Today, January 22nd, 2007, marks the 34th anniversary of the legalization of abortion in the United States. Forty million unborn babies have been legally killed in this nation since that tragic ruling.My father is in favor of legalized abortion, citing the gruesome stories of illegal back-alley abortions he heard about as a young man. I wasn’t there, of course, but I’ve also heard plenty of horror stories about abortions that pre-dated Roe vs. Wade. Nevertheless, I’m compelled to place a higher value on pre-born life than my father does. Perhaps it’s because we don’t share a common faith in the Giver and Creator of life, the God who bestows value on all life.
Even so, there’s an important argument that can be made for the sanctity of human life that doesn’t rely on faith issues. But my dad won’t talk about it. I think there are a lot of people who don’t want to talk about it. Though it’s legal, the topic is packed with emotion and conviction — as it should be, since lives are at stake.
The LDS Church position on abortion is this:
If a child is conceived by those who break the law of chastity, they may be tempted to commit another abominable sin: abortion. There is seldom any excuse for abortion. The only exceptions are when —
1. Pregnancy has resulted from incest or rape.
2. The life or health of the woman is in jeopardy in the opinion of competent medical authority; or
3. The fetus is known, by competent medial authority, to have severe defects that will not allow the baby to survive beyond birth.
Even in those cases the couple should consider an abortion only after consulting with each other and their bishop or branch president and receiving divine confirmation through prayer. (Gospel Principles, 1992 edition, 251,)
This has not always been so. The previous edition of Gospel Principles (to the one quoted above) said,
If a child is conceived by those who break the law of chastity, they may be tempted to commit another abominable sin — abortion. There is no excuse for abortion unless the life of the mother is seriously threatened. (1988 edition, 214)
Going back even further, Sarah Pratt, wife of early LDS Apostle Orson Pratt, related a story from when she lived in the Mormon community of Nauvoo, Illinois:
“One day they came both, Joseph [Smith] and [John C.] Bennett, on horseback to my house. Bennett dismounted, Joseph remained outside. Bennett wanted me to return to him a book I had borrowed from him. It was a so-called doctor-book. I had a rapidly growing little family and wanted to inform myself about certain matters in regard to babies, etc., — this explains my borrowing that book. While giving Bennett his book, I observed that he held something in the left sleeve of his coat. Bennett smiled and said: ‘Oh, a little job for Joseph; one of his women is in trouble.’ Saying this. [sic] he took the thing out of his left sleeve. It was a pretty long instrument of a kind I had never seen before. It seemed to be of steel and was crooked at one end. I heard afterwards that the operation had been performed; that the woman was very sick, and that Joseph was very much afraid that she might die, but she recovered.”Bennett was the most intimate friend of Joseph for a time. He boarded with the prophet. He told me once that Joseph had been talking with him about his troubles with Emma, his wife. ‘He asked me,’ said Bennett, smilingly, ‘what he should do to get out of the trouble ?’ I said, ‘This is very simple. GET A REVELATION that polygamy is right, and all your troubles will be at an end.'” (Dr. W. Wyl, Mormon Portraits: Joseph Smith The Prophet — His Family and His Friends, 61-62)
I don’t mean to suggest that Dr. Bennett’s abortions were in any way sanctioned by the LDS Church. Dr. Bennett was a scoundrel by all accounts. Consider the sworn testimony of Joseph Smith’s brother, Hyrum:
On the seventeenth day of May, 1842, having been made acquainted with some of the conduct of John C. Bennett, which was given in testimony, under oath…by several females who testified that John C. Bennett endeavored to seduce them, and accomplished his designs by saying it was right; that it was one of the mysteries of God, which was to be revealed when the people was strong enough in faith to bear such mysteries — that it was perfectly right to have illicit intercourse with females, providing no one knew it but themselves, vehemently trying them from day to day, to yield to his passions, bringing witnesses of his own clan to testify that there were such revelations and such commandments, and that they were of God; also stating that he would be responsible for their sins, if there were any, and that he would give them medicine to produce abortions, provided they should become pregnant.” (History of the Church, 5:71)
According to LDS authors Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippets Avery, if the women he approached were reluctant to accept Dr. Bennett’s proposals, he would tell them he came with Joseph Smith’s approval (Mormon Enigma, 111). There exists contradictory testimony from faithful Mormons, and from Bennett himself, that Smith’s name was never invoked during these encounters. Whatever the truth of the matter, Hyrum Smith’s testimony indicates that Dr. Bennett “accomplished his designs” with at least some of the women he approached (see also fawn M. Brodie, No Man Knows My History, 311). This raises a question in my mind.
Regardless of the level of responsibility Joseph Smith may have had in any of this — whatever the official position of the LDS Church may have been — what sort of society was it that proved to be fertile ground for Dr. Bennett’s illicit proposals and his subsequent performance of abortions? What made these women vulnerable to his claims of revelations and commandments if they were contradictory to Church teachings? Perhaps this is where Joseph Smith becomes culpable. I’m uncertain whether he ever taught this principle publicly, or how often he may have taught it privately, but it’s well known that in trying to convince Nancy Rigdon to become one of his plural wives, Joseph taught her:
“Happiness is the object and design of our existence; and will be the end thereof, if we pursue the path that leads to it; and this path is virtue, uprightness, faithfulness, holiness, and keeping all the commandments of God. …That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another. …Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see the reason thereof till long after the events transpire.” (see Mormon Enigma, 111, including footnote)
This teaching — in the context of secretive, illegal polygamous marriage — opens the door wide for credulity and confusion. I wonder how many unborn babies have died because of it.