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Abortion: What Do Mormons Believe?

Things are not always as assumed. Most Americans assume that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, popularly known as the Mormon church, is opposed to abortion under all circumstances. Even most Mormons think that is the case. But it is an illusion. Official Mormon documents permit exceptions to its no-abortion position—including some broad exceptions.

Consider first statements of the Mormon leadership:

In commenting on Doctrine and Covenants 59:6 (“thou shalt not kill”), a late Mormon church president, Spencer W. Kimball, observed, “Abortion, the taking of life, is one of the most grievous of sins. We have repeatedly affirmed the position of the Church in unalterably opposing all abortions” (Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, 189). With clarity and certainty, the twelfth prophet of the Mormon church continued: “Abortion is a calamity . . . one of the most revolting and sinful practices of this day . . . This Church of Jesus Christ opposes abortion and counsels all members not to submit to nor participate in any abortion, in any way, for convenience or to hide sins . . . Those encouraging abortion share guilt.”

President Ezra Taft Benson, Kimball’s successor as president of the church, made it clear that the Lord does indeed teach his people in these days concerning such a “damnable practice” as abortion. In responding to non-members and dissident members of the Mormon church, Benson affirmed, “[T]hey do not believe that God reveals his will today to the Church through prophets of God . . . All objections, whether they be on abortion . . . or other subjects, basically hinge on whether Joseph Smith and his successors were and are prophets of God receiving divine revelation” (Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson, 539, 61).

Prolific writer and LDS apostle Neal A. Maxwell notes that abortion is an “obvious manifestation” of “indifference, insensitivity, and cruelty” (Wherefore Ye Must Press Forward, 79), and he aptly describes abortion as “that Buchenwald for babies” (Notwithstanding My Weakness, 93).

The current LDS prophet, seer, and revelator, Gordon B. Hinckley, has noted that life is a gift, that it “is sacred under any circumstance” (Improvement Era, December 1970, 72).

Abortion is a heinous crime because it attacks the very gift of life given by the Lord. The LDS church publicly declares the sanctity of human life, citing both Scripture and the teachings of its prophets and apostles in support of its position.

This church teaching is brought home to investigators and to prospective and current members in the church-published text Gospel Principles (1992). In the chapter on “The Law of Chastity,” we read: “If a child is conceived by those who break the law of chastity, they may be tempted to commit another abominable sin: abortion” (251). Those members of the church preparing for a temple, or celestial, marriage read in their student manual the words of President James E. Faust: “One of the most evil myths of our day is that a woman who has joined hands with God in creation can destroy that creation because she claims the right to control her own body. Since the life within her is not her own, how can she justify its termination and deflect that life from an earth which it may never inherit?” (Achieving a Celestial Marriage, 144).

Thus, the teaching is clear. Mormon prophets, apostles, and theologians recognize that the unborn is a “child” (Kimball, 188), “human” (Benson, 296); that the child’s life is a gift from the Lord; and that the taking of such life is a “heinous crime” (Kimball, 274), “a serious sin” (Kimball, 189), a “damnable practice” (Benson, 539). The current General Handbook of Instructions for Mormon leaders calls abortion “one of the most revolting and sinful practices of this day” (114).

One may infer, from the above, that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints boldly testifies to the great evil of abortion. Certainly, the Mormon church’s presentation of itself is one that is unabashedly pro-family and prolife. But there is an underside to this self-portrait of righteousness. It is necessary to investigate more fully the Mormon position on this most vital of subjects. Further examination of the sources cited above yields evidence of serious cracks in Mormonism’s purported pro life foundation.

Yes, Presidents Kimball, Benson, and Hinckley condemn the practice of abortion, stating that the church decries it. Except . . .

The Mormon church places itself in the following untenable position: It opposes abortion because abortion takes the life of an innocent human child, a gift from the Lord. Abortion is a selfish, cruel, and insensitive act. It is next only to murder in its gravity. Yet, Mormon leadership consistently allows for exceptions.

Church Principles, a manual of belief and practice published by the LDS church, stated in its 1979 and 1988 editions: “There is no excuse for abortion unless the life of the mother is seriously threatened” (243, 241, respectively).

Benson and Hinckley, apostles and presidents when these editions were approved, apparently also gave their permission to the 1992 version, which reads: “There is seldom any excuse for abortion. The only exceptions are when-(1) Pregnancy has resulted from incest or rape; (2) The life or health of the woman is in jeopardy in the opinion of competent medical authority; or (3) The fetus is known, by competent medical authority, to have severe defects that will not allow the baby to survive beyond birth” (General Principles, 251). Men and women faced with any of the above circumstances may submit or cooperate in abortion “only after consulting with each other and their bishop or branch president and receiving divine confirmation through prayer. (See General Handbook of Instructions [30943], p. 114)” (ibid.). This 1992 policy considerably changes those of earlier years.

Casual discussions with presumably knowledgeable Latter-day Saints indicate a common lack of understanding of their church’s true position. Shortly after I had left the Mormon church, I received a letter from a convert from Catholicism, praising me for the testimony tape I had made for the church. Apparently, she had not heard that I had left Mormonism to return to the Catholic faith. Since she included her telephone number, I called to explain why I was no longer a Mormon.

Now in her late sixties, this woman informed me she was leaving in two weeks to begin serving a mission in England. When I asked her the Mormon standpoint on abortion, she answered, “We’re very much against it. Only if the mother’s life is in danger. . . .” I then cited to her the actual LDS position. She was incredulous. While she did not call me a liar, she said she would have to check for herself with her priesthood leaders. Though noticeably shaken by her church’s liberal position on abortion, she could not tell me if that were enough to affect her testimony and deter her from urging others to embrace Mormonism.

A Mormon couple from Nevada wrote after hearing my tape, Interview With an Ex-Mormon. [Interview With an Ex-Mormon, by a Catholic priest who left for Mormonism and then returned to the Catholic Church, is available from Catholic Answers for $5.95 (item A0081). Please use the order form on page 48.] Though they maintain a testimony in the Book of Mormon, after they discovered the Mormon church’s real policy on abortion, they “knew immediately that the General Authorities were not following their conscience and God. We have written to President Hinckley, and he has said the Church will not change this policy.”

These two members, who support such thoroughly pro life (and Catholic!)groups as Priests for Life and American Life League, expect to “resign or get excommunicated” because they question the inconsistency of an institution with an imposing front door marked “pro-family and prolife” and several unadvertised back doors marked “exceptions, exceptions, exceptions.”

What makes abortion so serious a sin in the eyes of the Mormon church is that it is the direct killing of an unborn child. Yet an unborn child is an innocent human, regardless of the circumstances of his conception. Though tragic, the crimes of rape or incest are only exacerbated, and the woman’s torments are only intensified, by the additional sin of abortion. Since LDS authorities admit that the unborn is human, regardless of the “caliber” of his pre-born life, no alleged deficiency in his “quality” of life can justify the taking of that life.

The same applies to the so-called “either/or” dilemma: The mother’s life is supposedly in danger, and there is a chance she might die; to ensure her safety, it is said, it is necessary to kill the child. Yet one is never justified in doing evil that good may come of it (Rom. 3:8). What is at issue here is homicidal intent.

The LDS position allows for abortions when the mother’s “health” is in jeopardy. But what health? Physical only, when there is a likelihood of her death? Physical only, when there is no real likelihood of her death? Emotional? Besides, what is the definition of “jeopardy”? All mothers know that pregnancy inevitably brings “health” problems, if nothing more than nausea, varicose veins, and additional weight. The “mother’s health” loophole is the greatest entree to abortion.

An important note: some Mormons (and others) will say that the point at which the spirit enters the body is not certain, that it has not been revealed by God. Nevertheless, those who would permit abortion, even if only under rare conditions, are acting in bad faith: They admit the “ensoulment” of the child’s body already may have occurred, yet permit his killing anyway.

Disingenuous would be one term to describe the Mormons’ position on abortion. Would the LDS church preach and advertise itself so strongly against abortion if the “product of conception” were not really human until (fill in the blank with whatever time frame is convenient: “the third month,” “quickening,” “actual birth”)?At least most “liberals” who favor abortion have the tactical sense to try to convince themselves and others that the unborn is a non-human blob, a thing.

The Mormon church claims to speak to contemporary man’s need for clear moral guidance, but the voices of its leaders do not have the power of true prophets, speaking words that will rouse men to repentance and reform.

Who, indeed, teaches the truth about abortion? Consider the following: “Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life.”

This passage, from the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2270), states in a forthright manner the revelation of God concerning the sanctity of the unborn. There is no finessing this statement. The right of the unborn to life exists from the moment he exists. It is absolute and inviolable.

A statement made by the LDS First Presidency under David O. McKay, “which continues to represent the attitude and position of the [LDS] church,” claims that “no definite statement has been made by the Lord one way or another regarding the crime of abortion” (quoted in Sacred Truths of the Doctrine and Covenants, vol. 1, 290). Contrary to this statement from the Mormon prophet, the Catholic Church has known and taught the mind and will of the Lord concerning abortion for two thousand years.

Supported by Sacred Scripture (Luke 1:41, Jer. 1:5, Job 10:8-12, Ps. 22:10-11) and Tradition, the Catholic Church has believed in and taught the personhood of the unborn. The Fathers of the Church, even from apostolic times, proclaimed the sin of abortion (see The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, 2,2 [c. A.D. 80]; Refutation of All Heresies, 9, 12 [c. A.D. 222]; Letter of St. Basil the Great, 188, 8 [c. A.D. 374]).

The Second Vatican Council’s constitution The Church in the Modern World (1965) delineates the responsibility of all: “God, the Lord of life, has entrusted to men the noble mission of safeguarding life, and men must carry it out in a manner worthy of themselves” (51). Lacking here is any hint of permission to accommodate the political and social tastes of the time. In 1974, with the Vatican’s Declaration on Procured Abortion, the Church reiterates the Lord’s teaching on abortion: It is “murder.”

Pope John Paul II, in true prophetic witness to the unalienable right to life, has made its defense a key theme of his service to the Church and the world. Most notably, in his 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth), the Pope discusses and condemns “moral relativism.” This notion, embraced by the Mormon church and others with respect to abortion, states that a good intention or purpose can serve to justify an abortion in cases such as those determined by Mormon leaders.

The Pope states that “there exist acts which per se and in themselves, independently of circumstances, are always seriously wrong by reason of their object” (80). Circumstances or intentions, including those sad and dramatic exceptions forwarded by the Mormon church, cannot transform an intrinsically evil act into something acceptable or even defensible.

All righteous men and women should take note of the Pontiff’s reference to Romans 12:2: “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” Mormon authorities and all those who stand in positions of moral leadership and example need to advert to Paul’s charge to the bishop Timothy: “[T]he time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth” (2 Tim. 4:3).

On March 25, 1995, the day on which Catholics celebrate the conception of Jesus Christ, the unborn Child, by the Virgin Mary, John Paul II, published Evangelium VitaeThis papal encyclical, offered as a gift to a barren world, recalls the Father’s own love for all his children when he gave his only Son (John 3:16).

This gospel of life “has a profound and persuasive echo in the heart of every person, believer and non-believer alike, because it marvelously fulfills all the heart’s expectations while infinitely surpassing them. Even in the midst of difficulties and uncertainties, every person sincerely open to truth and goodness can, by the light of reason and the hidden action of grace, come to recognize in the natural law written in the heart (cf. Rom. 2: 14-15) the sacred value of human life from its very beginning until its end and can affirm the right of every human being to have this primary good respected to the highest degree” (45).

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