“Unwed Pregnancy” and Agency

In June of 2002, local leaders received a letter from the First Presidency to be read in high priests group, elders quorum, and Relief Society meetings. This document outlined the church’s policy on “Adoption and Unwed Parents.” [n1]

The letter described how “every effort should be made to encourage” a man and woman who “conceive a child out of wedlock” to marry. However, “when the probability of a successful marriage is unlikely do to age or other circumstances” they should be counseled to “place the child for adoption through LDS Family Services to ensure that the baby will be sealed to temple-worthy parents.” The letter then described how unwed parents do not provide the blessings of the sealing covenant, nor a stable nurturing environment. This counsel was largely quoted in the 2010 Handbook for church leaders. [n2]

Memory is a tricky thing, but this seems like the message I received as I was raised in the church (as a gen-Xer), and the various handbooks generally conform. It appears that last year (2019), however, the church released a “Gospel Topic” page on “Unwed Pregnancy,” which was also highlighted on the Relief Society home page. This document presents a remarkable shift towards a focus on the agency of mother. It is worth quoting from the site at length:

What are my options?
When you experience unwed pregnancy, you will have to choose one of four options: marriage, adoption, single parenting, or abortion (see Handbook 2, 21.4.1, “Abortion,” for an explanation of why the Church does not support abortions except in rare circumstances). What you choose will depend on your unique circumstances.

How do I decide what to do?
Remember that whatever you decide for you and your child, some people will agree with your decisions and others will not. Every individual’s situation is different, so the answer for one person may not work for another. One thing you can be sure of is that no one will have given as much time, effort, and thought to the unique circumstances of your situation as you and the Lord. Trust in the divine counsel you receive from Heavenly Father as you make your decision.

The scriptures teach us how to make decisions through study and prayer: “Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me. But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right” (Doctrine and Covenants 9:7–8).

Studying a decision out in your mind includes researching the information available for each of the challenges you face.

Now, the church announced in 2014, that LDS Family Services would no longer operate as an adoption agency. For the last six years, church members have found alternatives. So LDS adoption isn’t as facile as it used to be. Nevertheless, it seems quite healthy to me that individuals be counselled to weigh the possible options to find the best future for themselves and their families.

I’ve heard from various people that the majority of the church is female, and the majority of the women in the church are single. Accounting for the diversity of lived experience must be at the forefront as we make a home for everyone in Zion.


  1. Gordon Hinckley, Thomas Monson, and James Faust, Letter, June 26, 2002.
  2. Handbook 1: Stake Presidents and Bishops (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2010), 166.


  1. This is cool. I do wonder how much unheralded, unnoticed work this general RS presidency and board have done that we would have not have even noticed without nerds uncovering it.

  2. J. Stapley says:

    Nerds unite!

  3. Miss Otis Regrets says:

    BCC… can you please add the option to “like” or “love” or “thumbs up/down” for comments? I’d give ALL the stars to EmJen’s comment. And great post JStapley

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    I was not aware of that new language; excellent (and good observation, EmJen).

    On my mission back in the late 70s there was a young woman who had gotten pregnant out of wedlock. As I recall, she had twins, and she was quite young (maybe 16? Younger than I was at least.) She lived with her mother and a sister. Everyone knew those babies would NOT be put up for adoption, and if you had a problem with that you could talk to grandma. I always admired the way that sister defied the Handbook. I have no idea whether any leaders ever tried to talk her into adoption, but I’m kind of guessing not. This woman was not to be trifled with and I sort of think they were a little bit scared of her. How wonderful that a young woman no longer needs a superhero mother to be able to make her own decision.

  5. Aussie Mormon says:

    EmJen, I assume much like the ward level RS, they do a lot.

  6. christiankimball says:

    J., I follow you for this kind of work. Thanks.

    Notwithstanding the “agency” emphasis in your title, I suspect the change had more to do with a systemic shift from idealized outcomes and projections to data-based observations about the real population of the Church and actual outcomes. More than an awakening to a gospel principle. There are other examples that I suspect have the same character. It would be cool to break into the back room and see how the machinery really works.

    I’ve told the story before, but this is an opportunity to repeat the experience of our Relief Society President coming to the bishopric with survey results showing there were only two women in the ward NOT working outside the home. Her point was that the programs of the Church (at that time) were organized on false assumptions and could not work as described.

  7. J. Stapley says:

    Christian, the feeling is mutual. I don’t know either, but my sense is that you are absolutely right. There has to be a tremendous amount of data analysis going on, and these are the types of reforms one might expect from that type of work.

  8. Thanks for finding and writing about this, J.

  9. Man it’s been awhile since I’ve heard/read the term wedlock. What an interesting word.

  10. I was placed for adoption through LDS social services as a baby and my sister had a baby she placed for adoption when she was 16 – so I find this topic fascinating. I had no idea of the changes. I met my birth mother when I was 30 and she told me there was tremendous pressure to place for adoption. In fact she told me that the abortion option in her active LDS family (in the 70s) was more acceptable than a teenager raising her own child. My sister having a baby in high school in the late 90s experienced less pressure to place for adoption but the other three options weren’t considered feasible.

    I wonder if legal or political pressure drove some of the changes.

  11. This seems like a good step forward. There is some language in the article that makes it seem like they are not addressing victims of rape at all. I wish they would have a separate section for that since some of the article may not apply in that circumstance.

    Also, where is the section addressed to the men who have impregnated these unwed women? Certainly those men will not be making the choices the women will, but why don’t they urge men in cases where the woman is keeping the child to support her financially and emotionally? An article with advice towards unwed fathers would have to tread carefully, but this article makes it seem like unwed pregnancy is solely a female concern. We really need to move on as a culture with addressing issues like this as a female responsibility. We can’t keep forgetting or ignoring that men impregnate women. Women don’t get pregnant. It’s not like a cold where you just happen to catch it.

  12. Oh what a joy this post, and it’s comments are.
    When my husband was on the bishopric there were of course numerous such situations and we both felt strongly that were we ever in a similar situation, as indeed my sister was, we would not be able to comply.Thank God we never lost our nephew. The pressure was horrendous and I grieve for any family who lost sight of a precious family member under such circumstances.
    So glad the mother’s agency and inspiration are now being invoked, and amen to the responsibilities of the father being taken into account. Amen and amen.

  13. My wife and I adopted through LDS Family services in 2014. We were the last ones to adopt through them before they ceased placement operations. My wife and I are strong supporters of adoption and what LDS Family Services had been doing. I think it is important for birth mothers to be given as much freedom of choice as they possibly can with adoption. All adoptions should be open as well, meaning that birth mothers should have the right to maintain a life-long relationship with their child after signing over full custody rights to the adoptive parents. Unfortunately, over the last 20 years, adoption rates have dropped while foster care rates have increased. What this suggests is that the shifting attitudes towards mothers just keeping their babies at all costs has gone a little far. I would rather see a mother who cannot care for a child place that child for adoption at infancy than try to care for the child and end up neglecting his or her needs and then pass that child off to the foster system. We need place more emphasis on adoption not just in the LDS culture, which is already widely accepting, but in the wider US cultures.

  14. Anonymous says:

    I’m happy that the Church’s official policy is to encourage prayerful choice without pressing for any particular option (other than against abortion). However, I am disheartened by the anti-adoption attitudes which have risen in our society, and which are sadly reflected in several comments above. I’m afraid I’ve seen too many immature teenage girls make a complete mess of both their own and their children’s lives by an ill-considered romantic decision to keep a baby when they have no real chance of providing it with a solid life. Aren’t we supposed to put the interests of the children first? I have no problem with a Church counselor helping an unwed mother realistically compare the life she could provide for her baby with that offered by a mature couple desperate for a child. I also hope such counseling informs the unwed mother of the increasing availability of open adoption.

  15. I don’ t understand. If a girl comes from a strong, united family everyone in the family will pull together to avoid having to adopt the baby out AND give the young mother chance to develop herself and create a life for her and the child. If my daughter would get pregnant, her choices would be either an early abortion or having the baby enter a loving family, her own family. Raising a child should never be done by just the parents anyway.

  16. As an adoptive parent to three children, I agree with NateGt and Anonymous. This new development in the handbook is something to be celebrated (women being pressured to place children for adoption has NEVER been a good thing), but if we are championing an emphasis on agency, then that means truly encouraging and respecting a woman’s agency–including the choice to place a child. One of my children’s birth mothers received a clear and direct prompting from the Spirit to place her baby and then went on to endure intense pressure from her family to keep him. I’ve heard similar stories from other birth mothers. No woman facing a crisis pregnancy should have to endure that during such an already difficult time. There are cultural pressures on all side, and in our current society, the pendulum has swung the other direction, and the pressure to parent is probably greater. Women who choose adoption for their children are subjected to all sorts of criticism and shame.

  17. It’s more user friendly than ball and chain…

  18. A community in Tennessee called the Farm (yes, a hippie commune) showed true love and openness to consider alternatives by encouraging expectant women to have their baby, and a family in their community, also supported BY the community, would care for the child for as many months or years as the woman needed to “find” herself. It was a kind of hybrid of fostering and adopting, or adoption that could go back. With all the research about babies and young children needing strong bonds with their primary providers (ahem, separating children from families at the border), I am curious what the outcome was like around the children from this setting. I am so interested and often dismayed at our closed mindedness that we can’t see that acceptance and love are the right thing a majority of the time. The number of people who were brought up by grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc. is fascinating a few generations back. I do acknowledge that these policies are a big change and step forward, and I weep for those mothers who lost the choice due to adherence to policy opposite of love and acceptance. Creativity and love and not shaming goes far in helping the least of these, my brethren and sisters. Thank you J for an excellent article.

  19. We adopted through LDS Services in 2008. We were glad to see them later close up shop. They were utterly incompetent, a result I assume of having too many responsibilities besides adoption and a hiring pool limited to LDS members. Personally I think the church should get out of the mental health business as well, for the same reasons. It doesn’t appear as though they are attracting the best and the brightest, as many who have had disastrous experiences can attest.

    The changes documented in the OP are wonderful, as is adoption. Now I wonder when our leaders will begin calling out the sin of pride committed by so many who spend tens of thousands of dollars on infertility treatment to have their “own” baby while countless children of god languish in foster care.

  20. Hey Dad,
    ” I think the church should get out of the mental health business as well, for the same reasons. It doesn’t appear as though they are attracting the best and the brightest,”

    You realize that “the best and brightest” are virtually, by definition, limited in number. So what you’re merely hoping for is a reduction is supply, longer waiting times, and higher prices. Or do you think if the church “gets out of the business” those therapists will just disappear? Maybe you should just recognize that mental health is a difficult issue — physical doctors are responsible for tens of thousands of deaths through mistakes and misjudgments. Mental health doctors are no doubt responsible for many mistakes and exacerbating many problems.

  21. Hey Dad indeed. I found your comment reasoned until you started the assumptions. The first was an attack on the competency of staff who were most certainly not universally incompetent. Perhaps some were less than effective but the reasons for that are varied, and include being restrained by entrenched rules that prevented them from serving outside those rules. My personal assumption is that the PTB somewhere in the senior levels of the church machine saw the futility of trying to combine the impossible in order to create doctrinally Ideal Families— but only for the babes and their second parents. Or maybe Kirton-McConkie won the day. Who knows?

    Also, I feel impressed to advise that you keep your observations to your own sins, and leave those who struggle with the intense desire to create a family without any of your ill-considered advice regarding their sins.

    This was a great OP and comments. But I’m intensely triggered for reasons. Everyone involved in the meddling that creates these families carries a burden of sorrow. That’s about the only true observation I have.

  22. Thank you MDearest. I agree with your sentiments.

    We adopted all three of our children through LDS Family Services. I was extremely happy with the services they provided for our first two adoptions. The third, not so much. We cycled through 4-5 different caseworkers during the 18 months we were in process with that adoption, and always seemed to get greenies fresh out of college. This was shortly before they stopped doing adoptions, so I blame that for the lack of consistency and more apathetic approach to adoption services. During our first two adoptions, we had excellent caseworkers, as did our children’s birth mothers. I know our first child’s birth mother kept in touch with her caseworker for years. I also went to counseling for depression at LDSFS and had an amazing therapist there.

    We’ve sought mental health support for one of our kids outside of the church and had mediocre therapists, terrible therapists, and fabulous therapists. That’s just how it is. It’s not something that is inherent with LDS Family Services.

    I personally feel that all of society is responsible for the burden of caring for children in foster care. This is not something that solely falls upon infertile people, either those who choose to adopt or those who seek fertility treatments. We had anonymous ward members send us a letter criticizing our choice to pursue infant adoption rather than foster adoption. I wondered why they thought they were somehow absolved from adopting those children themselves.

  23. @sute Any time an organization artificially limits their hiring pool to a subgroup of qualified individuals, then offers limited compensation relative to that available elsewhere and provides no public information about performance, the results are inevitable. I’m sure there are great folks at LDS Services, too, but their business model is not set up to result in excellence. The doctrinal purity priorities of the church will naturally short circuit their counseling business. The church has a business and is good at that business. Mental health services is not and adoption was not that business.

    I am also well aware of my own sins. Our society’s favoritism of genetically-related children over adopted children is evil no matter how glossy it looks on Instagram.

  24. a dad, I’ll accept your restatement of your previous one, which was unacceptable to me. “Society” does perpetuate a lot of evil, amirite? Adopted children are just as valuable as that other kind.

    However, to be specific in this comment, my opinion is that individual couples who engage in fertility treatment to get pregnant and deliver children, in order to create their families, are in no way committing a sin, and their leaders calling this out as a sin of pride is a terrible idea. As well, children languishing in foster care is a complicated problem for all of us in our communities, and couples who participate in fertility treatment are no more accountable for those problems than you or I am.

    It is well done for you to back away from that statement.

  25. The wording of the language sounds so much like the book “For the Love of a Child: the Journey of Adoption”. By Monica Blume with forward by Bonnie D. Parkin. 2005.

  26. For what it is worth, I would have given anything to have had my sister give her oldest child to a good family for adoption. By the time she finally grew up, she had done irreversible damage to her son. We buried him last year and I can only count on the power of the Atonement to heal the endless damage the choices she made did to him, his former wife, the three children he conceived out of wedlock with three separate women and the three children he had with the one woman he married and later left. To watch his children follow his path with four of his five daughters now mothers to children with men they have not bothered to marry and one with both a child she kept and one in the foster care system has taught me what exactly the church leaders are warning us about as they warn against the dangers posed by our lack of respect for marriage. Why marry when the government gives better benefits to the unmarried parents with earned income credits and head of household tax advantages. Why marry when Medicaid will pay for your birth and child’s medical care and the not working mother’s as well.
    I realize each woman must make her own decision, but some are so young and immature their choices are going to destroy a helpless child. And every generation after.

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