When the news broke that the Supreme Court will reconsider the right to abortion recently, it created a wave of varied reactions amongst polarized party lines. While modern feminists traditionally have championed the cause of abortion as a means to female liberation, I’m among those arguing that abortion has precisely the opposite impact on women: it shackles them to patriarchal standards even further by erasing the central aspect of women that is uniquely feminine: motherhood. Early feminists who pioneered the right for women to vote stood firmly against abortion, but modern feminists reject this more classic version of feminism. While modern feminism seeks to advance women by fighting to secure precedents modeled by men, the feminism of Eliza R. Snow, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and others emphasized the unique elements of femininity, while also resolutely working to secure equal rights for women.
This distinctive femininity places central priority on a woman’s creative ability, which is naturally at the core of motherhood. Therefore, it seems to many of us that divorcing motherhood from feminism corrupts the original intent of feminists like Susan B. Anthony, who saw her work as “to help bring about a better state of things generally so that their unborn little ones could not be willed away from them.” In this article, I elaborate on the relationship between a Latter-day Saint conception of femininity and abortion, especially in terms of how abortion harms a woman’s ability to thrive.
As a starting point, let’s acknowledge the degree to which widespread abortion renders pregnancy transactional. When former President Clinton declared that abortions should be “safe, legal, and rare,” his phrase implicitly acknowledged that something was amiss with abortion at the time; after all, if this was merely was a medical procedure, why would it need to be rare? Instead of celebrating women’s unique creative powers, normalizing abortion diminishes them.
Instead of celebrating women’s unique creative powers, normalizing abortion diminishes them.
Let me explain. Instead of celebrating women’s unique creative powers, normalizing abortion diminishes them, because it encourages women to have fewer children and to view motherhood as something not inherent to women. Thus, not only does abortion adversely impact the mental health of women more generally, but it also divorces motherhood from femininity in a way that imposes a stifling male-derived standard. This toxic patriarchal standard encourages women to measure themselves by whether or not they have accomplished all that a man has accomplished, rather than measuring women by standards that would emphasize their feminine potential. These differences are often co-opted to suggest that women are less capable than men, but that is also clearly not true. Women have unique gifts, talents, and strengths that complement men’s. But instead of celebrating and lifting up women, women often face constant comparison to men—as if women were somehow merely copies of men. In this line of thought, I would argue that in our society femininity becomes subservient to masculinity—reflected in a culture where motherhood is a commodity and not a natural extension of women.
By contrast, Latter-day Saint theology uniquely understands the connection between motherhood and femininity in a way that leads to the advancement of women. While many women tragically suffer from infertility and may feel as though a femininity that necessitates motherhood excludes them, Sheri Dew correctly notes that “Motherhood is more than bearing children. … It is the essence of who we are as women.”
Why is that? Perhaps motherhood is inherent to femininity because we are “created in the image and likeness of God”—which for Latter-day Saints means Heavenly Parents. Early songwriter Eliza R. Snow observed, “In the heav’ns are parents single? No, the thought makes reason stare! Truth is reason; truth eternal, tells me I’ve a mother there.” Women’s advancement and eternal progression depend critically on their ability to discern that their creative powers do not need to be diminished or defrauded through abortion.
Women’s advancement and eternal progression depend critically on their ability to discern that their creative powers do not need to be diminished or defrauded through abortion.
Women’s advancement and eternal progression depend critically on their ability to discern that their creative powers do not need to be diminished or defrauded through abortion. And that rather, there are remarkable and divine gifts that extend from these creative powers. The implications of these recognitions are profound, in even a single life. Take, for example, Eliza R. Snow, who married both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. Although Snow never had children, she is one of the best examples of motherhood. She experienced sexual violence during mob attacks on Latter-day Saints but was able to live a life of inspiration, courage, and stalwart faith. She taught school, wrote prolifically, and became a Relief Society president, giving liberally and creating a beautiful life for herself and others. She acts as a perfect example of how expansive motherhood is in the Latter-day Saint faith; she powerfully advocated for women, contributed to the building of the kingdom of God, and was a creative intellectual. Latter-day motherhood transcends the 1950s archetype of the housewife because women both prioritize motherhood and are asked to build Zion. Historically, Latter-day Saint women have contributed remarkably to the Church and society while also holding motherhood as their greatest priority.
Although Snow was unable to have children herself, she was promised that she could be a mother in Zion. It’s not simply having children that makes a woman a mother, however; from a Latter-day Saint perspective, motherhood is inherent to womanhood for everyone. This does not diminish the importance of having children but instead highlights the special relationship between mother and child. Yet by maintaining an eternal perspective, teaching from Latter-day prophets confirms that even if women are unable to have children in this life, we inherit the Abrahamic covenant (where Abraham was promised his seed would be as the “sands of the sea”) and remarkably enough will have children in the next life. Some have suggested that this teaching reduces women down to “eternal baby-makers” and I do not think that captures the beauty of this teaching.
Creation of any kind, but especially that of life itself, is the source of joy. We read, “Wherefore, it is lawful that he should have one wife, and they twain shall be one flesh, and all this that the earth might answer the end of its creation; And that it might be filled with the measure of man, according to his creation before the world was made.” These verses, read in conjunction with the Abrahamic promise, show that our joy becomes eternal through eternal creation. As God breathed life into us, God gives us the capacity to create as well. Women have an especial role in this creation as the ones who carry and bear life. Reducing motherhood simply down to “eternal baby-making” does not encapsulate creation as sacrament and ordinance wherein women and men experience the fullness of joy. Creating life outside ourselves, whether in this life or the life to come, gives us the greatest amount of joy.
One might then say if we have this eternal perspective, why does abortion matter so much? It’s not life being extinguished, since the soul continues, right? And if a woman can have children in the next, why is keeping a pregnancy and avoiding abortion an issue that we should care about so much?
The reason, once again, is that abortion fundamentally shifts the purpose and nature of womanhood in a way that motherhood is no longer seen as integral, natural, and necessary. One of the most powerful verses in the Book of Mormon refers to the faithfulness of a group of young men, reading, “yea, they had been taught by their mothers, that if they did not doubt, God would deliver them.” The mothers who taught them were, no doubt, both their biological mothers and the women in the community, whose faithful example transcends biological relationships as a result of covenants.
Abortion serves to disrupt both the biological and covenantal relationship of mother to child through severing the life of the unborn, but also by fundamentally shifting feminism to a point where it values women primarily by how similar they are to men—being free to live however they’d like, sexually, without being beholden physiologically to any natural result. At the same time, reducing motherhood itself down only to a physiological experience of childbirth misses the mark. Women advance neither through maintenance of the 1950s housewife archetype nor through perpetuating the modern feminist archetype; they advance when motherhood is seen as integral to femininity, while women are also, simultaneously seen as multi-dimensional contributors to society. By valuing women for what makes them both feminine and divine, Latter-day Saints can attest to many ways that a consistent pro-life ethic has the best outcomes for women, both temporally and eternally.
Given all this, I believe that reconsidering the right to abortion could positively impact women while causing a healthier shift in feminism too. Women deserve to be celebrated and valued for what makes them women, rather than having that central aspect of their biology and spirituality be seen as something of a threat—and something that could hinder them and harm their ability to function in society. Why? Precisely because that’s what men would feel, and we’ve come to expect women should be like men. This does not mean that women cannot or should not have careers, but it does mean that by prioritizing motherhood, women will find more fulfillment. After all, men do not find their fulfillment solely in their careers. The teachings about a feminine Divine as well as the many examples of faithful women in the Church of Jesus Christ who were mothers while pioneering the vote, creating poetry and history, painting beautiful pictures, and spreading truth, beauty, and light outside themselves, provides a perfect archetype of women to follow. While children do not make a woman a mother, the covenantal relationship of mother to child is still the most divine experience that a woman could have, and nothing should impede or minimize that.