Kellie Woodfield: LDS Church should not cast stones at women who choose abortion

Conference talk criticizing abortion does not understand what women face.

Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune Elder Neil L. Andersen, Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, speaks during the morning session of the 184th Semiannual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Saturday April 5, 2014.

During the April 3 session of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Easter General Conference, Elder Neil L. Anderson spoke bluntly of the evils of abortion in our society, advocating for members to rally against its prevalence. He praised the mother who chose adoption over abortion and lauded the choices of those who desired more children, despite facing consequences of a “high risk” pregnancy.

As an ob-gyn physician and member of the LDS Church, I listened in stunned silence at his words, contemplating the irony of their juxtaposition to Elder Dale G. Renlund’s admonition, just minutes before, to not only abstain from casting stones, but be “stone catchers” when interacting with the metaphorical “women caught in adultery” in our society.

I therefore write this as a plea for clarification in how we are to view women who find themselves caught in the highly politicized and agonizingly complex decision to have an abortion.

I am not an abortion provider, but I have seen many abortions. In fact, the first abortion I witnessed was one of the most profoundly spiritual experiences of my life. She was a 14-year-old girl from a poor neighborhood in Queens who found herself pregnant, scared and alone. While I was holding her hand, anti-abortion rhetoric played in my mind but was powerfully silenced by an overwhelming feeling of love and compassion that I felt came straight from God. She was important and God knew why she chose what she did.

Since then, I have been very sensitive to the rhetoric of “othering,” using language and stories that set us apart from the rest of God’s children by labeling ourselves as “the faithful.” It seems based on a gospel of prosperity where we conflate our social privilege with blessings stemming from our personal righteousness.

It was not until I was forced to regularly associate with members of “the world” — the pregnant mother using heroin, the college student who was sexually assaulted while intoxicated and the transgender man needing a pap smear — that I realized just how much I yearned to be seen as part of this human community, not above it. Because here was love and forgiveness, even if it was messy. Here were clear manifestations of the atonement of Christ in action. Here was clear evidence of our need for a Savior to bring about justice — social justice — and provide healing to a world marred by generations of abuse and systemic discrimination.

I was also concerned when Anderson praised women who opt to pursue high-risk pregnancies. I agree that the decision to have a child is highly personal. However, when rhetoric such as this is directed toward a community where motherhood is believed to be a woman’s highest calling and where women are socialized to believe their value is directly proportional to their propensity for sacrifice, it is hard not to see his message as subtly coercive, where a mother’s decision to risk physical or emotional health is portrayed a spiritual necessity rather than personalized choice.

As an ob-gyn, church seems the natural place to process my experiences and growing dissonance. I yearn for a community where I can share stories – real, sometimes controversial stories. Instead, all too often I find a community that vilifies the experiences and people that have become most sacred to me – my patients.

And so, I ask, please explain how we as Christians are to view these “women caught in abortion.” Do they merit our efforts to catch stones? Or are we, the faithful, obligated to continue casting them?

Kellie Woodfield

Kellie Woodfield is an obstetrics and gynecology resident physician at the University of Utah and member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The views expressed here are her own and not represented as those of the University of Utah.