Given President Russell Nelson’s past statements on abortion, could LDS policy change if Roe v. Wade ends?

The church leader has argued that life begins at conception, but observers doubt the faith’s approach to the issue will change for a variety of reasons.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) President Russell M. Nelson, center, and Dallin H. Oaks, left, with Henry B, Eyring, have been outspoken critics of abortion, with the former arguing that life begins at conception.

With Roe v. Wade apparently under threat by the Supreme Court, some have speculated whether leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints might seize the moment to tighten the faith’s policies or clarify its theology regarding abortion.

The answer, according to those familiar with current church leadership and history on the issue, is a resounding no.

This prediction comes despite the fact that a number of top officials, particularly church President Russell M. Nelson, repeatedly have voiced strong opposition to abortion, stopping just short of equating it with murder and arguing that pregnancies which threaten the mother’s health are vanishingly rare.

Although united in their conjecture, each observer offered separate lines of reasoning. In doing so they hinted not only at the complexity of the issue but also that of navigating an increasingly global faith and a politically divided U.S. membership.

‘A war on the unborn’

Speaking to a worldwide audience in 1985 after becoming an apostle the previous year, Nelson declared abortion “a war on the unborn.” He repeated this phrase, along with much of his earlier sermon, more than 20 years later when, in 2008, he again broached the subject in General Conference, describing “most abortions” as “simply a form of birth control.”

A former heart surgeon, Nelson stressed on both occasions “that a new life begins when two special cells unite to become one cell,” adding in the case of his more recent address that “to legislate when a developing life is considered ‘meaningful’ is presumptive and quite arbitrary, in my opinion.”

Speaking at Brigham Young University in 1999, his first counselor in the governing First Presidency, Dallin H. Oaks, a former Utah Supreme Court justice, took direct aim at U.S. high-court decisions “on the so-called ‘right to abortion,’” calling them “unfortunate.”

As recently as 2021, apostle Neal L. Andersen revived a quote from the late President Gordon B. Hinckley, declaring abortion “‘evil, stark and real and repugnant” in his own General Conference sermon.

Picking their political battles

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Apostle Neil L. Andersen denounces elective abortions during General Conference on Saturday, April 3, 2021.

Theology aside, even if the current church leaders were inclined to bring policies and doctrine more in line with conservative evangelical groups and Catholics — by limiting the number of exceptions for an abortion or declaring that life begins at conception— they are almost certain not to do so, said Neil Young, an independent historian of American religion. They simply don’t have the bandwidth.

Author of “We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics,” Young argued that, historically, the Utah-based faith has been selective in the political and cultural battles it chooses.

He pointed, for example, to a 1978 proposed ballot initiative in Utah to put in place abortion restrictions.

“The church decided not to get involved,” he said, “and it withered on the vine because of it.”

Among other things, Young believes this indicates a long-standing reluctance “to spreading itself thin in politics.”

At the time, the church already was deeply committed to fighting the Equal Rights Amendment. Today, the primary concern is same-sex marriage and LGBTQ issues.

True, current events might have pushed abortion onto center stage for the American public. But Young believes the topic, for Latter-day Saint leaders, remains a “secondary political concern.”

Steering clear of contention

Former Utah state Sen. Stuart Reid takes this line of thinking even further.

The former lobbyist for the church said that Nelson, and by extension the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, isn’t just wary of muscling the church’s way into the abortion clash but, increasingly, the political fray generally.

Instead, the faith’s 97-year-old leader hopes to enlist its members in the work of peacemaking, Reid said, pointing to Nelson’s latest General Conference addresses decrying contention as examples of this new direction.

A self-described former "paid culture warrior" for the LDS Church, Stuart Reid believes the faith's upper echelons have little appetite for political battles — about abortion or otherwise.

“That is the new standard,” the self-described former “paid culture warrior for the church” explained, noting that some apostles have been quicker to get behind the new program than others.

Reid attributed the shift largely to a realization among those in the top brass that previous attempts to flex political power have “gotten us nothing,” including the church’s advocacy for California’s 2008 Proposition 8 banning same-sex marriage.

“We’ve done all these backflips to try to recover from what happened and the goodwill that we lost and the controversy both inside the church and outside the church,” he said. “So I think they’ve learned.”

Meeting women halfway

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Latter-day Saint faithful walk to the Conference Center for the women's session of General Conference on Saturday, April 2, 2022. “Patriarchal religions will crumble," said Colleen McDannell, a religious studies scholar at the University of Utah, "if women are not met halfway.”

Colleen McDannell is a religious studies scholar at the University of Utah who has written extensively on Latter-day Saint women. The way she sees it, the church simply cannot afford to risk ostracizing its U.S. female membership, an increasing number of whom are college graduates with no dreams of following in their mothers’ or grandmothers’ steps when it comes to rearing six or more children.

“You cannot,” she said, “run a religion without having women on its side.”

Current policies in the church’s General Handbook allow (but do not necessarily endorse) abortion in the case of rape, incest, risks to the mother’s health, and “severe defects that will not allow the baby to survive beyond birth.”

Those exceptions, according to McDannell, represent a kind of compromise with female members.

“Patriarchal religions will crumble,” she said, “if women are not met halfway.”

Unchanging doctrine

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gayle Ruzicka, president of the Eagle Forum, believes the LDS Church's current policies regarding abortion represent unchanging doctrine upon which Roe v. Wade has no bearing.

Gayle Ruzicka believes it’s much simpler than all of that. The Utah Eagle Forum leader and Latter-day Saint said the real reason the church won’t change its policies on abortion is because they reflect doctrine. And “doctrine doesn’t change.”

“They’re going to say what they’ve always said,” she said, “which is human life is sacred, born and unborn, and we should not take life.”

As evidence, she noted the church’s current stance predates the Supreme Court’s ruling on Roe v. Wade — a claim, as Young pointed out, evangelicals can’t make.

When asked if she thought church leaders might express concern over states whose trigger laws do not allow for the exceptions the faith does, Ruzicka said no.

“When the church talks about the exceptions,” she said, they aren’t an “automatic” greenlight.

“First, you have to pray about it” and talk to your faith leaders, she said. “That slows a lot of people down.”

Looking beyond the United States

In the end, any attempt to understand the church’s action — or inaction — on an issue is incomplete without considering its impact on the faith’s growing global membership, warned Quin Monson, a political scientist at BYU and a public opinion researcher who has spent years studying Latter-day Saints.

“I don’t have any special window into whether public opinion matters to the church,” he said. However, he believes there’s plenty of evidence to believe that “increasingly the church is thinking well beyond” the United States when it comes to policy. This means taking into account not only differing cultural norms but also laws from one country to the next.

All of this, he said, “makes it very unlikely the church would respond to something with huge significance in the United States, but that doesn’t have the same implications across the globe.”

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