ourselves, it is still important to remember that chances are, in our relief society classes on Sunday, there is probably someone there who has had to make the choice to have an abortion. I do not think the choice of abortion is ever chosen lightly. I don’t believe any woman doesn’t wonder “What if?” We must be sensitive to our sisters in Zion and make sure they feel welcome and avoid comments that vilify abortion. These are our sisters, our aunts, our mothers, our friends, ourselves. Their abortions gave them a second chance at life and family.

We all must have the option to choose a safe, legal abortion. As Mormons, we need to support measures that allow this to happen.


TopHat is putting her roots down in the Bay Area with her husband and three children. She loves the earth, yarn, and bicycling.

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29 Responses

  1. Libby says:

    TopHat, thank you for posting this! It’s so important for us to recognize that the Church is understanding of women’s experiences and that our stance is so liberal.

  2. JimD says:

    Is the take-away from this, that Mormons shouldn’t even support restrictions on elective abortions because women shouldn’t be compelled to demonstrate that one of the above-mentioned scenarios applies in their individual cases?

    • TopHat says:

      I believe so. How would you “prove” rape in the short amount of time that you have to end a pregnancy? The courts would take too long and the damage would be done. We need to trust women to know their situations best and believe that the atonement covers everything else. I’d rather that all women have equal access to elective abortions than for women to be forced into pregnancies with their rapist, family members, or pregnancies that might mean the death of the woman. The reasons why women get abortions is no one else’s business and our business is only to support them in whatever difficult choice they make. Like I stated in the post, I don’t think the choice to have an abortion is made lightly and we shouldn’t make an already difficult time more difficult. Bear one another’s burdens!

  3. JimD says:

    Thanks. Do you think there’s any sort of utilitarian-esque issue of “relative evil” at play here? For example, how many elective abortions would it take to offset the evil caused by – say – one rape victim who is compelled to carry the resultant fetus to term? Is elective abortion really a bad thing? If so, how bad? Is the Church correct in invoking D&C 59:6 (thou shalt not kill, nor do anything like unto it) in its public statements on abortion? This type of discussion may seem crass, but my understanding–perhaps flawed–is that fewer than 10% of abortions are due to the types of situations the Church mentions.

    Also, what if “proof” of rape weren’t required? What if all that was needed was a police report (regardless of whether the case were later prosecuted (and maybe not even made by the victim; just the clinic)? We keep hearing that sexual assault is underreported; wouldn’t linking abortion/emergency contraception to filing a police report be a good thing?

    And aren’t there ecclesiastical repercussions for what you’re saying as well? Isn’t it just as traumatic for a woman to have to justify her abortion to a bishop, as to a police officer or health clinic worker?

    • Jamie says:

      From what I remember, anyone interviewing for baptism (male or female) has to respond to a question asking if they were involved in an abortion in any way. If they answer yes, they must meet with the mission president or one of his counselors to determine the next step before they can be baptized. So that puts an interesting spin on things regarding converts.

      This is such an interesting blog post! Thank you for bringing a different perspective to this sensitive issue and for handling it so carefully.

      • Libby says:

        Yes, they do. And it’s because mission presidents tend to have a better grasp of people’s motives than young missionaries do. A family that I taught had to go through this process, and they said it was a positive experience for them.

        JIMD, your request for a utilitarian breakdown is cold-hearted and even offensive. These are individual women–many of them very young and most of them low-income–who are having to make decisions based on what they believe will be best for them and their families (see the stats at Since this is a very personal, wrenching decision, a utilitarian analysis is presumptive and unhelpful.

    • JimD says:

      Libby, many thanks for the link; I’ll look it over.

      In the interim, I would respectfully point out that if the trauma of a victim’s experience means society has no right to judge her for any actions she might take thereafter, then logically we should allow the victim to make the personal, wrenching decision to unilaterally end the existence of the perpetrator himself.

      But we don’t do that, which makes me think that there is apparently some sort of cold-hearted utilitarian analysis at work.

  4. labeene says:

    I had a friend who carried a baby that was so sick it would never live. She was counseled to pray and do what she thought best. But the state we lived in did not allow her that option. She would have had to travel several states away to end her pregnancy in a respectful way and deal with all the emotional issues that would come with terminating a pregnancy of baby she desperately wanted, so she carried that baby to near full term. She was stillborn and their hearts ached. That mother spent 5 months KNOWING she was carrying a baby that would never live. It still makes my heart ache for her that she couldn’t do what would have been best for the entire family because of politics.

    • Corrina says:

      My older sister was in a similar situation–pregnant with a baby with so many defects that he would not live past delivery. Thankfully, she lived in UT and was able to be induced at 26 weeks (she didn’t find out his problems till about 22 weeks, and then took a number of weeks to decide what to do). It was so eye opening to me to hear her Bishop’s counsel, saying that it is totally her choice, and that it was okay should she decide to induce labor early. I am so grateful that she was able to have his support during this awful decision. For her, it ended up being the right decision, so she could heal and move on with her life. I’m sure there are many people who would be quick to judge her for not carrying her baby full term, but she did not experience any judgement from her LDS friends or ward–only love and support.

  5. Jenny says:

    This is great! I think my Mormon upbringing is a big part of what has made me pro choice. Free agency is such a huge part of our doctrine that I think we should uphold an individual’s right to make personal choices as much as possible. Obviously we can’t do that when those choices will hurt society as a whole. I don’t think abortion hurts society though. You are exactly right when you said that abortion is a completely personal decision that affects an individual and her family. Because of that, it is not the job of us or our society to judge or to make the choice for her.

  6. grant says:

    The OP is one of the best articulations that I’ve read of why a pro-choice view with respect to abortion isn’t a de-facto ‘anti-life’ position.

    If we accept that abortion needs to be generally available, but that it would best be minimized due to societal costs, moral costs (ie relative evil), or other factors then the question is how do we achieve that while respecting individual freedom and responsibility?

    The simplest would seem to be access to low-cost, over-the-counter female birth control (common outside the US) and ‘morning after’ type medications like Plan B (with related widespread education about these to at-risk groups). These give the most control to women to prevent pregnancy from consensual and non-consensual sex with the least danger to themselves. In the case of rape, while it’s nice to think women should always feel safe taking that to authorities to be dealt with in a respectful and timely matter, that is often far from the case and authority figures are often perpetrators against some of the most vulnerable.

    It seems like a large segment of the pro-life movement stands just as opposed to easy birth control / pregnancy prevention as they are to abortion – which leads me to think their position is more about sin and punishment than harm reduction and I think that’s unfortunate.

    • Alisa says:

      This is why I agree that birth control is the most effective way to reduce abortions. Yes, yes, and yes to the need for over-the-counter, low-cost contraception.

  7. Caroline says:

    Tophat, I love this post. So well articulated. I am indeed thrilled that the church takes a nuanced position on the question of abortion, and I agree that abortion does need to be safe and legal so that raped girls and women can access abortions. I remember reading the Old TEstament at some point and realizing that Mosaic law backs up a more nuanced take on abortion. It clearly considered a fetus not quite the same thing as a human baby, since the punishment for a person causing a woman to miscarry was far less than the punishment for a person killing a human.

    As I’ve aged and had kids, I’ve come to see abortion more and more as a tragedy, and I would love to live in a world where there are fewer abortions. However, I strongly believe that the choice to abort needs to be there, particularly for these women who have been raped or whose lives are in danger.

    • Rachel says:

      “As I’ve aged and had kids, I’ve come to see abortion more and more as a tragedy, and I would love to live in a world where there are fewer abortions. However, I strongly believe that the choice to abort needs to be there, particularly for these women who have been raped or whose lives are in danger.” Me too, on all of it.

      Thank you, TopHat, for this thoughtful post.

  8. I agree with you… and abortion isn’t the only topic where members kick it up a notch too high. My only beef with LDS leadership would be to ask why they don’t clarify more often. A good prophet never taps the brakes apparently.

  9. Ziff says:

    Outstanding post, TopHat. I think you’re spot on about the Church policies and how they seem like they would require a legal environment that allows for abortion in order for them to make any difference at all.

    This is beyond the scope of this post, but out of curiosity, why do you think it is that so many Church members (and leaders) will argue so strongly for a pro-life position, for more restrictions on abortion? Is it just a political accident where we ended up aligned with conservative Christians on gay marriage and feeling like we’re oppressed if we don’t get to have everything our way, so abortion was a bleed-over issue? Or maybe do people feel like most abortions don’t meet the Handbook criteria, so it would be better to take the decision out of the hands of the few women who do meet the criteria if it also meant taking the decision away from all the women who don’t? I’m just thinking out loud here.

    • I think it’s more the second, Ziff. When we hit into a problem we feel we can’t do anything about, like general promiscuity, we can try to affect it by things we can do something about. Rather than trying to teach people that it’s better and safer to potentially create a child in a committed relationship, we limit the choices they have once a baby is conceived. “You (plural, blaming, even if there is a victim) shouldn’t have done that, so we’re going to make you have the consequences!”

      For me, it’s attacking the problem at the wrong end. It’s responding to bad behavior with bad behavior. That’s not the way to fix a problem; it just makes a bad situation worse.

      • Alisa says:

        My sense is aligned with Frank’s. I think it’s an idea that abortion removes the punishment for actions from women who did things they shouldn’t (the punishment being the baby). I think people would rather see the minority of women whose lives are in danger, or who have been raped, or who have to carry a terminal fetus to term do that than allow a large group of women to have sex without their “punishment.” I think for them it’s entirely about enforcing consequences.

  10. Naismith says:

    I agree that the church is basically pro-choice as a pragmatic point of view, but in our hearts often pro-life because we have such respect and value the lives of the unborn. So this has been a struggle for me, as one who has been actively involved with pro-life issues for a time.

    The group that best represents my viewpoint is Feminists For Life

    One thing to understand is that back in the 1970s before abortion was legal and even afterward, some of the “pro-choice” activists were those who wanted to use abortion to avoid the consequences of sexual activity (e.g., Playboy and the like) that objectified women. Also a condescending “oh, pregnancy is too hard for lil’ ol’ women to handle” attitude. Also the idea that a woman has the right to a sex life irregardless of her age or marital status. And an attitude that the thing being aborted wasn’t really a human life but merely a “products of conceptus.”

    While I agree with the OP and totally believe that it is important to allow abortion for a woman’s health, I also feel it is important to grieve at the loss of the baby. So I don’t fit neatly into either camp. And I haven’t been particularly comfortable around some of the pro-choice activists that I have known and worked with on issues of common concern.

    As far as the church policy, that #3, that is newer than the others. It was not there yet when I was the director of a pro-life counseling center in 1984, and I do remember hearing it in General Conference during my grad school years, which ended in 1989.

    There was a huge problem back in the 1980s with women feeling regretful about their abortions, sometimes to the point of suicide, and feeling that the products-of-conceptus language hadn’t truly informed and prepared them. Of course it is a hard thing to go through, with all the hormonal fluctuations as well. I considered it a compliment that our counseling center actually got clients referred from Planned Parenthood, because they figured if a woman heard all sides and still chose the abortion, they were in a healthier place to recover afterward. I think nowadays the emotional fallout is better anticipated and accepted.

    There are also issues of permission and notification that are argued among the various camps. Many pro-choice folks are opposed to anything that might possibly prevent a woman from choosing to abort. I believe that it is a woman’s choice, but it is absurd that a minor child cannot be given an aspirin at school without parental permission, but the parent cannot even be notified if their teen has this major medical procedure?

    So yes, I agree that the church is pro-choice, but I am not going to provide any support to the supposedly pro-choice groups in my community, who do not share my values.

  11. Grey Ghost says:

    It means that if we really are as merciful as we state here, we have to support laws that allow women to have abortions and have full control of their bodies throughout pregnancy.

    Amen, sister! It seems like every time I’ve pointed that out, and said that I’d like to see abortion remain legal and safe for those times when it’s the right moral and medical thing to do, I’ve gotten the horrified “Get the hence Satan!” look. I think it’s our responsibility to help limit “abortion as birth control” through moral suasion, not legal compulsion. D&C 121, anyone?

  12. Daniel Ortner says:

    The author of this post selectively omits critical language form the handbook which also influences the calculus with regard to finding a public policy most in line with Church doctrine:

    “Even these exceptions do not justify abortion automatically. Abortion is a most serious matter and should be considered only after the persons responsible have consulted with their bishops and received divine confirmation through prayer.”

    The handbook requires consultation with ecclesiastical leaders even when one of those three possible exceptions apply. Even in those circumstances abortion is an exception that requires prayerful confirmation.

    For me, this translates into a policy of allowing abortion only for rape, incest, the life of the mother, or when the child is certain to die, and allowing those exceptions to be liberally requested. One need not prove a rapist guilty of his crime in order to get an abortion, the burden of proof should be far less and it should be handled through a relatively quick administrative process. But I think requiring those seeking abortion to self certify that they fall into those categories will reduce abortions on the whole. And I see that as wholly compatible with Church policy on the subject

    • Melissa says:

      What happens then when a woman or girl comes in who has felt divine confirmation that abortion is acceptable in her case, but her ecclesiastical leader says that he doesn’t think it is? We believe in the concept of agency, and so if the woman feels it is the right case for her, she should be allowed, and supported, because her consequences (positive as well as negative) aren’t going to be yours anyway. If we believe in agency, why is this even a question?

      • Andrew R. says:

        The concept of agency does not make doing something right.

        We are free to choose the right. If the Spirit is saying one thing to one, and another thing to the other, then one of them is getting their message from a different place. Personally, at that stage I would involve the stake president.

      • Melissa says:

        You are absolutely right, of course. Having agency doesn’t mean it is right to do something. I second what Caroline said in her last paragraph above. I would never personally choose to have an abortion. The situation is a sad one in all of the scenarios I can think of. I still, however, feel very strongly that I do not have the right to impose my feelings on this onto other women. They should have the ability to make those choices for themselves without interference from other people. I fully support that these women would be given all available information before they make their choice, but the choice should be theirs in the end. We cannot impose our religious views on others. God does not support using religion as a means of mandated authority or coercion.

  13. Jane says:

    I think you’ve gone a bit too far. Yes, technically, the church position is pro-choice – but only for the rarest of circumstances.

    The second condition of the life of the mother being in serious jeopardy, means (to my mind) she may actually die if she carries the baby full term. I don’t think they mean that an abortion is okay if the pregnancy jeopardizes the mother’s ability to work, etc.

    They did not include the term mental health of the mother, and it seems to be intentional.

    • Melissa says:

      How do you separate a woman’s mental health from her physical health, though? That is not a healthy or useful separation to make, because a mother who is not there due to debilitating mental health issues isn’t able to be there to be a good mother either. We have largely lost sight in our world that there is a very strong connection between a person’s mental health and their physical health. B vitamin deficiencies can cause very serious depression and suicidal tendencies. They have even been linked to schizophrenia. This is just one nutrient group as an example, but it has powerful physical and psychological influence. And as we know, when a woman produces a child, that child is built using up stores from the mother’s body. So yes, a woman’s physical health, and mental healthy are inextricably connected.

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