What the LDS Church’s new language on abortion says and what it might mean

Members “may” join the political fights in the states but aren’t told which side they should be on, save for protecting “life” and preserving “religious liberty.”

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Thousands gather for a rally in defense of abortion rights at the Capitol, Friday, June 24, 2022. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has greenlighted members to "appropriately choose to participate in efforts to protect life and to preserve religious liberty.”

Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints “may” join the political fights regarding abortion currently roiling states across the country, according to new language added to the faith’s topic page outlining its official stance on the controversial topic.

The statement, which appeared in the text the day the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, falls short of actively encouraging such engagement. Neither does it offer any guidance as to how Latter-day Saints might choose to participate.

Instead, it simply reads: “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.”

In a debate where abortion activists on all sides cite concerns for life, be it the pregnant person or the fetus, members are likely to seize upon the broad language to bolster a variety of stances.

Likewise, what exactly constitutes an effort to “preserve religious liberty” seems very much up to interpretation at a time when some states are busy pursuing abortion bans that do not account for the possible allowances outlined within Latter-day Saint policy.

Those exemptions include rape, incest, fetal defects incompatible with birth and “when the life or health of the mother is in serious jeopardy” — a list that, the topic page stressed, “remains unchanged” in light of the high court’s ruling.

Indeed, in a news release issued Friday, the group Latter-day Saints for Biden-Harris uses the church’s updated topic page to frame its support of President Joe Biden’s executive order to preserve abortion access.

“We have a wide range of personal views on the role of abortion in our own lives and in public policy,” it reads. However, since the court’s decision, “we have witnessed several concerning developments,” among them a call for a national ban on abortion by congressional Republicans and delayed treatment of life-threatening complications in pregnant individuals.

“In our view, none of these proposals ‘preserve life,’” the release states. “They also undermine the religious liberty of Latter-day Saints and many of our Jewish, Muslim, Christian and humanist neighbors.”

Reduced role for bishops

As the web editor for Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Emily Jensen is used to dissecting words and their meanings. Particularly intriguing to her in the church’s statement was the use of the qualifier “appropriately.”

“What is appropriate?” she asked.

Given the Utah-based faith’s conservative bent, Jensen said, it can be easy to assume that the leaders are encouraging members to take up anti-abortion arms in their respective states. But she isn’t convinced that’s actually the intent.

“It seems specifically written to allow members, through prayerful consideration, to participate in rallies and other actions” regardless of which side of the debate they land on, she said, “because of how differently states are approaching the issue.”

Equally telling, Jensen added, was the softening of language around whether members considering an abortion ought to meet with their faith leaders.

According to a pre-June 24 version of the topic page, abortion “should be considered only after the persons involved have consulted with their local church leaders” and have sought God’s will personally on the issue. The new text states “members may counsel with their bishops as part of this process,” a phrase that also appears in the more official General Handbook, which lay leaders follow to govern their congregations.

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) The General Handbook spells out the faith's policy on abortion.

This language shift is important, Jensen said, not only because it relieves individuals and couples of the obligation of seeking out the input of a man — all bishops hold the faith’s all-male priesthood — who has never experienced pregnancy or childbirth himself, but also demotes the role of this local leader within the decision-making process from one of a judge to a counselor.

In doing so, she explained, the new topic page appears to place the issue of abortion on a path blazed by issues like birth control and surgical sterilization.

“You go back into the mid-20th century and you have birth control and surgical sterilization being called damning and sinful,” Jensen said. Nowadays both are considered a personal decision, ideally made with one’s spouse and God.

Men’s responsibility

(Image courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints)

It would be overstating things, however, to say church leaders no longer have any role in the matter. According to the General Handbook, leaders may be responsible for calling “membership councils” not only for those who terminate a pregnancy but also for anyone who “performs, arranges for, pays for, consents to, or encourages an abortion.”

Missing from the topic page and the conversation generally is any discussion of education, prevention or male responsibility, said Patricia Jones, the CEO of the Women’s Leadership Institute.

“I really do think it’s time that we include the responsibility of the fathers of these babies,” the former Utah senator and representative said, “and focus on prevention and education.”

Latter-day Saint influencer Gabrielle Blair, also known as “Design Mom,” made a similar argument in a recent interview for The Salt Lake Tribune’s “Mormon Land” podcast.

“Men are much better positioned,” the mother of six said, “to prevent pregnancy than women are.”

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.