Bishops on Abortion

Chris Kimball is a friend of BCC and former bishop.

INTRODUCTION

Abortion is controversial. Controversy presents an opportunity and challenge for hard thinking. This is one small corner of the hard thinking, focused on the role and practice of a bishop in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This is not a global statement or manifesto, and not intended as an invitation to debate all the issues with abortion. 

As an introduction, here is the LDS Church’s position from the General Handbook of Instructions as of September 2, 2022, followed by my personal views and position.

General Handbook of Instructions: Section 38.6.1 (Abortion)

The Lord commanded, “Thou shalt not … kill, nor do anything like unto it” (Doctrine and Covenants 59:6). The Church opposes elective abortion for personal or social convenience. Members must not submit to, perform, arrange for, pay for, consent to, or encourage an abortion. The only possible exceptions are when:

  • Pregnancy resulted from forcible rape or incest.
  • A competent physician determines that the life or health of the mother is in serious jeopardy.
  • A competent physician determines that the fetus has severe defects that will not allow the baby to survive beyond birth.

Even these exceptions do not automatically justify abortion. Abortion is a most serious matter. It should be considered only after the persons responsible have received confirmation through prayer. Members may counsel with their bishops as part of this process.

Presiding officers carefully review the circumstances if a Church member has been involved in an abortion. A membership council may be necessary if a member submits to, performs, arranges for, pays for, consents to, or encourages an abortion (see 32.6.2.5). However, a membership council should not be considered if a member was involved in an abortion before baptism. Nor should membership councils or restrictions be considered for members who were involved in an abortion for any of the three reasons outlined earlier in this section.

Bishops refer questions on specific cases to the stake president. The stake president may direct questions to the Office of the First Presidency if necessary.

As far as has been revealed, a person may repent and be forgiven for the sin of abortion.

Although details have changed, the overall pattern has been the same since 1976 (see this column by Jana Riess).

In my paraphrase, the Church’s position is a very strong condemnation using the “shall not kill or anything like it” formulation, but with limited exceptions, and with the woman (or the “responsible persons”) making the ultimate decision and bearing the consequences. 

There is a way to argue this standard is very strict. There is a way to argue this standard has too many exceptions. There is a way to argue this standard is actually a choice standard. Looking around the figurative room of Mormondom, it is reasonable to believe that very many members and leaders, in their private personal opinions, are not 100% aligned with the Church’s statement. Probably many are ready to salute out of loyalty, but if asked would describe a personal opinion that differs, whether more pro-life or more pro-choice (as those terms are understood in common practice) or simply quibbles with the wording or some of the details.

So that my prejudices and biases are open and obvious, and not any kind of hidden agenda, here’s my personal position: 

  • With respect to abortion in the abstract, I am most closely aligned with “safe, legal, and rare.” I’m cognizant of concern that “rare” can suggest blame or censure or guilt. I use it anyway, meaning “rare” as a policy prescription, a way to validate policies and practices that reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies and increase the number of cases where a pregnancy is happily and successfully carried to full term. 
  • With respect to decision making, I’m almost 100% in the woman decides camp. I regret hard decisions for anybody, but as between the state or the church or a committee of doctors or any other decision-making body I’ve heard of, and the pregnant woman, I put my faith in the pregnant woman. I say “almost 100%” because I am open to a conversation about legislating certain edge cases but I’m not seeing an opportunity for that conversation in the current state of heightened controversy. 
  • With respect to church discipline, I am strongly pastoral by which I mean that I understand discipline not as punishment or retribution or even justice, but useful and warranted (only) to help the individual or to protect others from future harm. 

COUNSELING

I used to be a bishop serving in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Like I acknowledged in the introduction, I have personal views on abortion. Other bishops also have strong opinions about abortion. Our opinions often are not exactly the same as the General Handbook of Instructions (for this purpose different is all we need). Pursuant to the “Members may counsel with their bishops as part of this process” I’ve often thought about what to do if and when a woman who is pregnant and considering an abortion comes to counsel with me. What would I tell her? How would I counsel her?

In a general sense, I would listen, ask questions, and pay attention. Then reflect back some version of “You seem to have thought this through. You are making sense.” Or in the alternative, “I don’t think you’ve thought this through completely. It seems like you’re skipping a step. I know this is awful, but I really do think you have more work to do.”

With regard to the Church’s position as stated in the General Handbook, because the Handbook is readily available at LDS.org and in the LDS Library app, and because the individual has already demonstrated that she is thoughtful and careful by coming to me in the first place, I would assume but verify that she knows what the Church has to say about abortion. If she does not I’d make sure she has the text. Whether she follows the counsel or not, it’s an important part of the information she should have. But if she already knows the Church position, I would not find value in repeating the Handbook text. On the flip side, I would consider it a dereliction of duty to quote the Handbook and stop the discussion with the reading. 

It is not uncommon to answer this kind of question with “listen to the Spirit and act accordingly.” For myself, if I had a clear indication (including a “stay out of it” indication) I’d be tempted to follow it. However, in real life, after many decades of experience, I am wary of the Spirit answer. If a prompting feels like new or novel information, or if it runs contrary to my prior beliefs and biases, then I have some confidence. But I fear that nine times out of ten the “Spirit” will answer in accord with my priors, and then I don’t trust it.

What I would not do is rely on or give my personal opinion about abortion. Right or wrong, exceptional or permissive, pro life or pro choice, my personal opinion is out of place in the bishop counseling role. I think it would be exactly the wrong thing to do, to bring my personal opinion into the bishop’s office. 

JUDGMENT

There’s another possible scenario for bishops regarding abortion. Suppose that after-the-fact a woman comes to me as bishop to confess that she had an abortion, in a private procedure that involved only a tight circle of responsible persons and medical personnel. Naturally, I still have my own opinions about abortion in general and perhaps about the women’s particular circumstances. I also have opinions about membership councils and restrictions. So how would I proceed?

First of all, I would set aside the “protecting others from harm” leg of disciplinary purpose. One could argue harm to the fetus, but by definition that’s a past event and would not meet my desire to protect against future harm to others. Others, taking more of a punishment or justice approach to church discipline, might argue that punishing the woman with some form of discipline will send a message to others that may prevent future harm in other situations. Personally, I consider that an abhorrent and abusive use of church discipline. I wouldn’t do it.

Turning to the pastoral side of church discipline, I would listen, ask questions, and pay attention. And think and pray about what’s best for the woman. If she is wracked with guilt and second thoughts, I would work with her along the lines of “a person may repent and be forgiven” (from the Handbook). Whether or not I think a sin has been committed, whether or not I think she is guilty of something horrible, the guilt is a present problem in her life and I would look for ways to help her through it. If a membership council or some kind of temporary restriction would be useful in that work, I would use it but only in consultation and, in practical effect, at her request. Not as any form of punishment or aggravation. If the passage of time, or consultation with a therapist, or replaying the situation with a knowledgeable medical professional would help, I would encourage her to pursue any of those approaches. If reviewing her consideration of the identified exceptional circumstances in the Handbook would help, I would encourage the review with me as bishop, or with someone else. 

I would not punt to the stake president. For all practical purposes the Church disciplinary system falls within the purview of stake presidents. Bishops take direction from stake presidents. Stake presidents have almost all the decisions and control. With respect to abortion, the Handbook invites bishops to refer questions to the stake president. I suspect it is very common for a bishop to consult with his stake president and follow directions, thus mooting the present discussion about what bishops should do.

The idea of consulting with the stake president is complicated and I’m being judgmental about myself when I say I would not take that route. When I was a bishop in my late 30s/early 40s, I was not the type to consult with the stake president. Looking back, I think it was hubris and ego, and I think that attitude did not serve me well. Mistakes were made and I wish I had done differently. On the other hand, now in my late 60s and older than most stake presidents I have known, I would consciously and intentionally put my judgment ahead of my stake president’s judgment and direction, and would do what I thought best whether or not advised differently.  For this and many more reasons, it is hard to imagine I would be called as a bishop at this stage in my life. Perhaps punting to the stake president is the right answer. I just know I wouldn’t do it.

The other thing I would not do is bring my personal opinions about abortion into the bishop’s office. The work that happens in that room should not be about my opinions, or even my sense of right and wrong. The work that happens should be all about helping the member be right with herself in her ongoing walk with God. The pastor doesn’t first say “here’s what you do.” The pastor first asks “how can I help.” 

Comments

  1. Raymond Winn says:

    Thank you for this measured and thoughtful post.

  2. Ian Thomson says:

    The fundamental problem with counseling a member facing this decision may be traced back to your mentioning, “I would assume but verify that she knows what the Church has to say about abortion. If she does not I’d make sure she has the text. Whether she follows the counsel or not, it’s an important part of the information she should have. But if she already knows the Church position, I would not find value in repeating the Handbook text.” Therein lies the problem. The Church may have stated a “position,” but they have done hardly anything to explain it. It is nothing more than a conclusion and an assertion, with little meat for members to consider, take in, chew on, think about, and then turn around and try to apply in their own circumstance. We have been told that it is being compared to murder, but not in what ways. We are being told there are certain exceptions, but not why these specific exceptions justify a potentially contrary decision and not others. The Church does nothing to explore or expound on the ethical underpinnings of the complexity of the situation. For example, the Church does not advocate a position of the sanctity of human life based on (1) potentiality, (2) viability, (3) human function or sentience, (4) independence, or (5) merely a divine declaration of precisely when “human life” begins. Instead, they assume we all know what they are talking about and why they have arrived at their conclusion.

    Curiously, the Church seems to make an admission in Handbook 38.7.3, where it says “Temple ordinances are not needed or performed for children who die before birth. This does not deny the possibility that these children may be part of the family in the eternities. And in fact, in the last version of Handbook 2, it included the statement, “there is no direct revelation on when the spirit enters the body.” (21.3.10) Notice the *may* in that sentence. They are unwilling to even commit to the fact of a child that is brought to full term and yet is born dead as having a spirit and a soul that would entitle them to inclusion in an eternal family. It may, but that means it *may not.*

    They also take what may be a slightly inconsistent position in Handbook 38.7.11 Prolonging Life. There the Church seems to address the inherent value in furthering human life for the sheer continuation of a human body. “When facing severe illness, members should exercise faith in the Lord and seek competent medical assistance. However, when dying becomes inevitable, it should be seen as a blessing and a purposeful part of eternal existence. Members should not feel obligated to extend mortal life by extreme means. These decisions are best made by the person, if possible, or by family members. They should seek competent medical advice and divine guidance through prayer.” Apparently, the Church is perfectly comfortable with professionals weighing in on “inevitability” and what means are “extreme” when they are talking about human intervention on the other end of life. Why should the two ends of life (either the continuation of life, or the prolongation of life) be necessarily treated differently? Why are competent medical professionals valuable in making determinations at one end of life, but not the other? If there is a means or method that could result in the prolongation of life, which is available to the family, why is the family not morally obligated to pursue it? Notice that there is no distinction in 21.3.8 between an elderly person (“they’ve had a good run”), someone in relative youth (“they have a family and so much to live for”), or a newborn baby (“they have so much potential”). Also, does the Church really only care about “severe illness,” does this account for terrible accident and injury? How do we define what qualifies? And there is no mention of “imminence” only “inevitability”? Does that mean compassionate release is justifiable? Ask many hospice providers whether the immediate proximate cause of death with their end-stage patients is “natural causes” or actually an overdose of opiates, liberally meted out.

    I’m less certain the Church is interested in any of these details, because they are extremely complicated ethical dilemmas. And yet with abortion, they continue to treat it as a very simple, straightforward issue, regardless of whether you are dealing with a zygote, an embryo, or a fetus. Consequently, unless the direction or counseling is simply, “don’t do it,” I find the Handbook next to useless in actually assisting a member in making a difficult, thoughtful, and ethical decision.

    For the conscientious member, shouldn’t we at least offer to help them grapple with some of these issues, at least where they are of concern to the member or the member finds them pertinent/determinative to their decision?

  3. Ian — I think you’re spot on. Counseling without any theological depth is unhelpful. I have a lot of friends who have experienced miscarriages and stillbirths who have gone to their bishops desperate for comfort, and essentially been told “we don’t know / the babies never had a spirit / it’s not a big deal.” The minimization is devastating for faithful women desiring to be moms.

    Meanwhile, it’s utterly unfair to minimize miscarriages while calling abortions “next to murder.” They’re biologically nearly identical and the spiritual status should closely track too. And yet for so many of our members, accustomed to talking points from political culture wars, their answers on spiritual counseling for the two experiences are different or at least lack nuance.

    I’m of the view that at the end of the day the LDS Church’s position is a choice standard. For there to be acceptable exceptions, medical abortions must be available. Maybe in some cases the woman is a “sinner” for her choice, but the way we’ve structured it that’s a spiritual consequence for introspection and repentance, not a legal one.

  4. It seems to me that it is a significant problem that there are no people who have had the experience of pregnancy or pregnancy loss anywhere in the chain of counselors and policymakers on this topic. Not only do we not have any theological grounding, we don’t address that lack by trying to appreciate the spiritual intuition of people who have experience with early pregnancy. A woman seeking comfort and wisdom in an extraordinarily difficult circumstance ought to have counsel from someone who can truly sympathize, particularly in the absence of any revealed theology.

  5. [same as Chris Kimball the OP writer] Ian, my view (strongly held) is that bishops don’t do theology. Bishops work with individuals, over and over and over in the “how can I help mode.” You pose good and important questions and in the right setting and role I’m up for it. Maybe that’s an independent BCC post and discussion. However, as a bishop sitting in what the member considers the judgment seat, it’s not a conversation I’m willing to have. I’m all about her decision process and her concerns. Not the abstract theology of the day.

    It’s really a side note for this post, but stepping out of the office and not operating with any mantle of authority, I’d still be reticent to engage because there’s a something disconcerting, even jarring, about men telling women what to think and what to do in situations where women carry almost all the burden.

  6. Kristine, I agree at the level of what should happen, and if you’re suggesting women should not go to the church for counsel at all, in its current configuration, I agree with that too although it’s far more radical than my OP.
    I hope we are also agreed that in the world as it is, women will go to their bishops. I toy with the idea of me as bishop saying “you really shouldn’t be here, you shouldn’t want to talk with me.” But in the real world many will do it anyway.

  7. Ian Thomson says:

    In response to christiankimball. Good and fair points. The way the hypothetical counselling-session is set up is that a member approaches a bishop “as part of this process,” which I take to be someone who is only considering an elective abortion within the three very narrow exceptions set out in the Handbook. If a bishop is brought in on this process (you and I both agree that He probably shouldn’t, but that is besides the point), then I think we have to ask ourselves what is that member looking for and what are her expectations? Because, part of any good ministry, I think, would be attempting to meet the member where they are at and addressing the needs that she has–not the invented needs of another person. However, what should be included in that conversation? As you explained above, it may be affording her an opportunity to simply think out loud and set forth what she is thinking about. But is that counsel? And if productive counsel would include simply asking helpful questions, I’m not sure given the restrictions and constraints of the Church’s Handbook position, that one could even ask telling, meaningful questions without running afoul of the few narrow circumstances that are even up for consideration. Even if a Bishop wasn’t interested in offering their own opinion, I can’t quite imagine what types of questions could be meaningful asked in furtherance of helping her along in her own decision that would include any ethical/moral considerations beyond taking a “gut check” of where the woman is on the issue. The Church hasn’t even provided us with any kind of moral framework from which we could approach the “ethical exceptions” conversation. At some point, it feels like once the bare exception is met, it’s a pure cost/benefit analysis being conducted by the individual. Whatever factors they want to consider can militate in one direction or the other. In that instance, counseling with a bishop is useless, other than as a sounding board.

  8. Excellent post, Chris.

    Lurking just under the surface of your discussion is a foundational question: What happens—and what should be happening—when a person comes to a bishop for counsel? The answer to this question shapes the direction that a counseling discussion about abortion will take.

    I say that this question is under the surface because you don’t quite address the general question of what counseling is. But I read your post as a practical guide to good pastoral counseling, using the challenging situation of abortion as an example. As far as I can tell, I’m in sync with your approach.

    My view is that the single most important general instruction for bishops about giving counsel should be that they are not there to provide answers to hard questions. That’s doubly true when the questions turn on difficult problems of moral reckoning. The bishop’s role should be to facilitate a person’s process of finding the best path forward. To some extent, the bishop can provide facts. Mostly, though, the bishop should be a sounding board—someone who reflects ideas with loving sympathy to help expand a person’s capacity to make wise choices. Decisions should always be up to the person seeking counsel.

    I’m okay with a lack of detail in the Church’s official position on abortion. It suits a counseling situation in which a member of the Church is empowered to figure out what’s best. The more information a bishop needs to communicate, the more the bishop is implicitly encouraged to feel responsible for the outcome. That’s an incentive for a bishop to influence and manipulate in ways that only hurt.

    I fear that my view of counseling is not a common one in the Church. Nonetheless, I’d regret seeing measures that make genuinely helpful counseling harder to do.

  9. Ian, upon rereading, I see that my comment is something of a counterpoint to your thoughts about the nature of counseling. I wish I had acknowledged you in my previous comment. I think the nature and objectives of pastoral counseling are foundational questions that we in the Church are not clear about. Setting expectations for counseling is a basic element of counseling that most bishops don’t know they should be addressing.

  10. Former bishop here. First, as a doctrinal matter, I cannot see abortion as ‘like unto murder.’ Murder ends a probationary state. Abortion does not under LDS doctrine. It would be great if the brethren sought divine direction on this point, but so long as the doctrinal answer is ‘we don’t know’ and the church’s policy is to not seal someone who dies before birth, abortion cannot be like under murder. Slavery, denying women literacy, and plenty of other sins are. But not abortion.

    Second, there’s a huge omission in the handbook because it does not define abortion. Specifically, it doesn’t address whether abortion occurs with the termination of a fertilized embryo, or once there is implantation, or heartbeat, or the spirit entering the body.

    The church has not opposed stem cell research – and critically all LDS senators supported such research in 2001 without church discipline – so I seriously doubt the line is mere fertilization. Beyond that, though, I see no specific guidance. A member (or bishop) could take the sincere view that ‘abortion’ does not occur until there is a termination of a fetus into which the spirit has entered. There’s plenty of historical statements by church leaders to support such a view. As such, a termination at, say, 12 weeks would not be an ‘abortion’ and therefore not prohibited under the handbook.

  11. Loursat, my pedagogical style is to work hard questions with case studies or particular examples, so you are right that there’s a foundational issue lurking. That’s intentional. The OP will someday turn into a chapter in a book with the working title “Conversations with a Young Bishop” where I will play out the counseling role at length.

    Ian, my belief is that we–many of us–have false expectations about bishops, and that the kind of discussion you want is not available or if available is full of personal opinion at a questionable level of confidence. We do not train bishops, we do not have schools of theology, and we provide near-zero opportunity for critical dialogue, whether dialectic or Socratic or pilpul-like. When you write “In that instance, counseling with a bishop is useless, other than as a sounding board.” I reply yes, you’re right.

    Our cultural false expectations and the idea that counseling may be useless gets play in my book “Living on the Inside of the Edge: A Survival Guide” (to come, Spring 2023). The chapter Talking With the Bishop opens with one word, Don’t.

  12. With our combined centuries of experience in the church, I imagine we all have stories of unrighteous dominion and “counseling” run amok. I think, however, we’ve all had the counterexample as well: advice from a priesthood leader that was clearly inspired (secondhand experience, if not firsthand).

    Is it so outside the realm of possibility that a bishop might be inspired to say the right thing to the right person “in the very hour” of need? To be given advice to share “in the very moment”, regardless of gender?

  13. Sammy,
    Miracles are, by definition, rare. You need a good system to cover the rest of the time.

  14. @John C, while inspiration could indeed qualify as miraculous, I don’t think it’s supposed to be rare at all. Perhaps we disagree on the definition of a miracle. The sacrament prayer is very specific: “that they may always have his Spirit to be with them.” I’m not pretending that every word coming out of a bishop’s mouth is inspired; yet it seems to miss the mark to behave as though inspired advice only occurs once in a blue moon.

  15. So here’s a thought train, mingled with assumptions. As sinful choices are a real thing and not just a subjective expression of inner guilt derived from societal expectations, we believe that our “common judge[s] in Israel” have the duty and ability to help us reconcile with God when necessary. I’ve had whisperings from the Spirit before telling me to just fix a thing on my own, and I’ve had whisperings from the Spirit before telling me to go speak with (and confess to) my bishop. I know my experience is mirrored by many.

    While I agree that too much is expected from bishops, I disagree with the idea that we therefore must toss aside the whole notion of counseling with our local spiritual steward. A man striving to harmonize his soul with the promptings of the Spirit, coupled with priesthood stewardship, would seem to me a much more useful sounding board for spiritual matters and realities than one brimming over with secular education and training.

  16. I agree with Kristine, the lack of any female input or experience with miscarriages, rape, abortion, birth, etc. is a problem. That being said, should Ordain Women ever see the day they celebrate a female bishop, or should this type of counseling ever involve the RS President, I’d hope that your philosophical q’s about the role of a counselor vs personal opinion be taken into consideration.

    I see why you said it’s important that a woman has the church’s handbook section on abortion and is not deprived of any relevant information, but I cringe thinking of those words as ubiquitous counsel for a woman in that situation. The words were originally written for bishops, not members, and are both biased and laden with a huge dose of guilt and a heckuvalotta unnecessary baggage that no psychological counselor would ever say to a client in such a setting. Simply reading without contextualizing it would indeed be a dereliction of work, and trying to unpack those paragraphs Is a Herculean chore, if it’s even possible. It’s horrible.

    The uber-faithful and younger women I have known over the years who turned to the bishop in such situations were desirous to align their decision with God, and would value the nuanced words of the FP and Q15 above the counsel of a bishop, especially when attempting to avoid the grievous sin of “murder” (which is levied.)

  17. Loursat — I agree with your point that bishops AREN’T supposed to provide answers to hard questions. That’s exactly right.

    I remember when I was starting to think about divorce I went to my bishop for advice repeatedly. In large part it was because I had this deep-seated belief that I needed spiritual permission to leave my ex. As a woman I believed I wasn’t allowed to get revelation on that point myself, such a consequential decision needed priesthood approval. Usually I would turn to the head of the household for advice, but obviously my ex himself couldn’t grant that approval. So I went to the bishop next. I was infuriated when the bishop told me that they are categorically not permitted to counsel or advise yes or no on divorce — just to listen.

    I was furious at the time. I really wanted someone to make the hard decision for me, or give me permission, or provide some sort of revelation I could trust from God because I didn’t trust my own spiritual answers to prayers at that time. My personal Liahona felt like it had gone haywire. In retrospect, I think not letting bishops give orders on such fraught personal matters is the wise choice. But we do a poor job explaining that line or it’s reasoning to our members amidst all of our talk of keys and revelation.

    That experiences informs my reactions to the policy on abortion. It’s not the bishop’s job to say yes or no, it’s to provide spiritual counseling, empathy, prayers, and a path towards peace and wisdom for the woman. If we stopped there that could be valuable.

    The problem is that — as Christian’s post acknowledges in its structure — abortion is ALSO covered as a topic under church discipline. So any woman who goes to a bishop for spiritual counseling on the topic is running the risk of also being disfellowshipped or excommunicated, regardless of what spiritual prompting she personally receives.

    That’s the problem with Dino’s comment. It absolutely is possible for a bishop, or a bishop and parishioner counseling together, to have powerful spiritual promptings and inspiration greater than anything they could achieve on their own or with secular wisdom. I believe that. But so long as a bishop has a mixed purpose in “counseling,” where at any second he could switch into judgment mode, or at any second he could opine on your worthiness or your ecclesiastical endorsement for school or employment, it’s much too dangerous as a woman to roll the dice and seek that counsel.

  18. Appreciate the sharing of your thoughts and experience on this issue.

  19. I agree with Carolyn that women are placed in an dangerous position when seeking advice from a bishop. I have read enough on the feminist blogs and talked to enough women in desperate situations that bishops can absolutely disfellowship a woman if she comes to him for advice and then chooses to go against his advice.

    And also, with the idea that often women seek permission for something like divorce from a bishop. My own mother did when she was looking at getting out of an abusive marriage, and the bishop refused to approve, so she stayed and she wasn’t the only one abused. It was really bad for him to preempt her decision to protect herself with how sacred temple marriage was and bla bla bla, when she was really asking, “is my life worth more than this?”

    Once I found myself in a Stake presidents office discussing how badly bishops had handled the fact that I was trying to recover from sexual abuse and struggling to stay in a church that I considered just as abusive as my father. He told me something that I think needs to be drilled into bishop’s heads. He said, “My job isn’t to give you answers. My job is to help you to trust God’s love enough to get your own answers.”

    Think for a few minutes about if my mother’s bishop had told her that. She was asking if her life was worth more than a temple ceremony and instead of giving her the idea that God loved her, he told her how sacred a damned ceremony was. More sacred than her obviously.

    What if when a woman comes in seeking abortion the bishop says to her, “My job isn’t to give you an answer. My job is to help you to trust God’s love enough to get your own answer.”

    Something too few men understand is that women get treated as second class by the church, so they feel second class to God. They end up feeling like God loves them less that what he loves men. They are taught to get priesthood permission, not their own inspiration. So, when they come to a bishop for advice, what they often need most is to know that God loves them. God loves them just as much as he loves that potential child she could possibly give birth to, and God isn’t asking her to risk her own life on the possibility of that child. But the church has fed her stories about women who passed on the abortion to give birth to a child of rape or risk her own life on the off chance that she will survive long enough to give birth, so she feels she is only worth God’s love if she is willing to go through hell on the chance of a child.

  20. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    There seem to be a couple of general assumptions about Bishops that often lead people to seek counsel from them when they really shouldn’t. The first is that Bishops are experts on the gospel. The second is that Bishops have some unique access to the thoughts and will of the Lord regarding my life/situation. Neither of these is correct.

    I don’t seek counsel from my Bishop because he doesn’t know more about the gospel than I do. Sure, that may sound conceited, but I’ve been around the block a few times and if there’s something I don’t fully understand I am able to seek out people and/or resources to come to a better understanding. I have definitely had Bishops who know more than me, but that was the case before they became Bishop and wasn’t an artifact of having that calling. Bishops aren’t experts, and don’t become so when they’re called.

    I also work under the principle that God won’t tell my Bishop anything about me or my personal situation that he also won’t tell me. You shouldn’t go to your Bishop to have him tell you what to do, or what God wants you to do. If I’m having a hard time receiving or interpreting inspiration, a Bishop may very well be able to help me with strategies to receive inspiration (or revelation, whatever you want to call it). But they should not be substituting their own wisdom or inspiration for my own, and I shouldn’t be asking them to do so.

  21. You bring out some of the difficulties of the bishop’s role in this. Which hat should a bishop wear when talking with a woman considering abortion, “counselor” or “judge in Israel?” He has to wear both, does he not, especially in states where a woman could become a felon for deciding one way? If I understand you correctly, if you were to become a bishop again, you absolutely would not want to take on the judge role?

  22. Chris Kimball says:

    Bro. B: That’s a really interesting discussion, and perhaps should be a whole separate post. You’re right that I would not want to and would not in fact take on the “judge” role. But that’s because a lot of us imagine a judge in Israel in modern criminal justice terms, just substituting “sin” for “crime.” My view is that’s a modern confusion and that a judge in Israel is more properly a civil law sort of term. If you run your fence over your neighbor’s land and your neighbor complains, and you two want the bishop to mediate, that kind of judge in Israel role I’m up for.

  23. I think my bishop did a great job when my husband and I approached him about this. I came away sure of several things: 1) Heavenly Father loves me, 2) Heavenly Father trusts me, 3) my life and happiness matter to my bishop, and 4) the fetus’s life was in my stewardship, and it really was my decision.
    I hope this is the norm for women who approach their bishops with this question.

  24. Not the purpose of the post but “forcible rape” is really problematic wording.

  25. Really great post, Chris — thank you!

    And really important point here, Carolyn: “Meanwhile, it’s utterly unfair to minimize miscarriages while calling abortions “next to murder.” They’re biologically nearly identical and the spiritual status should closely track too. And yet for so many of our members, accustomed to talking points from political culture wars, their answers on spiritual counseling for the two experiences are different or at least lack nuance.” So very important.

  26. Thank you Chris for using the updated Handbook. I’m ashamed to say (as a professional historian) that I didn’t look beyond the sanitized account given by the LDS Newsroom, and look at the primary sources–the Handbook. The Newsroom account (PR must have been awake that day) did not use “forcible rape or incest” as if there was another kind (as Gomez rightly notes). Ignored in both sources, is that although teenage pregnancy (gratefully) has been falling fast for a number of years, the vast number of them amount to statutory rape, almost always by an older boy, man who is legally culpable. But this is rarely prosecuted. Any pregnant 12 year old girl has been by definition raped–she is not capable of consent. In many states, this is also true of the mentally disabled, who are not considered capable of consenting. Again, good luck finding anyone who gets prosecuted for this crime. The Handbook presumes a consenting adult woman, warns against personal or social convenience, and then sets up what seems like reasonable exceptions, although in the Newsroom, the bishop gets barely a mention–Handbook throws the ball into the lap of competent physicians (liability?). Also present in the Handbook is purposely vague language now including the culpability of anyone aiding and helping to facilitate an abortion–mirroring the “trigger laws” of more than 20 states. As if “like unto murder” (I guess adultery may have gotten a demotion) or “church discipline” was not meant to dissuade in any event. Kudos to the Handbook and the Newsroom for not getting into the theological mental gymnastics of viability, 6 weeks, 15 weeks etc., except for the “like unto murder part.” Chris you laid out well the immense burden of ecclesiastical dilemmas surrounding this issue(s). If I was a bishop or SP in a trigger law state, I might be terrified if confronted with a 7 week along pregnant 10 year old. If I, your average woman knew of such a situation, I would immediately call the police. (So grateful to NOT have the priesthood–me??!!) If I could aid in prosecuting the perpetrator, I would. I was inspired by one statement in the Newsroom. “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.” I will absolutely do this, though perhaps not in the way the church envisioned. I could sit here in pro choice CT, and do nothing. Or I could reach beyond my borders, donate money and time to reverse most of these insidious trigger laws, the most extreme of which will harm the physical and mental health of many girls and women, including girls and women who miscarry, and cannot get the physical and psychological care they need because it’s been criminalized. I will use my moral convictions that abortion should be safe, legal, and rare–not on demand, but with restrictions that include viability, which is an ever changing scientific and medical landscape. So with humility, I hope. My final point, question would be, that given we are a lay ministry, how much could, should we do to support girls and women in their decisions? Will most members understand that a “competent” physician” could be a psychiatrist, an md, who might determine that the mental health of someone considering an abortion is as consequential as their physical health? I’m sure this might get a ringing endorsement in the Bloggernacle. Maybe just not elsewhere.

  27. An important distinction being accidentally (willfully?) ignored is that in the very vast majority of cases, abortion is a choice – and not one made out of imminent, life-threatening duress. Miscarriage is involuntary from an accountability or “agency” perspective. So while biological similarities between the two clearly exist, I would think the “spiritual status” differential is obvious.

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