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Mormonism and gender issues/Women/Childbearing
Mormon women and childbearing
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- Question: Do Latter-day Saint teachings about childbearing put an improper burden on women?
- Question: What is the stance of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on birth control?
- Question: What is the Mormon position on abortion?
Question: Do Latter-day Saint teachings about childbearing put an improper burden on women?
Framing the problem of demanding home lives as an exclusively LDS problem is misleading
Some claim that LDS teachings about childbearing put an improper burden on LDS families, especially women.
Most women raising families, not just LDS women, encounter "burdens" as they run their households. Framing the problem of demanding home lives as an exclusively LDS problem is misleading. Recognizing the difficulties women face in family life, Church leaders have denounced male behaviors that add to these burdens. In speaking to women, Church leaders have reassured us that we are free to make choices -- including choices about childbearing and service in our homes -- that will better tailor our workloads to our individual strengths and abilities.
Childbearing in the Church
In 1995, the LDS Church re-emphasized its commitment to family life in “The Family: A Proclamation to the World.” The proclamation states: “The first commandment that God gave to Adam and Eve pertained to their potential for parenthood as husband and wife. We declare that God’s commandment for His children to multiply and replenish the earth remains in force.”
In harmony with these beliefs, LDS life is usually family life. In general, LDS people in the United States marry earlier than their neighbors outside the Church, are more likely to stay married, and have more children during their lifespans. As the larger society surrounding the Church has moved away from traditional family life, the LDS lifestyle – or, at least, the stereotype of it -- has become more conspicuous. For some, it raises concerns particularly with regard to the roles women play in LDS families. Critics have inflamed these concerns arguing mostly by assertion rather than with data that the childbearing aspect of the ideal LDS family system places an unfair and unhealthy burden upon women.
Though US data do show that LDS families tend to be larger than other American families, there is no Church prohibition on birth control. LDS couples are counseled to carefully and prayerfully consider when and how many children to have but are assured that the decision is strictly between themselves and the Lord. For a detailed response, see: Birth control in LDS thought
Women's Workloads Inside and Outside the Church
No matter how many other people live in it, running any household can be difficult. It’s not a difficulty experienced by LDS women alone. Arlie Hochschild’s landmark work “The Second Shift” studied domestic workloads to see if household divisions of labor had become more fair for women as they started to take on non-traditional roles. What she found was that even when women worked at full-time jobs outside their homes, they still wound up doing most of the household chores themselves. The assertion that women outside the LDS church are somehow immune from the burdens of running a household is simply wrong. Every woman – regardless of whether she’s involved in paid work, or how many children she has, or where she goes to church – is at risk of winding up doing far more than her fair share of household tasks. Inequalities like these are endemic problems that are not limited to any particular religion or family structure.
The Church's Position on Domestic Workloads
Despite the strong social pull of unequal household divisions of labor, leaders of the LDS church have counseled church members to work to alleviate the strains family life can have on women. Men’s overburdening of the women within families has been denounced by late Church President, Gordon B. Hinckley. Speaking of young mothers he said:
I see their husbands, and I feel like saying to them: “Wake up. Carry your share of the load. Do you really appreciate your wife? Do you know how much she does? Do you ever compliment her? Do you ever say thanks to her? 
While his approach to husbands was firm and corrective, President Hinckley took a different tone when speaking to wives in the same address:
You are doing the best you can, and that best results in good to yourself and to others. Do not nag yourself with a sense of failure. Reassuring language like this has become a fixture in addresses made to the women of the Church. Another fixture is the assurance that there is no monolithic ideal of how to run a “proper” LDS household. As late member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Marvin J. Ashton said in 1987:
Sisters, do not allow yourselves to be made to feel inadequate or frustrated because you cannot do everything others seem to be accomplishing. Rather, each should assess her own situation, her own energy, and her own talents, and then choose the best way to mold her family into a team, a unit that works together and supports each other. Only you and your Father in Heaven know your needs, strengths, and desires. Around this knowledge your personal course must be charted and your choices made.
What seems most important isn’t how LDS women shoulder their burdens but why they do it at all. In 1980, Melvin Wilkinson and William Tanner made a study of large family life in the LDS setting. The prevailing sociological wisdom was that large families yield less affection for children. However, the researchers found that the negative effect of large family life “is not so strong that it cannot be neutralized or even reversed.” Furthermore, they found that the key to reversing the bad effects of a large family wasn’t an increase of the amount of time parents spent with their children (or in other words, not an increase of the size of the “burden” placed on the parents) but an increase in the level of the mother’s commitment to the Church. Temple attendance was used as a measure of the mother’s religiosity. From there, the researchers went on to find that the higher a mother’s religiosity, the more affection the children in the family reported feeling.
Apparently, gospel living can actually provide relief from burdens – even ones that seem universal and inevitable like the ones all women face in running their households. As the Lord himself taught, “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest…For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-30
Question: What is the stance of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on birth control?
The use of birth control is not prohibited by the Church
Though the LDS Church places a high value on families and regards the commandment given to Adam and Eve to "multiply, and replenish the earth" Genesis 1:28 as still being in force, the use of birth control is not prohibited by the Church. Married LDS couples are not expected to limit their sexual contact to purposeful childbearing. Sexual behavior between married partners is seen as wholesome and sanctifying even when there is little chance of conception. Birth control is meant to be used carefully and prayerfully but it is not forbidden.
Church Leaders' Statements on Birth Control
According to the section labeled “Birth Control” in the current Church Handbook 2 (a manual issued to Church leaders to outline guidelines and policies for administering the gospel to members):
It is the privilege of married couples who are able to bear children to provide mortal bodies for the spirit children of God, whom they are then responsible to nurture and rear. The decision as to how many children to have and when to have them is extremely intimate and private and should be left between the couple and the Lord. Church members should not judge one another in this matter.
Married couples should also understand that sexual relations within marriage are divinely approved not only for the purpose of procreation, but also as a way of expressing love and strengthening emotional and spiritual bonds between husband and wife. 
The Church Handbook 2 is not considered scripture itself but it is approved by the First Presidency of the Church and much of its content is taken from prophetic teachings. In 1993, member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Dallin H. Oaks, spoke in the Church’s General Conference saying:
How many children should a couple have? All they can care for! Of course, to care for children means more than simply giving them life. Children must be loved, nurtured, taught, fed, clothed, housed, and well started in their capacities to be good parents themselves. Exercising faith in God’s promises to bless them when they are keeping his commandments, many LDS parents have large families…In a matter as intimate as this, we should not judge one another. 
Elder Oaks quoted the then President of the Church, Gordon B. Hinckley, expressing similar sentiments:
I like to think of the positive side of the equation, of the meaning and sanctity of life, of the purpose of this estate in our eternal journey, of the need for the experiences of mortal life under the great plan of God our Father, of the joy that is to be found only where there are children in the home, of the blessings that come of good posterity. When I think of these values and see them taught and observed, then I am willing to leave the question of numbers to the man and the woman and the Lord. 
Current Church counsel on birth control is not something new that has evolved in response to contemporary social pressures. In 1916, Church leaders, such as David O. MacKay, endorsed of the wisdom in using moderation and sensitivity when it comes to childbearing. MacKay said,
In all this, however, the mother's health should be guarded. In the realm of wifehood, the woman should reign supreme. 
The language and tone may be old fashioned but the message of mothers’ autonomy was a progressive one for its day.
Sexual Behavior and Emotional Health
The Church has also been progressive in acknowledging the important social and emotional functions sexual behavior serves within marriage apart from childbearing. Late President of the Church, Spencer W. Kimball, taught:
In the context of lawful marriage, the intimacy of sexual relations is right and divinely approved. There is nothing unholy or degrading about sexuality in itself, for by that means men and women join in a process of creation and in an expression of love. 
Cautions and Qualifications
It is true that Church leaders have made frank warnings about the over-use of birth control. Even today, the LDS Church regards the commandment given to Adam and Eve to “multiply, and replenish the earth” Genesis 1:28 as still being in effect .  As late Church President, Ezra Taft Benson, taught:
Mothers who enjoy good health, have your children and have them early. And, husbands, always be considerate of your wives in the bearing of children. Do not curtail the number of children for personal or selfish reasons. Material possessions, social convenience, and so-called professional advantages are nothing compared to a righteous posterity. 
Even this statement contains the qualification that mothers enjoy “good health.” This certainly refers to physical health and we assume it refers to mental health as well. Childbearing is never meant to be carried out with dogmatic recklessness. In all things, the LDS decision making process is a deliberate, thoughtful one where individuals “study it out in [their] mind[s]” D&C 9:8 before acting.
President Benson knew this and added, "I would ask our young people to think seriously about these things, pray about them, fast about them. The Lord will give them the answers, because He wants them to have the blessings of a righteous posterity." 
Despite the warnings, the use of birth control is not prohibited by the LDS Church. Married LDS couples are not expected to limit their sexual contact to purposeful childbearing. Sexual behavior between married partners is seen as wholesome and sanctifying even when there is little chance of conception. Birth control is meant to be used carefully and prayerfully but it is not forbidden.
Question: What is the Mormon position on abortion?
Except in certain circumstances, the LDS Church opposes abortion and denounces it as a serious sin
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 has not favored or opposed legislative proposals or public demonstrations concerning abortion.
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.
Except in certain circumstances, the LDS Church opposes abortion and denounces it as a serious sin. However, unlike some movements, the Church does not equate abortion with murder. Further, the Church acknowledges that women and men who have been involved in abortions can be forgiven and become members in good standing. The exceptions to the commandment prohibiting abortion highlight the Church’s commitment to women’s rights and to our intrinsic value apart from our biological roles as mothers.
Question: Are there exceptions where abortion may be appropriate?
The Church has not adopted a simple, all-or-nothing approach to abortion. While the Church stands firmly by the commandment “Thou shalt not . . . kill, nor do anything like unto it” DC 59:6 and Church members are cautioned that participating in abortion will usually bring their membership under scrutiny, allowances are made for situations where abortion may be appropriate.
The Church recognizes there are cases when abortion is medically necessary. When a woman or girl’s health would be severely threatened by carrying a pregnancy to term, the Church offers counsel and support while mothers themselves decide how to proceed. The same approach is taken even when the mother's life is not at risk but a pregnancy is medically deemed to have no chance of being viable. In such cases, the Church leaves the final choice of whether an abortion will be performed to the parents themselves. There is no universal formula for how the exceptions to the Church's usual stance on abortion must be applied.
The list of situations where abortion may be appropriate showcases the Church’s commitment to women’s rights to make choices. In cases of rape or incest (crimes sometimes known by other names but likely meant to describe any non-consensual sexual intercourse brought on by force or by the abuse of a position of power), the Church does not require victims to accept pregnancies arising from someone else’s abusive choices. If a woman does not consent to sexual contact, the Church does not consider her morally obliged to accept the consequence of it.
At a gathering of university students, Member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Dallin H. Oaks quoted the following:
The woman’s right to choose what will or will not happen to her body is obviously violated by rape or incest. When conception results in such a case, the woman has the moral as well as the legal right to an abortion because the condition of pregnancy is the result of someone else’s irresponsibility, not hers. She does not have to take responsibility for it. To force her by law to carry the fetus to term would be a further violation of her right.
The fact that an impending threat to the mother’s health is accepted by the Church as a valid reason for opting for abortion suggests that the Church prefers the life of the adult woman to the life of the unborn fetus -- especially if there is no chance the fetus would be able to live if the pregnancy took its natural course. This preference is controversial to many in the mainstream Pro-Life movement. However, it is a strong indication of the value the Church places on individual women. Clearly, we are not valued solely for our reproductive abilities. We are free to protect and preserve our own lives even if doing so directly compromises our reproductive abilities.
Though denounced by the Church, abortion is not considered murder
In a revelation given to Joseph Smith, the ancient Biblical commandment “Thou shalt not kill” Ex 20:13 was expanded to read “Thou shalt not…kill nor do anything like unto it.” D&C 59:6 Abortion seems to fall into the category of “anything like unto it.” Though denounced by the Church, abortion is not considered murder. It is a less serious sin and one for which men and women can be forgiven.
Member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Russell M. Nelson has said:
So far as is known, the Lord does not regard this transgression as murder. And “as far as has been revealed, a person may repent and be forgiven for the sin of abortion.” Gratefully, we know the Lord will help all who are truly repentant.
This doctrine sets the Church apart from some of the other organizations that denounce abortion. The Church does not persecute or demonize people involved in abortion. Instead, it reaches out to them with compassion and the promise of a possible redemption.
The Church itself has not been involved in the politics of abortion
As explained in the Church’s official statement on abortion, the Church itself has not been involved in the politics of abortion. However, Church members are free to express their own opinions and to be involved as individuals in political causes including abortion legislation.
The Church has come under criticism from conservative groups for not taking a stronger stance against abortion. At the same time, the Church is criticized by “pro-choice” groups for its extremely limited tolerance for abortion. Both sides of the argument accuse the Church of trying too hard to please the opposite side. Clearly, the Church’s stance on abortion cannot be the result of political pandering. If it's meant as a compromise, it would be a poor one that leaves both sides of the abortion argument angry and unsatisfied. In an argument as polarized as the abortion debate, no compromise would ever be acceptable. Rather than crafting a position that fully pleases either side of the debate, the Church position is a tempered one – one based in a real, complicated world where difficult situations must be reckoned with on careful, individual bases.
Despite its lack of direct engagement in abortion politics, some Church leaders have warned members against aligning with movements that would promote the use of abortion beyond the circumstances of rape, incest, and catastrophic health outcomes accepted by the Church.
Dallin H. Oaks said:
Pro-choice slogans have been particularly seductive to Latter-day Saints because we know that moral agency, which can be described as the power of choice, is a fundamental necessity in the gospel plan. All Latter-day Saints are pro-choice according to that theological definition. But being pro-choice on the need for moral agency does not end the matter for us. Choice is a method, not the ultimate goal. …In today’s world we are not true to our teachings if we are merely pro-choice. We must stand up for the right choice.
Adoption is encouraged as an alternative to abortion
Wrote the First Presidency in 1999:
Every effort should be made in helping those who conceive out of wedlock to establish an eternal family relationship. When the probability of a successful marriage is unlikely, unwed parents should be encouraged to place the child for adoption, preferably through LDS Social Services. Adoption through LDS Social Services helps ensure that the baby will be reared by a mother and father in a faithful Latter-day Saint family.
Unwed parents who do not marry should not be counseled to keep the infant as a condition of repentance or out of an obligation to care for one’s own. Generally, unwed parents are not able to provide the stable, nurturing environment so essential for the baby’s well-being.
When deciding to place the baby for adoption, the best interests of the child should be the paramount consideration. Placing the infant for adoption enables unwed parents to do what is best for the child and enhances the prospect for the blessings of the gospel in the lives of all concerned.
To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click hereTemplate:Endnote sources
- Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, The Family: A Proclamation to the World (First read by Gordon B. Hinckley as part of his message at the General Relief Society Meeting held 23 September 1995, in Salt Lake City, Utah.)
- Arlie Hochschild, The Second Shift (New York: Penguin), 2003.
- Arlie Hochschild, The Second Shift (New York: Penguin), 2003. 
- Gordon B. Hinckley, "To the Women of the Church," Ensign (Nov. 2003).
- Marvin J. Ashton, Be of Good Cheer (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1987), 25–26.
- Melvin L. Wilkinson and William C. Tanner III, "The Influence of Family Size, Interaction, and Religiosity on Family Affection in a Mormon Sample," in Religion, Mental Health, and the Latter-day Saints, 93–106.
- The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Handbook 2: Administering the Church, 2010 Salt Lake City, 2010. (195)
- Dallin H. Oaks, "The Great Plan of Happiness," Ensign (November 1993) off-site
- Oaks, "The Great Plan of Happiness."
- David O. McKay, Relief Society Magazine (July 1916) 3:7.
- Dallin H. Oaks, "The Great Plan of Happiness," Ensign, November, 1993.
- The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, "The Family: A Proclamation to the World," 1995.
- Ezra Taft Benson, “To the Mothers in Zion," Parents' Fireside, Salt Lake City, Utah, 22 February 1987.
- Ezra Taft Benson, Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1988), 539–543. ISBN 0884946398. GospeLink (requires subscrip.)
- Dallin H. Oaks, "Weightier Matters," BYU Devotional, Feb. 1999.
- Russell M. Nelson, "Reverence for Life," Ensign (May 1985), 11. See also Russell M. Nelson, "Abortion: An Assault on the Defenseless," Ensign (Oct 2008), 32–37.
- Dallin H. Oaks, "Weightier Matters," BYU Devotional, Feb. 1999.
- Cited in "Policies and Announcements," Ensign (April 1999), 80.