Monday, March 29, 2010


"In today’s society, abortion has become a common practice, defended by deceptive arguments. If you face questions about this matter, you can be secure in following the revealed will of the Lord. Latter-day prophets have denounced abortion, referring to the Lord’s declaration, “Thou shalt not … kill, nor do anything like unto it” (D&C 59:6). Their counsel on the matter is clear: Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints must not submit to, perform, encourage, pay for, or arrange for an abortion. If you encourage an abortion in any way, you may be subject to Church discipline.

Church leaders have said that some exceptional circumstances may justify an abortion, such as when pregnancy is the result of incest or rape, when the life or health of the mother is judged by competent medical authority to be in serious jeopardy, or when the fetus is known by competent medical authority to have severe defects that will not allow the baby to survive beyond birth. But even these circumstances do not automatically justify an abortion. Those who face such circumstances should consider abortion only after consulting with their local Church leaders and receiving a confirmation through earnest prayer."  -True to the Faith

Below I analyze some common abortion related issues.

"In 1983, the LDS Church's General Handbook of Instructions changed church policy towards abortion:

  1. It added pregnancy caused by incest as one more ground for abortion.
  2. It dropped the necessity that a pregnancy caused by rape or incest produce "serious emotional trauma in the mother" before an abortion was acceptable.
  3. It clarified who should seek counseling, and from whom.
The handbook states:

"The Church opposes abortion as one of the most revolting and sinful practices of this day. Members must not submit to, be a party to, or perform an abortion. The only exceptions are the rare cases where, in the opinion of competent medical counsel, the life or health of the woman is in jeopardy or the pregnancy resulted from incest or rape. Even then, the woman should consider an abortion only after counseling with her husband and bishop or branch president, and receiving divine confirmation through prayer." 5

In his address at Brigham Young University on 1999-FEB-09 Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles reaffirmed that an abortion is permissible, after "counseling with the local presiding priesthood authority and after receiving divine confirmation" if any of four grounds existed:

bulletThe life of the mother is seriously endangered.
bulletThe good health of the mother is seriously endangered.
bulletThe pregnancy was caused by rape.
bulletThe pregnancy was caused by incest.
He cited an additional ground that would allow abortion as a permissible choice:

bullet"The fetus has severe defects that will not allow the baby to survive beyond birth." 2
In addition, Oaks dropped the requirement that a pregnancy caused by rape or incest can only be terminated if it produces serious emotional trauma in the mother. These three changes have apparently been made by the church leadership prior to Oaks' speech in 1999.
Elder Oaks justifies a woman's access to abortion in cases involving rape or incest by quoting a letter that he had received from a fellow LDS Church member. It said:
"The woman’s right to choose what will or will not happen to her body is obviously violated by rape or incest. When conception results in such a case, the woman has the moral as well as the legal right to an abortion because the condition of pregnancy is the result of someone else’s irresponsibility, not hers. She does not have to take responsibility for it. To force her by law to carry the fetus to term would be a further violation of her right. She also has the right to refuse an abortion. This would give her the right to the fetus and also the responsibility for it. She could later relinquish this right and this responsibility through the process of placing the baby for adoption after it is born. Whichever way is a responsible choice." 2

"  Source

Some would argue that the stance on abortion articulated above places the LDS church in the pro-choice camp.  If some categories of abortion are permissible, then the LDS church necessarily supports at least limited legalization of abortionCould the church simultaneously support some abortions yet oppose legalization of abortion?  To do so would be to support illegal activity.

The LDS stance is certainly more pro-choice than the conceptionist, pro-life Catholic stance [The Catholic Church teaches that abortion is a mortal sin, as it is the willful destruction of a human life. This is because the Catholic Church beleives that a soul comes into existence with a person at conception, therefore, once conception has occurred, to artificially terminate the new life is murder and a grave sin, for murder is one of the four sins that cry out to God for vengeance. Abortion is such a grave offense that its completion incurs an automatic excommunication - an interdict from the Church and its sacraments - for those involved. This excommunication can only be lifted by a bishop, though one repenting of this offense may consult with their confessor on the best course of action.  David tells us, "Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me" (Ps. 51:5, NIV).]. See my post for criticisms of conceptionism.  

One weakness of the policy above is that is paints an overly black and white picture of a gray reality.  Example one: partial rape.  Say a woman consents to have sex but then gets drunk and when severely inebriated changes her mind but the man figures she's incoherent and goes ahead (if you say that she wasn't raped in this situation, then take out the drunk part).  She has sex with that same man the day before and the day after.  It is uncertain whether the egg was fertilized on day 1, 2, or 3: abortion justified?  Example two: another partial rape.  Woman has sex with man A on day 1; is raped by man B on day 2- is uncertain of paternity of resulting child: abortion justified? Example three: uncertain health prognosis.  "The fetus has severe defects that will not allow the baby to survive beyond birth." The severely defected fetus is 90% likely to survive beyond birth; 9%; .9%; .09%; .009%; the doctors have no idea, somewhere between 0 and 100%.  Which of these categories equals "not allow the baby to survive beyond birth?  Example four: another uncertain health prognosis.  "The life of the mother is seriously endangered." The likelihood of the mother surviving pregnancy: 99.9; 90%; 9%; .9%; .09%; .009%; the doctors have no idea, somewhere between 0 and 100%.  Abortion justified?  A slight mistake on one of these categories propels you from permissible abortion to one of the "most revolting and sinful practices of this day," or from a "must not submit to, perform, encourage, pay for, or arrange for an abortion. If you encourage an abortion in any way, you may be subject to Church discipline" to a "responsible choice."   

Do children conceived through rape share culpability for the crime of the father?  That they do is arguably implied by a policy which permits abortion in rape cases but not in a non-rape setting.  If the moral status of the child (either that the fetus is a person under a binary person/non-person categorization or that the fetus has moral standing somewhere along a personhood continuum) is the only basis for discouraging abortion, then the manner of conception would be irrelevant- a child conceived by rape or incest is as innocent and worthy as a lovingly-conceived child of the attachment of whatever personhood rights (such as to not be aborted) apply to a fetus of his/her development stage.  If, however, the morality of abortion is a function of the mother's rights as well, then it makes more sense to permit abortions in rape/incest cases on a "further offense against the mother's autonomy" theory where the growth of the fetus is an outgrowth that expands the rape crime.  This still penalizes the fetus, though, for the circumstance of its conception, which the fetus did not choose.  Thus, it seems that even factoring in the mother's rights, a rape/incest exception seems unjust toward the fetus, ceteris paribus- "other things being equal."

From the perspective of the mom, however, does she have a "Good Samaritan" obligation toward even the rape-engendered fetus to allow the fetus to use her body, with the attendant risks?  Nine months and significant health hazards are no burden to shake a finger at.  Many would argue that a religious duty to preserve life exists, though legally people are usually not required to help each other - rather, they must only refrain from harm (see "negligence" within the theory of Torts.).  I think legal exceptions are usually moderate- requiring low-risk assistance in some situations, but probably not arising to the level of an involuntary pregnancy- and perhaps even a somewhat or fully voluntary one.

Is the mother's obligation to refrain from abortion a function the fetus's right to life, a function of the mother's responsibility deriving from her choice to have sex, neither, or both?

For a relevant discussion of personhood, see my plasticity of personhood post which argues for a continuum conception of personhood seemingly more in line with the continuous trajectory of fetal development.

Some argue that moral status (that adults have a duty to refrain from harming that fetus) depends on viability.  Viability is a continuously changing reality contingent on current technology (e.g. viability used to be about 30 weeks and over time has gone down to 24, then 23, then 22 weeks, and is a percentage game even then, i.e. .3% or 3% or 30% of fetuses survive outside the womb at that age, and what's the cutoff percent that engenders the label of "viable"?).  Thus, because abortion is a binary act (you either abort or don't abort- there's not a lot of in-between ground), it does not match well to the continuous underlying moral status of a fetus.  (Hence, probably why abortion is such a sticky issue).

Some argue sentience rather than viability.  Sentience is similarly a continuum, as it relies necessarily on a continuous development of a nervous system for the pleasure/pain requirement of sentience.

Some argue consciousness rather than viability or sentience.  Same problem- consciousness/non-consciousness seems to be more of a spectrum than a discrete reality.  Plus, a consciousness-based distinction would likely support infanticide if consciousness attaches post-birth, and few would support infanticide as morally permissible. Also, many severely mentally handicapped people don't appear to have full consciousness nor the apparent potential to develop it, but we typically consider them full persons.

For the record, I think it seems illogical to place a distinction between the embryo and the fetus that is morally significant on a basis of potential.  Similarly, an unfertilized egg or sperm has potential, if not quite as "much" as a zygote, to become a human.  (again, see my post)  IVF and contraception seem to quickly become as heinous as abortion on a "wrong because of potential" argument.

I'm  glad the scripture says "kill, or anything like unto it."  Abortion, if it doesn't also fit into the category of "kill," certainly fits into the "like unto it" category.  I think abortion likely is not equivalent to murder, even a "convenience" abortion, because the ecclesiastical penalties for participating in an abortion are not equivalent to those attached to murder.  Therefore, abortion must refer only to the "anything like unto it" clause.

From an LDS point of view on fetal welfare only (ignoring the duties that bind abortors), abortion does not seem immoral.  If the fetus is not a person, then there's no harm- just some cellular destruction.  If the fetus is a person, then s/he will be saved in the celestial kingdom as all who die before age 8 (those who die before they arrive at the years of accountability are saved in the kingdom of heaven...), which is likely good news for the fetal person.  Thus, both categories seem, if not advisable, at least permissible ethically solely from the fetus's point of view in an LDS framework.

Virtue ethics would focus on the emotional significance of the fetus to the mother.  Abortions would be okay under this perspective if the abortion can sometimes be performed as a result of both a virtue (say, compassion for a severely handicapped anencephalic fetus) and seeking to enhance flourishing life (say, for the mother). Thus, in at least some cases, abortion can be good/ethical under virtue ethics.

Mistaken contraception is a tough case, as the pregnancy was unintended (in fact, measures were taken to prevent it).  Some would argue that you take the risk of failed contraception when you have sex, causa proxima, non remota spectatur (the immediate, and not the remote cause is to be considered); however, one might similarly argue that you take the risk of being raped when you accept a date with a member of a risky demographic, and/or get drunk (the chances of the unintended result are similar in both cases: namely, low, but present).  Thus, it seems that failed contraception falls closer to the involuntary category than it does the voluntary- why, then, attach the same level of responsibility as unprotected sexual intercourse?

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