After discovering she had cancer, Diana Mock had a choice: Have an abortion and hopefully live to raise the toddler she already had, or continue her pregnancy and pray she would miraculously survive long enough to give birth.
“Nothing was wrong with the baby,” she said. “But something was very wrong with my body, my blood.”
Mock, who was 25 and living in Utah at the time, had gone in for a routine checkup around her 10th week of pregnancy only to learn that she had leukemia.
The image of her “perfect baby” on the ultrasound technician’s screen was still fresh in her mind when she heard her doctor explain that before she could start chemotherapy, she needed an abortion.
Mock was horrified. As a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, abortion always had been an “extremely taboo and very scary topic.” While official church policy does not ban abortion in all cases, she felt like anytime the issue came up with other members, it was “in the context of you are killing babies.”
Interviews with other Latter-day Saint women who have undergone induced abortions (as opposed to “spontaneous abortions,” or miscarriages, some of which require a medical procedure to remove remaining fetal tissue) suggest Mock isn’t alone.
From medical complications, to rape, to mental health, to financial instability, the reasons that led these women to terminate pregnancies varied widely. So, too, did the stages of pregnancy at which they sought an abortion. Regardless, all agreed that teachings they had absorbed as Latter-day Saints — that abortion is almost always sinful, selfish and avoidable — did not reflect their own experience and contributed to a sense of stigma and alienation within their faith community.
“These women have heard these harmful messages week after week and in this patriarchal environment where their bodies are constantly being policed,” explained Kristin Hodson, a Latter-day Saint sex therapist and psychotherapist based in Salt Lake City. “And that provokes so much anxiety, fear and isolation.”
Now, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s latest decision striking down Roe v. Wade, these women want others to know their stories.
What the church teaches about abortion
Church policy allows for abortions in some cases, among them rape, incest, fetal defects incompatible with life and the “life or health” of the pregnant person.
Those exceptions didn’t matter for Mock. Years of hearing abortion equated as next to murder left her “wracked with guilt” at the notion of having one.
“I thought I would still be committing,” she said, “a terrible sin.”
Mock asked if she could delay chemotherapy, which was certain to kill the fetus. But the physicians she and her husband consulted were emphatic: She was out of time.
She prayed and received a priesthood blessing. The revelation from the heavens she sought finally came when she was listening to sermons by church leaders delivered during a past General Conference.
“The strong thought came to me,” she recalled, “‘You need to have an abortion. All children are saved through Christ. It is OK to end this pregnancy.’”
Four years later, Mock said, she continues to feel a great deal of pain about terminating the pregnancy.
“This baby saved my life,” she said, explaining that the blood screening for her pregnancy helped her catch the cancer early when her body remained relatively strong. “I cry thinking about how this angel came to earth for such a short period to save their mother, but I couldn’t save them.”
Still, Mock doesn’t regret her choice. Instead, she said the experience has taught her “there are times when having an abortion is all right, even part of God’s plan” and that women should be trusted to determine that on their own, regardless of their reason for considering terminating a pregnancy.
A shift in perspective
Mock was hardly the only Latter-day Saint to describe a dramatic shift in her position on abortion as a result of her own experience.
Janie, who asked to go by a pseudonym due to her husband’s high-profile military career, had been thrilled when she discovered she was pregnant. Right around her eight-week mark, however, she began “gushing blood.” Weeks of bed rest followed, then transfusions. The bleeding never stopped.
“Eventually,” she said, “we had to make the decision to end the pregnancy to save my life.”
Fourteen years later, Janie, who lives in Washington state, said the experience transformed the way she views abortion.
“Before, I felt that abortion should be permitted only in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother,” she said. Nowadays, she believes “passionately” that the decision to end a pregnancy is between the parents and doctors — and does not require a life-or-death scenario to make it OK.
“Now that my children are in school and my husband and I have received powerful confirmation that our family is complete, I am finishing my degree and focusing on ways to support my family that don’t include caring for infants,” Janie said. “If I became pregnant at this stage in my life, I would likely get an abortion.”
Working with bishops
The church’s General Handbook for lay leaders states that members considering an abortion “may counsel with their bishops” but doesn’t require it. None of those interviewed for this story did so.
Some of those who had abortions for nonmedical reasons, however, did seek out their bishops after the fact to alleviate the guilt they felt — despite the fact that all those interviewed remained firm that their decisions to obtain an abortion had been right.
Born in the 1970s, Cathy — who, as an Ogden-based business owner with a heavily Latter-day Saint client base, asked that her real name not be used out of fear of financial repercussions — was a teenager living largely on her own when she discovered she was pregnant.
Her mother had died in a car accident when she was 9, and her father, who struggled with alcoholism, was unable to support Cathy and her siblings. She spent her early teenage years being shuttled among relatives, feeling lost and abandoned. She soon began seeking “any form of love I could get.” And that, she said, is how “at the young age of 16 I found myself sitting in a Planned Parenthood [clinic].”
For decades after her abortion, Cathy felt gnawing shame each time she attended church. Finally, she couldn’t take it anymore and made an appointment with her bishop.
“I started off by telling him, ‘OK, Bishop, I’m probably going to knock your socks off, but I have something I have to reconcile,” she said. The bishop listened and, after counseling with the stake president, a regional church leader, told her, “’It is evident that you have suffered and repented for your choice.’”
Even now, Cathy can remember walking out of the office, with “years of pain and shame left behind.”
Alexa, who asked to go by a different name due to fear of online harassment, described a similar experience. Raised in an abusive home, she was 18 when she discovered her boyfriend, whose “highest aspirations were to play video games,” had gotten her pregnant.
“I wish that someone would have sat down with me and talked to me about my options,” she said, but she had no one she could tell. “It was lonely and painful, and at the time I just kept thinking, ‘I’m sorry that I have to do this. I’m sorry this is the decision that’s been put in my lap.’”
Alexa had watched her older sister, at the urging of their Latter-day Saint parents, marry the man who had impregnated her — a man with the “mentality of a 14-year-old.” The thought that the same could happen to her terrified Alexa.
“Could I have put the baby up for adoption?” she said. “Sure. But I would have lost all familial support for getting pregnant, and I wasn’t sure I had the emotional capacity to give up a child I had carried for nine months.”
Alexa, who now lives in Sandy with her three children, has never regretted her abortion. However, like Cathy, that didn’t keep her from feeling guilty enough about her decision to eventually tell her church leader about it.
By then, she was in a congregation for unmarried students attending the University of Utah. Immediately, she said, her bishop recognized the circumstances were “out of his scope” and helped Alexa find and pay for a therapist.
“It helped me a lot,” she said, describing her bishop as “very understanding, very loving.”
At the same time, he forbade Alexa from taking the sacrament (or communion) on Sunday and required her to volunteer to work with newborns at hospitals.
“It was like this enormous guilt, seeing the innocent life of a baby,” she said, her voice cracking with emotion. “Like, ‘this is what you’ve done wrong.’”
Even so, Alexa doesn’t resent the bishop.
“He was just trying to make me take some accountability,” she said, “in whatever way he could.”
‘Their words cut me to the core’
Over and over, the women interviewed described feeling hurt by comments from fellow Latter-day Saints calling abortion evil and comparing it to murder.
“Their words cut me to the core,” Mock said, “and reopen painful memories.”
Cathy remembers a particularly painful women’s Relief Society lesson in which abortion came up. The women, she said, had no idea she’d had an abortion and no way of knowing “the sting” she experienced at the “insensitive and misplaced comments” many shared.
Phoebe, who lives in Arizona and asked to go by another name out of fear of judgment, was 13 when she became pregnant after being raped.
She told no one, performing the abortion with “zero medical care” and held onto that secret for years, all the while enduring comments from fellow Latter-day Saints about “abortion being evil.”
The resulting shame was so intense, she said, that only last year, at age 34 and after more than a decade of marriage, did she finally tell her husband.
A post-Roe world
Katie, who asked to go by a pseudonym due to the “guilt and shame” she said she is still working through, had given birth less than a year before and was suffering from severe postpartum-induced panic attacks when she realized she was pregnant again.
“I knew I wanted another baby,” she said, “but I was on intense anxiety medication and basically a tranquilizer to sleep.” Katie, who said she was suicidal at the time, knew “immediately” she couldn’t give up her medications.
The California resident met for weeks with health care professionals, including her therapist, psychiatrist and gynecologist before deciding that “terminating was the safest thing for everyone.”
Watching Latter-day Saint friends celebrate the court’s recent decision overturning Roe v. Wade, she said, has been “gut-wrenching.”
“It’s been very hard,” she continued, “for my husband and I to separate our church from the people as politics like this have become so divisive the last few years.”
Mock, who now calls North Carolina home, said she was “heartbroken” to see Roe v. Wade overturned.
“Without safe and quick access to abortion, I would most likely be dead now,” she said, “my husband a widower and my son motherless.”
Having access to abortion care allowed her to fulfill what she believed to be a personal revelation from God.
“I miss and think about the baby I aborted nearly every day,” she said. “But I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that my decision to have an abortion was approved, and I would even say encouraged by my Heavenly Parents. I needed to live.”
Going forward, Mock said, she is less likely to try to grow her family as a result of the ruling.
“I cry often, wishing so badly I could have another baby,” she said. However, three years of chemotherapy mean that, should she somehow manage to become pregnant, that pregnancy would “undoubtedly” be high risk.
“The cancer could relapse or another health condition arise that would require quick access to abortion,” she said. “Now, however, safe access to abortion, even for medical emergencies, will be restricted. I don’t know if I can risk taking the chance of getting pregnant, having a health emergency arise, and jeopardize my life once again.”