Why is Mormon Mitt Anti-Choice When His Church Is Not?

As the Republicans convene in Tampa, we are set to have the first Mormon become his party’s nominee for president.  A milestone in American religious history by anyone’s measure.  And yet we keep talking about his running mate’s religion and its stance on abortion and contraception.  Because the news of the year has swirled around the Roman Catholic bishops and their opposition to provisions for women’s preventative health services in the Affordable Care Act in particular, every religion reporter and blogger, political pundit, and anchor has had to talk about the Catholic Church and its formal opposition to families choosing contraception and abortion.

Paul Ryan gets a lot of attention, criticism as well as credit, for adhering strictly to his church’s teachings on abortion and contraception when it comes to making policy.  Like many others, I use the language of “anti-choice” here to capture what the position really is, and how things like the Human Life Amendment and a call for “protecting religious conscience” advocated by the Republican Party platform has consequences for the availability and legality of both abortion and contraception.  They are opposed to choice – wanting to enforce all pregnancies to term, without exception, and wanting to severely limit the availability of birth control.  On these issues, do read Bryce Covert’s piece over at Forbes.com on “Six Ways the GOP Platform is Bad News for Women’s Bottom Line.”

But what about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?  The church to which the nominee himself is a lifelong member and in which he is a leader?

Here is what they say on family planning:

“Children are one of the greatest blessings in life, and their birth into loving and nurturing families is central to God’s purposes for humanity. When husband and wife are physically able, they have the privilege and responsibility to bring children into the world and to nurture them. The decision of how many children to have and when to have them is a private matter for the husband and wife.”

Or, put another way:

“In our Heavenly Father’s plan, Mormon members are taught that we each have our free agency, and that in matters concerning: when to have children, how many to have, and all other questions regarding such, it is between the marriage partners and God.

Mormons have never been told to have ‘several children’ or to ‘never use birth control’. As was mentioned, those questions are between the father, mother and God.”

On abortion specifically, the LDS statement is:

“The Church opposes abortion and counsels its members not to submit to or perform an abortion except in the rare cases where, in the opinion of competent medical counsel, the life or good health of the mother is seriously endangered or where the pregnancy was caused by rape and produces serious emotional trauma in the mother. Even then it should be done only after counseling with the local presiding priesthood authority and after receiving divine confirmation through prayer.”

And as Mormon author Joanna Brooks describes the position on contraception,

“From what I’ve read, heard, and experienced, Mormon talk about birth control emphasizes prayerful deliberation, moral agency, consideration for women’s perspectives on family size, and the importance of marital intimacy for reasons beyond procreation.”

Emphases in the above quotations are mine, highlighting where the right to decide is ultimately preserved when it comes to family planning, including matters of contraception and abortion.  Brent Corrigan at The Salt Lake City Tribune notes that the LDS Church “is more compassionate and contradicts the [GOP] platform,” because abortion, contraception, family planning and all that those things entail, are matters of conscience and prayerful discernment between marriage partners, their chosen counsel, and God.

So why isn’t anyone asking Romney about this as a matter of his religion?  Why do Paul Ryan and his Catholic bishops get all the attention and power when it comes to this party and its Mormon nominee?

I’m sure we know the answer to these questions.  Paul Ryan and the bishops are being used to secure and satisfy the right-wing evangelical Christian base of the party.  Those folks who don’t think that Romney is Christian anyway.  They have the positions that conservatives want right now.

Several media outlets have covered Romney’s path to opposing choice.  I haven’t seen any of them characterize it as a path away from the teachings of his religion.  Because that is what it is.  Does it matter?  For the sake of being elected in Massachusetts, Romney articulated a position in support of choice certainly and authentically informed by the position of his church.  Now, for the sake of being elected president as the nominee of this Republican party, he is taking anti-choice positions that will threaten women’s access to a full range of health services and medical care.

I think this is more interesting than the “etch-a-sketch” meme that follows Romney around.  It speaks to the religious principles that inform the nominee, and lets us see when he is willing to abandon them.

Does anyone care?

Or, as Corrigan put it, “Who knew Mormons were, technically, pro-choice?”

(I think Mitt knows.)


{nota bene:  the pictures are from a trip to Salt Lake City this summer, the first one is of me literally looking inside (a model replica of) the Mormon Temple in the North South Visitors Center}



About Caryn Riswold

Caryn D. Riswold is a feminist theologian in the Lutheran tradition. She is Professor of Religion and also teaches Gender and Women’s Studies at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, where she has worked for over a decade teaching undergraduates to think critically and creatively about religion. She earned her Ph.D. and Th.M. from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, holds a master’s degree from the Claremont School of Theology, and received her B.A. from Augustana College in her childhood hometown of Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

  • Jennifer

    Mitt’s stand on abortion, like his stand on most every issue, is based on political expediency.

    The man has “adapted” to running for governor of a liberal state, to now pursuing the presidency. His views on abortion, or states’ rights, on the Vietnam War, on the auto industry bail-out, and on several other issues have changed as the audiences have changed.

    In my view he has no guiding principles other than whatever it takes to get elected.

    No thanks.

    • Deborah Alford

      A person does have the freedom to change his mind. Please be reminded that at one time Bill Clinton and Al Gore were pro-life, however in order to be a democrat they had to change their hearts to get elected by the dems.

  • Jettboy

    You might as well ask that question about a majority of Mormons and not just Mitt Romney. This article is misleading. When it comes to “family planning,” the Mormons as a whole might be less strict on non-invasive birth control, but on abortion a large number are just as firm as any pro-life advocate it is murder. The LDS Church my not be absolutist on abortion in the case of rape and physical health of a mother, but it is serious about it as a sin if used for family planning. You can be excommunicated as a member or refused baptism if unrepentant.

    The question also seems to be, how can Mitt (or other Mormons) be more strict on these things when the LDS Church isn’t? The answer is in your very article. Mormons are commanded not to be commanded in all things; do and be good by your own power. That is why Mormons can be taught abortion might be ok in cases of rape and health of mother, but the majority don’t see it that way and refuse to acknowledge it in public as necessary in even those circumstances. They will allow others to be flexible, but they won’t bend as individuals that it is wrong all the time.

    The views of Mitt Romney, contrary to this article and the questionable Joanna Brooks who is not liked or trusted by average Mormons to represent anything, is far more like Mormons than not in his views on family planning. Don’t believe me? Go to any Mormon church service and ask a few random Mormons about this topic. They will sound more like Mitt and the GOP than this article.

    • mapman

      As some of the comments here demonstrate, Mormons in general are often more conservative than the LDS Church. My guess is that most Mormons would be very surprised if they knew their church’s position on illegal immigration. It is worth noting that while the position is that abortion is in most cases immoral (though it never calls it murder), it has no position on what laws should be made about the issue.

      • Caryn Riswold

        I think that your last point here, mapman, is the most salient: it has no position on what laws should be made about the issue.

        • Sarah

          Right. The religous institution hasn’t take a position on the goverment’s law. Are you suggesting that a man running for the office of the President of the United States shouldn’t take a position on the law? It is a general pracitce for the Church not to take an official stance on politics. It would be silly for church members running for office to do the same. You’re comparing apples and oranges.

          • Caryn Riswold

            As a big example, the Catholic Church takes many public positions on law, especially this year on matters of contraception and abortion and their legality and accessibility. In that case, the bishops have been working to enforce their position through the law, in particular the Affordable Care Act and its mandate on preventative health services for women. This is the church of the vice presidential candidate. I am asking us to think about how the church of the presidential candidate does and does not seek to impose its position through the law.

          • Caryn Riswold

            (also, the LDS church took a pretty big and pretty public position on marriage laws very recently)

  • Scott

    The following official position quoted from the LDS Church’s Handbook at lds.org is anything but “pro-choice” : (EMPHASIS added)
    The Lord commanded, “Thou shalt not … kill, nor do anything like unto it” (D&C 59:6). The Church OPPOSES elective abortion for personal or social convenience. Members MUST NOT submit to, perform, arrange for, pay for, consent to, or encourage an abortion. THE ONLY POSSIBLE EXCEPTIONS are when:
    1. Pregnancy resulted from forcible rape or incest.
    2. A competent physician determines that the life or health of the mother is in serious jeopardy.
    3. A competent physician determines that the fetus has severe defects that will not allow the baby to survive beyond birth.
    EVEN THESE EXCEPTIONS do not justify abortion automatically. Abortion is a most serious matter and should be considered only after the persons responsible have consulted with their bishops and received divine confirmation through prayer.
    Church members who submit to, perform, arrange for, pay for, consent to, or encourage an abortion may be SUBJECT TO CHURCH DISCIPLINE.”

    • Caryn Riswold

      If there is any instance in which abortion should be an available procedure, which the LDS doctrine quoted here by Scott and by me says there is, even if it is strongly counseled against, then this is a more compassionate position than that taken by the GOP platform and the Catholic Church.

      • Jettboy

        Scott did not qoute doctrine. He qoutes a manual used as guidence for the leadership. For those who are not LDS, its the handbook of instructions even if it was written with some authority. Its not even meant for the general membership.

        • JohnH

          Actually, handbook 2 (which was quoted) is meant for the general membership now and is freely available to the public. http://www.lds.org/handbook/handbook-2-administering-the-church/selected-church-policies#21.4.1

        • Scott

          Responding to Jetboy: False. There is no such thing as one set of instructions for leaders and one for general membership; the instructions are written for and available to both leaders AND general membership. The salient point is “Church members who submit to, perform, arrange for, pay for, consent to, or encourage an abortion may be SUBJECT TO CHURCH DISCIPLINE.” I have yet to meet a member of the Mormon Church who does not understand this.

  • Paul

    Caryn Riswold, you have no authority to speak on behalf of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Nor should you be defining their position for them. You are attempting to create a conflict between the church’s position and a member’s position, which does not exist. You are the author of contention.

    • Caryn Riswold

      I claim no such authority. I am asking questions about policies and platform positions important to many people.

  • Trent

    Mitt is one of the least showy candidates about his religion from the GOP in decades. As noted above, many of his current positions are a political expediency. I doubt that his core feelings on abortion have changed more than a few small degrees since he ran in Massachusetts, but his target constituency has changed drastically.

    What I don’t understand is why those on the other criticize Romney for taking these positions. One of the biggest complaints of the day is that the republicans have allegedly gone too far right at the whims of the tea party and are now hard to work with. Romney is by any measure a moderate, no sincere person questions that. If elected Romney would almost certainly have a moderating influence on his party, and at very least on the policy bills that are signed from 2012-2016. I would think that a democrat that saw Mitt positioning to win the loyalty of the far right would be happy because he is one of few that has real ability to moderate the party. You realize that if he loses, especially by alot, that those on the right will say it is because he was too moderate and didn’t fire up the base- that means in 2016 the GOP challenger would be more far-right orthodox than Romney.

    I hope you don’t sincerely believe Romney chooses his political positions based on his church. Look at his record and history. This piece’s central premise is delusional.

  • JSperry

    I’m going to call pro-choice what it really is INFANTICIDE.

  • JSperry

    Let’s be absolutely clear how seriously devout Mormons take abortion from a doctrinal perspective. Joseph Smith once said, “I teach them correct principles and they govern themselves.” Like the Pharisees of Christ’s day who sought to find contradiction in the Lord’s healing on the Sabbath, Caryn Riswold chooses not to see that commandments and gospel principles are meant to bless the lives of the faithful, not oppress them. Secular critics stereotype the faithful as blind followers of tradition, ritual, and observances like those to whom the Law of Moses was originally given. They do not understand that Christ fulfilled that law; His gospel is a higher law, a spiritual law. To know God is life eternal, and the way one comes to know God is by following Christ’s example. The letter of the law is dead, but through Christ the spirit of the law is made alive. As one develops a personal relationship with God through constant communion with the Holy Spirit, one begins to exude virtue in word and deed because one begins to emulate the fundamental character of Christ, which is charity and love unfeigned. Following the gospel of Christ is a conscious choice, and it is not done blindly or ignorantly.

    Latter-day Saints (Mormons) who take their temple covenants seriously are appalled by abortion. Abortion is a grievious sin except under three very specific circumstances and is permitted ONLY AFTER first seeking God’s counsel through much prayer and second meeting with one’s bishop who is obligated to verify that one has indeed sought the Lord’s counsel. These circumstances are limited to: 1) Pregnancy resulted from forcible rape or incest; 2) A competent physician determines that the life or health of the mother is in serious jeopardy; 3) A competent physician determines that the fetus has severe defects that will not allow the baby to survive beyond birth. The stringent conditions placed upon it and the revulsion faithful Mormons feel for it directly stems from the fact that abortion closely parallels two of the three criterion of the unpardonable sin. Scripture revealed to Joseph Smith in the Doctrine and Covenants section 132 verse 27 states:

    “The blasphemy against the Holy Ghost, which shall not be forgiven in the world nor out of the world, is in that ye commit murder wherein ye shed innocent blood, and assent unto my death, after ye have received my new and everlasting covenant, saith the Lord God; and he that abideth not this law can in nowise enter into my glory, but shall be damned, saith the Lord.”

  • Greg Kenner

    I’ll focus this comment on non-abotion birth control. To claim the GOP platform is anti-choice in this matter is disingenuous at best. There is no GOP platform or policy or position seeking to stop men or women from purchasing pregnancy prevention, such as condoms, diaphragms, “the pill”, IUDs, vasectomies, etc. Any man or any woman who so choses may pay for these things for themselves, or for their significant (or insignificant) other. No GOP platform seeks to outlaw, restrict or prevent this in any way–and you know that full well.

    The GOP position is that this is a private choice that government won’t try to stop. The GOP simply believes it is inappropriate, and certainly not a right, for tax-payers as a whole to have to fund these individual choices. Any non-government entity that wants to can certainly cover the cost of these things free of charge for whowever they want. Just because we don’t want to have to pay for every aspect of a person’s life does not mean we don’t want them to be allowed to make choices.

    • Justin Sharp

      Thank You Greg! This is exactly how I feel. I won’t dare to speak for anyone but myself, but I suspect many others feel the same way. My problem has always been that I do not want to pay for anyone’s choice but mine. As with most things – it boils down to personal responsibility and while I may personally disagree with abortion except for special circumstances, I would not seek to take others’ choice.

      • Caryn Riswold

        You make fine points about how a person can be personally opposed to something, and yet not want to legislate it out of existence. What doesn’t work about the “I do not want to pay for anyone’s choice but mine” is that we live in a pluralistic democracy where public funds are used for all kinds of things that we don’t get to line-item veto. Exhibit A: the war in Iraq.

        • Greg Kenner

          Caryn, of course we cannot “line-item veto” EVERYTHING we disagree with. But we are not talking about everything here, we are talking about what you falsely claimed was the GOP’s position on a specific thing, and I was correcting that specific thing.

  • Greg Kenner

    Indeed, another position of the GOP is that it IS a violation of constitutional religious rights to FORCE (at the threat of being shut down) religious-based institutions to provide these services that go completely against their religious convictions. Again, that institution should be able to make their own CHOICE.

  • Alan

    Doesn’t look to me like the LDS church is for abortion from the quote you printed. Your head line is not supported by the article.
    While I am writing, I always find it offensive when people use X as a short form for Christianity as you do in your column title. It is just not respectful and borders on the profane.

  • Alan

    Caryn, I read the article you referred me to, and like the article above, it really explains very little.
    I think I’ll move on for now, thanks.

  • Deborah Alford

    I think Mitt Romeny’s stand on abortion is the same as his church. You have misstated this. We who are pro-life have Jesus’own words to back our truth. The Lord told us he knew us in our father’s loins. None of us escape judgement, one day you will find that you may have been wrong and helped lead many mother’s to a decision that was not in the best interest of her spirtual soul.

  • Carlos Helms

    There are laws against murder in all of its forms except abortion.

    The Bible forbids punishing the children for the sins of the parent(s).

    Why should I accept what has become the institution of abortion? Sure, I can sit at home and “mind my own business;” but wouldn’t that constitute tacit support for ALL murder? As a Christian, I don’t believe I’ll do that. I believe the LDS “official” position is weak at best. Murder is still illegal and I’m not ready for exceptions to that rule.