Monday, October 12, 2020

On being pro-life and pro-choice as a Latter-day Saint

Or, perhaps better said, the morality of pro-choice from a Latter-day Saint perspective.

Some years ago, a close, Latter-day Saint friend was campaigning for an elected office as a Republican. He was a deeply moral and conservative man, fully committed to both the Gospel and republican ideals.  As he sought support for his campaign, Virginia Republican Party officials interviewed him on his position on abortion. His answer was fully in line with Latter-day Saint doctrine and policy: that in the cases of rape, incest, and the health of the mother, abortion may be permitted after careful and prayerful consideration. He was rejected by the Party officials, because his position allowed for any abortion, because “abortion is murder.”

The idea that “abortion is murder” prevails in our political discourse. Those who support the right to choose abortion are labeled “baby killers,” making any real dialogue around the abortion issue deeply shrouded in political manipulation. But leaving aside this political wrangling, is it possible to have a discussion as to what the pro-life and pro-choice positions truly are, and is it possible to be morally be both pro-life and pro-choice?

To answer this, we need to explore both life and choice.

When does life begin?

Life is perhaps the most essential human right. The role of a government, and specifically this constitutional government, must be to protect life as a primary responsibility. But what is life?  When does life begin? When does it end?

Latter-day Saint doctrine is unique in many ways. We believe that the soul doesn’t begin at birth, but rather, our spirits and intelligence are eternal in nature: we lived as sentient beings before this life. In contrast, prevailing Biblical doctrine considers the soul to be created at birth—at the taking in of “breath”. The term “Spirit” from the Latin spiritus and the Greek equivalent “pneuma” all mean “breath.” The Bible, along with Talmudic tradition is unequivocal in expressing that the “Breath of Life” is the defining element of a human person. Thus, those who consider the Bible as the ultimate authority of doctrine, can find no actual, unambiguous basis to condemn abortion.

The only place in the bible where an abortion is discussed is in Exodus 21:22-25. The case is that some violent act that harms a woman so that she has a miscarriage, then the offending party needs to pay a fine to the husband for the loss of potential offspring. If, however, any harm happen to the mother, “then thou shalt give life for life, Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, Burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” Thus, in the very scripture that demands “life for life,” the causing of a miscarriage invokes a fine and thus is explicitly not defined as a loss of life. 

Latter-day Saints have two evidences that a fetus is not yet fully in status as a life. By Latter-day Saint policy, a still-born infant, while a deeply tragic loss for the parents, does not constitute a person in our temple work: unless a child is born live, we do perform vicarious ordinances for the child. The Book of Mormon provides a second example. The night before Jesus was to be born in Bethlehem, he visited the prophet Nephi, as the fully conscious, pre-mortal Jesus Christ. Within literally minutes or a few hours, he would be born in Bethlehem as a mortal, with the veil drawn over his pre-mortal existence. He would live and develop as a human like all of us, even if his potential were fully divine. The child Jesus learned grace for grace.

Yet with all these doctrinal evidences, the idea that life begins at birth is hardly satisfying. An expectant mother perceives life in the child at “quickening:” the time when the child’s movements are apparent in the womb. As well, pre-mature children can be born by accident or violence and survive, typically after 24 weeks. If such an infant is born by accident, then birth itself is not the determinant of life, but something else must be.

One approach is to recognize that there are three necessary functions for a person to be alive: a beating heart, breathing, and brain activity.  Of the three, a person may be artificially kept alive through an artificial heart or an iron lung, but if the brain no longer can sustain coherent brain waves, the person is indeed ‘dead’. Thus, the determinant of human life is the ability to sustain brain waves – to think. When a person becomes “brain dead” through accident or disease, then keeping him or her on life support is not necessary: the person is no longer alive and life support can and should be terminated.

At the other extreme of life is when brain activity commences in the fetus such that conscious thought is possible. However we define soul, whether in Christian doctrine as a creation of God at or sometime before birth, or in Latter-day Saint doctrine when the spirit enters the body, it would require, in both cases, a suitable brain to hold the spirit. Although the nervous system begins to develop in the first trimester, and reflex action occurs at quickening, the brain cannot function without the complete development of the thalamus, which occurs at 24 weeks. Thus, while a fetus prior to 24 weeks is a potential life, it does not have the ability to house the spirit, consciousness, or thought. 

So, when does life begin? From a scientific sense, and to be consistent with how we now understand death, the presence of a functional brain provides the clearest definition of when life begins and ends. A fetus with a functioning brain should be treated as a human life in the fullest sense of the word. Prior to that, however, there is no biblical or scientific reason to consider a fetus a consciousness-capable human being at that point in time. That we personally or religiously feel otherwise means that we can and should choose to follow the dictates of our conscience. However, we do not have the right to inflict our religious opinion on others when it goes beyond protecting rights.

What is the role of choice?

Child-bearing is uniquely a woman’s role, yet the choice to become pregnant is not necessarily up to the woman. Bearing a child involves not only a significant, life-changing responsibility, it can also have significant health impacts to a woman’s body. The rights of the woman and her ability to choose matter, because of the disproportionate impact on the woman in pregnancy and child-bearing. Denying the woman the right to choose what happens with her body is a uniquely unequal treatment of women.

As a moral question, then, if a woman does not choose to have sex, as in the case of rape and abusive incest, then should she be denied the choice to terminate this pregnancy? Is it morally right to require her to bear the full responsibility for the violent act of another person?  Latter-day Saint policy is clear on this: in the cases of rape and incest, the woman may, with counseling from her church, medical, and emotional resources and prayerful consideration, choose to have an abortion. This is a difficult choice for many reasons, so the idea that the state have a say in whether or not she should have an abortion works against the Latter-day Saint religious position: our freedom to act in the dictates of our religious choice would be denied by the state. 

To legislate whether the woman has been raped is a difficult matter for the state. If the husband is the perpetrator of the rape, the wife may well not file charges, thus it would be nearly impossible to enforce the rape exception. A woman choosing the have an abortion simply would claim that she was raped, and then she could have it. 

From a Latter-day Saint perspective, choice becomes a critical matter. We do not accept a world where our religious opinions are regulated by the state. If the state prohibits abortions under all circumstances, then we are being denied our ability to practice our religion which allows for certain circumstances.

On being both pro-choice and pro-life

To summarize Latter-day Saint doctrine on life, we believe that the spirit is eternal and this body is not, and our doctrine is that the spirit enters the body at or before birth, in such a way that the only temple work we do is for persons born alive. An abortion, while certainly not a preferred act, is not murder in Latter-day Saint doctrine. Further, Latter-day Saint policy is to allow for abortions in the cases of rape, incest, and health of the mother and child. Specifically, Latter-day Saint practice is to consult with medical, ecclesiastical and counseling resources to consider the best course of action in these cases, and to prayerfully make the right choice, whatever that may be. Since the state has no role in ecclesiastical matters, and only measures competence in medical and counseling services, the state must have no role in denying the choices made by a religion—as long as the religion does not deny the right to life of another human being. 

The Latter-day Saint position, then, must be formally pro-choice: leaving the choice for an abortion where no conscious life is taken, to be a personal and ecclesiastical matter. The Latter-day Saint position must also be "pro-life" in all of its dimensions, from the moment of ensoulment to brain death. Can we be both pro-choice and pro-life?

Too often good words are used to trigger underlying meanings. When someone says “pro-life,” what they often really mean is “anti-abortion,” because in many (but not all) cases, there is no real correlation between the pro-life position and policies that, after birth, actually foster life—a pro-life conservative may be for the death penalty and against universal health-care and social safety nets. And when someone says “pro-choice,” they often (but not always) do not mean the right to choose abortion any time on demand. Yet these terms are not completely opposed to each other: many “pro-life” are pro-life in the fullest extent of the word, and few who speak of “pro-choice” want to see unrestricted abortion on demand at any time during pregnancy.

If we can set aside our being triggered, for a moment, there is a compelling reason to be both pro-life and pro-choice. Our unique Latter-day Saint understanding of the pre-mortal existence gives us another insight: we chose to come into this life, we chose to have the trials of mortality, and freedom of choice is essential in order for us to exercise our agency in this life. To Latter-day Saints, the defining difference between God’s plan of salvation and the adversary’s is the freedom to choose. So, by definition, all humans who have entered into this world were “pro-choice” in the pre-mortal existence.

It is my humble and perhaps na├»ve view that Latter-day Saints can and should be decisively pro-choice and pro-life in all of its dimensions. This means removing a divisive issue from our political dialogues, and back into our families and churches where such questions actually belong. 

I'm afraid, however, that such naivete will be rejected by both sides of this discussion. 

What are your thoughts? Can we have a reasonable discussion of pro-life and pro-choice without vilifying each other?