Jana Riess: Latter-day Saints now look liberal on abortion — by not changing

GOP has swung so far to the right that Latter-day Saints’ nuanced abortion stance, once commonly accepted by fellow conservatives, now looks liberal by comparison.

Friday’s Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade has put U.S. members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in an unusual position. Long known for its political conservatism, the church now appears moderate on abortion, despite the fact that it hasn’t changed its official position in years.

That’s because the Republican Party has grown more reactionary over time, and with it a high court that has tilted significantly to the right with the three justices appointed by former President Donald Trump.

To understand this, let’s take a quick look at how abortion policy has developed over time in both the LDS Church and the GOP.

Abortion in LDS policy

Until 1976, the Salt Lake City-based church had no instructions in its handbook about abortion. Looking through the official handbook for 1960, 1963, 1968 … there’s nothing. Individual church leaders spoke out against abortion in the early 1970s, often as part of their denunciation of birth control, but there was no universal or codified policy.

It was only after Roe (1973) that the church began including abortion in its handbook for the first time. The 1976 manual instructed local lay leaders that women who had gotten abortions at any point in their lives but were interested in joining the LDS Church needed to get approval from a stake or mission president before getting baptized: “He must be certain that the applicant has sincerely repented of her sins and must be assured that she will live righteously in the future.”

A defining moment for the church’s evolving stance on abortion came in 1976, because that July it also issued a “supplement” to the handbook that broadened the scope of its earlier condemnation. Censure was no longer reserved for women who had gotten abortions but for anyone who had participated in the process. Prospective male missionaries who had “advised, encouraged, consented to, or arranged for” abortions would not be called on full-time missions, nor would prospective sister missionaries who “voluntarily submit to abortions growing out of their immoral conduct.”

That last sentence seems to leave room for lenience in the case of women who had been raped or were the victims of incest — exceptions that were indeed spelled out further in the July 1976 supplement:

“The church opposes abortion and counsels its members not to submit to, be a party to, or perform an abortion except in the rare cases where, in the opinion of competent medical counsel, the life or health of the woman is seriously endangered or where the pregnancy was caused by forcible rape and produces emotional trauma in the victim. Even then it should be done only after counseling with the local bishop or branch president and after receiving divine confirmation through prayer.

Abortion is one of the most revolting and sinful practices in this day, when we are witnessing the frightening evidence of permissiveness leading to sexual immorality.”

The policy was an unambiguous rejection of abortion — words like revolting, sinful and frightening don’t leave much room for doubt on that score. Yet it also allowed for exceptions in the case of “forcible” rape or a medical emergency when the life of the mother was at stake. (The language of “forcible” rape is problematic, because it implies that there exists a form of “rape” that is chosen and consensual. But that problem originates with U.S. law, not the church; the law describes “forcible” rape in contrast to “statutory” rape, which can refer to forced intercourse or to an adult having sex with a minor.)

In the nearly half-century since 1976, the church’s policy on abortion has changed only slightly. By 1983, it added incest to the list of possible exceptions, saying pregnancies caused by incest could also be eligible for abortion. But if that was a liberalization, there was also a tightening, since in 1983 it stipulated that members who engaged in abortion — including medical doctors who performed the procedure — could be brought before a church disciplinary council. It also deleted the phrase about emotional trauma to the victim, which seems like a good change: When would rape not be traumatizing to the victim?

When it comes to abortion under the law, the church has been relatively light on politicking, unlike its notorious and repeated forays to defeat same-sex marriage. Through the 1990s and 2000s, the handbook instructed members that although the church as an institution “has not favored or opposed legislative proposals or public demonstrations concerning abortions,” individual members were encouraged to “let their voices be heard” and “evidence their belief in the sacredness of life.” By the 2010 edition, that material on political activism had been dropped.

One other small (and ironic) note about the 2010 edition: In the iterations of the handbook from the 1970s through 2006, the church supported its anti-abortion stance by quoting from “D&C 59:6,” which to Mormons means “Doctrine and Covenants 59:6″ — a reference to a work of scripture. In medical terms, though, a “D&C” is essentially an abortion: It refers to “dilation and curettage,” in removing the contents of a uterus. By the 2010 edition, the scriptural shorthand had been lengthened to “Doctrine and Covenants 59:6,” which is how it remains today, despite the fact that “D&C” is used dozens of times elsewhere in that edition.

Abortion in the Republican Party

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints did not come by its exceptions for rape, incest and medical endangerment by accident. Those have been long-standing exceptions approved by previous generations of Americans, including Republicans. In 1967, as California’s governor, Ronald Reagan signed a bill that made abortion legal in those three instances in that state even when abortion in general was still illegal in much of the country.

He wasn’t alone among political conservatives who realized that an entirely draconian anti-abortion policy was neither humane nor practical. In their 1976 party platform, Republicans were still recognizing multiple sides to the issue of abortion, calling the question “one of the most difficult and controversial of our time,” involving “complex questions relating to medical science and criminal justice.” Members of the party could be found on both sides, it said, though it urged “a constitutional amendment to restore protection of the right to life for unborn children.”

That language was a signal of what political scientist Andrew Lewis has called “The Rights Turn,” emphasizing that the fetus had “a right to life.” Taking a cue from the left’s successful advocacy of individual rights in the civil rights movement, pundits on the right began speaking in the language of individual rights rather than social morality per se, which had been their tactic until that point.

Nationally, the idea of exceptions for rape, incest or danger to the mother were spelled out in the 1976 Hyde Amendment, which stipulated that federal funds, including Medicaid, could not be used to pay for abortions — except in those circumstances. Congress was debating this amendment in the summer of 1976, exactly when the LDS Church first issued its handbook supplement detailing exceptions for rape and medical emergencies.

But that was then, and Republicans have changed dramatically through the years and especially over the past decade. The exceptions for rape, incest and medical endangerment have largely dropped out of the conversation among Republicans. According to The New York Times, new state laws that forbid abortions offer “no allowances for victims of rape or incest in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Oklahoma, Ohio, South Dakota, Tennessee or Texas.”

What’s next

Essentially, the Republican Party has swung considerably to the right on the issue of abortion, even as the majority of Americans’ views have stayed largely the same since the 1970s. Most Americans, when surveyed, have nuanced views on abortion and are somewhere in the middle — few want abortion on demand with no restrictions whatsoever, and few want abortion to be entirely illegal with no exceptions.

Yet it is the extreme right that appears to be winning the day, despite being a small minority of the population. This makes for a curious situation in which The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, long considered far more conservative politically than the mainstream of America, is on this issue less conservative than the ruling establishment.

That may shed light on why the church has added a new twist to its stance on abortion. Within hours of the June 24 Supreme Court decision, it updated its abortion policy with a new final paragraph:

“The church’s position on this matter remains unchanged. 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.”

To preserve religious liberty. The church here connected its long-standing position on abortion with the concept of religious freedom — exactly when the Supreme Court decision undermined Latter-day Saints’ right to follow their own handbook on this issue. Though the church has always opposed abortion in the abstract and regarded it as a sin, it has also, for example, consistently sided with protecting maternal health if a mother’s life was endangered by pregnancy. Now that Roe is no more and individual states are free to enact laws without those three provisions, it’s not inconceivable that Latter-day Saint women in those states who experience medical emergencies related to pregnancy may die. Two of my own friends who are LDS mothers experienced complications with their pregnancies, and one might have died without a medically induced abortion. This is no longer an abstract or theoretical possibility.

Given that, it’s not entirely clear that the new codicil about church members being encouraged to protect life and preserve religious liberty is actually instructing them to oppose all abortions. The vague wording leaves room for activism on the other side. For example, church members who are interested in protecting religious freedom for all may wish to side with Jews who want to abide by Jewish law — law that not only permits but also requires abortion in certain circumstances. Latter-day Saints who stand for religious freedom will want Jews to be able to live their religion.

(The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)