As I was reviewing some of my older posts I noticed that someone had made an additional comment on my post about abortion. Dan commented on the question of abortion being equivalent to murder. As he also pointed out that was not the point of that post. The point of that post was to show that the argument of the pro-life movement (that abortion should be illegal) is not required in order to be in harmony the current position of the LDS church. There are many reasons why someone could believe that abortion should be illegal; equating it with murder is only one. And as I will to show below it is not a very good one.
Is abortion murder?
This is one of the standard arguments used by the far right in their attempts to eliminate access to abortion. It is an almost purely emotional argument, one that sounds good as a bumper sticker or a sound bite and one that collapses under any level of careful scrutiny. And it is one that, for members of the church, skirts perilously close to false doctrine. In an issue such as this it is vital that we not be lead astray by emotional, but indefensible, arguments.
Mormonism provides us with two main arguments against equating murder and abortion.
If we are to equate abortion with murder we need to first understand what murder is. For the purpose of this discussion we can call it the willful destruction of innocent human life. Mormon doctrine (see D&C 88:15 and Moses 3:7) defines the soul as the union of the physical body and the spirit. Implicitly, death is the permanent separation of the body and the spirit. Therefore, for abortion to be murder it must cause the permanent separation of the spirit from the body.
The Mormon doctrine of the pre-existence is a belief that every person who has ever lived, or will ever live, lived before they were born (or conceived) in “heaven” with God as the father of our spirits. This doctrine, relatively unique in Christian theology, implies that life does not begin at conception and that a vital part of what makes a person a unique individual is not involved with the physical container, or body, at all. Therefore, unlike fundamentalist Christian theology, the moment of conception is not the moment of the creation of human life. Human life begins when the spirit and the body are connected into a soul, the destruction of which would constitute murder.
While I personally have heard anecdotal evidence that would suggest that this does not occur until sometime after conception, the only way (according to Mormon doctrine) that we could know when a body and a spirit unite to become a soul would be by revelation to a prophet and president of the church. The existence of biological indicators such as a functioning heart or rudimentary brain waves cannot be taken as definite indicators that a spirit and body have been permanently united. They only imply that the physical vessel that the spirit will inhabit is beginning its biological functions.
As far as I can determine (and if anyone can find any additional information I would be grateful) Brigham Young made one of the only statements regarding when the spirit and body are united, and then only in passing (others have also referred to this statement):
The disposition, the will, the spirit, when it comes from heaven and enters the tabernacle, is as pure as an angel. The spirit from the eternal worlds enters the tabernacle at the time of what is termed quickening, [the time that the mother can begin to feel the movement of the fetus or about the start of the second trimester] and forgets all it formerly knew.
(Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 26 vols. [London: Latter-Day Saints Book Depot, 1854-1886], 6:333)
This by itself is certainly not definitive, but it points out that to assume that life begins at conception is to venture beyond revealed doctrine.
The second argument against equating abortion with murder comes from the church’s statement on abortion, reproduced here on 12/13/08:
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believes in the sanctity of human life. Therefore, the Church opposes elective abortion for personal or social convenience, and counsels its members not to submit to, perform, encourage, pay for, or arrange for such abortions.
The Church allows for possible exceptions for its members when:
• Pregnancy results from rape or incest, or
• A competent physician determines that the life or health of the mother is in serious jeopardy, or
• A competent physician determines that the fetus has severe defects that will not allow the baby to survive beyond birth.
The Church teaches its members that even these rare exceptions do not justify abortion automatically. Abortion is a most serious matter and should be considered only after the persons involved have consulted with their local church leaders and feel through personal prayer that their decision is correct.
The Church has not favored or opposed legislative proposals or public demonstrations concerning abortion.
[I’m indebted to Ronald Dworkin for the structure of the following arguments. While he considers the question of abortion as murder from a constitutional perspective, the form of the arguments are at least as compelling when applied to the above statement by the Church.]
The essential problem with equating abortion with murder and the position of the church on abortion is one of integrity. If we are to consider that abortion is murder then we must treat it as such with all that this implies. The best way too clearly see the results of treating abortion as murder is to replace the term abortion with the idea of a mother killing her newborn, which is indisputably murder. The idea being that if abortion is murder then it should be treated the same way the murder of an infant would be. Below are the results of taking the abortion as murder argument and applying it to the Church’s statement. It will quickly become clear that such an argument cannot stand.
The Church allows that an abortion may be preformed when the “Pregnancy results from rape or incest.” The idea that you could kill a day old infant because her conception was the result of her mother’s rape is truly horrifying, yet if we equate abortion with murder that is what this statement would mean.
The Church allows for an abortion if “A competent physician determines that the life or health of the mother is in serious jeopardy.” If we equate abortion with murder then we are saying that the Church allows for the murder of an innocent to save the life of another. Applying this concept with integrity would be the equivalent of allowing a mother to kill her child to harvest his organs if that was what was required to save her life. Again a horrifying idea.
The third exception is when “A competent physician determines that the fetus has severe defects that will not allow the baby to survive beyond birth.” Can we image that the Church would countenance killing a child merely because she is terminally ill and her life will end in a few months anyway? Of course not.
The Church states that these exceptions should only be used after revelation, from God to the mother. If we accept that abortion is murder then we are saying that a woman can receive revelation from God to murder her children.
Not only is it clear that the Church does not consider abortion the equivalent of murder, but to declare it as such is to accuse the Church of approving murder.
I believe that the reason that people are drawn to the idea of equating abortion with murder is because it is a clear, shocking, and simple statement on the value of a fetus. Such a position values a fetus as the equivalent of a newborn child. And unfortunately the pro-choice movement has done to little in their arguments to address the value of a fetus; this void has left the fundamentalists with the only statement of value that is easily understood, and gives them the standing to imply that to not value a fetus as equivalent to a newborn is to not value it at all. Such an argument is both absurd, and contrary to the stated position of the Church. I believe that we can still value even the potential for life incredibly highly without the need to equate its destruction with murder.