Comparing Republican and Democratic Platforms to the LDS Church Position on Abortion

(post submitted by Rep. Brian King)

My friend and legislative colleague, Representative David Lifferth, and I have been discussing which political party's position on abortion is closer to the LDS Church's position. I say the Democratic platform and David says it's the GOP's. You can see Rep. Lifferth's last statement in our discussion at: This is my response.

First, let's summarize the LDS Church position on abortion. The Church makes clear that the circumstances under which an abortion is permissible from a religious and moral perspective are unusual. It condemns abortion for "personal or social convenience . . .." Unusual circumstances that may justify an abortion are 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.

Even if one of these circumstances exist, abortion, " . . . 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." In addition, "the Church has not favored or opposed legislative proposals or public demonstrations concerning abortion."

The Utah State and Utah County GOP platforms are a bit different from each other on abortion. The state GOP position implies that all abortions other than those necessary to preserve the life of the mother or for pregnancies arising out of rape and incest should be criminalized. On the other hand, the Utah County GOP platform explicitly states that abortion should be illegal except " . . . where the life of the mother is at serious risk, or the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest." Both the Utah State and the Utah County GOP platforms would criminalize abortion even where the fetus has severe defects that will not allow it to survive beyond birth. This deviates materially from LDS Church teachings.

The national GOP platform deviates even more from Church teachings by creating greater restrictions than either the Utah State or Utah County GOP platforms. It explicitly supports a human life amendment to the Constitution to place a fetus's right to life from conception on a par with the life of the mother. The national GOP platform criminalizes all abortions without exception. The Church's position simply cannot be reconciled with the national GOP platform.

The national Democratic platform supports Roe v. Wade and a woman's right to choose as framed by that decision. Contrary to how many pro-life advocates characterize it, the national Democratic platform does not call for supporting abortion rights at all stages of pregnancy. It emphasizes that abortion is an intensely personal decision between a woman, her family, her doctor and her clergy.

The GOP platforms at all levels impliedly or expressly call for abortion to either be made illegal across the board or illegal subject to narrow exceptions. Part of the moral or religious basis for the national GOP position is that life begins at conception. Of course, believing that life begins at conception is not a prerequisite for believing that all abortions should be prohibited or for promoting a Constitutional amendment recognizing personhood at conception. But if you believe life begins at conception it provides the factual and moral foundation for the legal conclusion that the fetus has just as much a right to life as the mother.

In fact, the LDS Church, unlike the Catholic and some other religions, has never specifically identified the point at which life begins. The range of answers to that question from various LDS Church leaders goes all the way from conception to the point at which a newly born baby takes its first breath. A Church member may, as a personal matter, choose to believe that life begins at conception. But, to the extent they think about it at all, an LDS Church member could also be justified in believing that life begins when the fetal heartbeat begins, or when movement begins in utero, or when the fetus becomes self-sustaining outside the womb, or when a baby draws its first breath. As with many other doctrinal points within the LDS Church, the matter is theologically unsettled. As such, there is simply no definitive LDS Church statement to support the position taken by the national Republican platform that life begins at conception as opposed to some other point later in the developmental process of a fetus.

Rep. Lifferth points out that the LDS Church and the GOP positions are similar in that they both denounce abortion. It is true that both do agree that certain types of abortion should be prohibited under either law (GOP) or are not in accordance with church teachings (LDS). But Democrats have not come out in favor of unlimited access to abortion. They simply support Roe v. Wade and oppose any limits on a woman's choice that go beyond that case. No one disputes that both federal and state law impose significant restrictions and criminal punishment on many types of abortion that do not fall within Roe v. Wade. So the LDS Church, Republicans, and Democrats all agree on that.

Rep. Lifferth states that the LDS Church and GOP positions are similar in using terms such as "sacred" and "sanctity" when referring to the unborn child while the Democratic platform does not use such terms. But this similarity doesn't really help Republicans demonstrate that the GOP is closer than the Democrats to the LDS Church position on abortion. It just shows that on this, as on so many other issues, the GOP frames political debates in religious terms as often as possible. Is that a helpful or productive thing in terms of advancing understanding about what would be good public policy? I don't believe so. Decisions about public policy should be based on facts, not ideology or a particular religion's moral values. Nothing about LDS Church doctrine advocates fusing church and state policymaking based solely on religious or moral principles. In fact, both generally and in the context of the abortion debate, the Church supports the First Amendment and long-standing Constitutional doctrines about the need to separate church from state in our political affairs.

Rep. Lifferth goes on to state, "the LDS Church position is that 'elective' is contrary to the will and the commandments of God. This is a direct contradiction of the National Democratic Party's position which states [that it] "strongly and unequivocally supports . . . a woman's right to make decisions." Rep. Lifferth suggests that the LDS Church would support efforts to see its position on abortion channeled directly into civil and criminal law. But the Church says no such thing. In fact, it expressly states that it does not favor or oppose legislative proposals involving abortion. In other words, the Church explicitly recognizes the importance of separating church and state. Rep. Lifferth's statement inaccurately and improperly attempts to combine the two.

It's the Church that makes the right call on this point. The position of the GOP and Rep. Lifferth, advocating that certain conduct be made a crime on the basis that it is proscribed by religious or moral principles, is contrary to LDS Church doctrine. The Democratic platform is more in line with the Church's position because the Democratic platform does not frame the debate in religious terms and it does not insist that because particular conduct is deemed "immoral" by a particular religion that is must be criminalized. The LDS Church position is that its moral teachings do not reach to the political sphere and that its religious position does not dictate public policy.

Rep. Lifferth concludes by stating: "there is nothing in the LDS Church's position on abortion that supports 'Roe v. Wade' or a woman's right to an 'abortion'. On the contrary, none of the 'exceptional circumstances' listed 'automatically justify and [sic] abortion." True. But it is likewise true that nothing in the LDS Church's position on abortion advocates for the reversal of Roe v. Wade or a woman's legal right to an abortion. In fact, as noted above, the Church specifically differentiates between the two.

The idea that a particular religion's spiritual tenets should not necessarily be adopted as public policy is something we, as Utah legislators, understand very well and accept in other contexts. For example, tobacco use is strongly and unequivocally forbidden by LDS Church doctrine. Church teachings proscribing tobacco are more clear-cut than its statements about abortion. Yet there is no thought by the Utah State legislature of criminalizing tobacco use. Why not?

I believe at least part of the reason is that most people recognize that there would be enormous practical problems with trying to make all tobacco use illegal in Utah. Doing so would require the commitment of significant resources to enforce the law. What effect would criminalizing such fundamentally personal and private behavior have on our law enforcement resources, our personal relationships, our community relations, the public image of the state, efforts to bring economic development to Utah, tourism, etc? In addition, legislators are, and should be, wary of using coercive government influence to regulate personal and private choices of individuals. This is true even if everyone recognizes those choices may, directly and indirectly, kill and seriously injure the person who engages in the conduct and bystanders as well. Why do we not consider and discuss the same types of, cultural, social, economic, logistical, political, and philosophical factors when it comes to abortion? These issues are no less prominent, valid, and difficult with regard to abortion than with tobacco, alcohol, or a host of other behaviors arising out of personal choices the Church prohibits or deems immoral.

The problem with the abortion debate is that it has come down to two sides simply yelling slogans and platitudes at each other. The real world effects of going in the direction that the national or state GOP wants to take us are rarely discussed. If those realities and the effects of banning all abortions as the GOP platforms call for were considered in any detail, I'm very confident more Utahns would support the Democratic than the Republican position on abortion.

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