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Abortion, religion and politics are more complicated than we might think

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) State Street was filled with hundreds during the SLC Women’s March for reproductive rights and access to safe abortions, Oct. 2, 2021. Saturday’s march was held in conjunction with other marches across the country.

As an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for 20 years of my adult life, I can remember having only three conversations about abortion – ever. Only one of them involved politics.

I’m sitting at a kitchen table with a neighbor and friend. We have six kids between us playing in the basement, outside and at our feet. We are eating fresh cookies and talking about the election. It is voting day 2012, and I have not voted yet. I can’t decide between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. I like Obama quite a bit for his policies, personality and historical significance, but of course I also have the standard fan girl crush on Romney and the Utah dream of a Mormon president.

“How did you decide?” I ask.

“I thought maybe the prophet would want me to vote against abortion, maybe,” she says.

That’s it. I joined the church at age 13 and left at 33, and that was the only time politics and abortion ever came up. It’s fair to assume that, as I eventually left the church, maybe I did not have a normal experience. Maybe I was not devout enough. You’d be wrong.

The truth is that Mormons do not sit around talking about abortion. It’s never brought up in church. It’s not part of playdate discussions or Family Home Evening. It’s not asked about in worthiness interviews. That doesn’t mean that it’s not serious, but this is to say that it’s not discussed. No one is telling church members how to vote on abortion. No one is shaming people who might have had an abortion. No one is carrying tons of shame for a medically necessary termination. It just isn’t brought up.

For one thing, if someone explains that you are an eternal mother whether you have a baby or not (as Deseret Book CEO Sherri Dew was famous for doing in the early 2000s), you probably don’t have to follow that up with, “You should keep that baby.” So when pro-choice people and politicians grab the microphone and search for the right words to say in Utah, they will almost always be wrong. They will almost always miss the mark with female voters.

After Roe v Wade was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in June, I made the claim on social media that abortion is barely a part of church culture or doctrine, and I did get a little pushback. But the pushback I got was mostly from ex-Mormons. Very few active members spoke up.

A few commenters added that when a woman joins the Mormon church, she is asked if she has ever had an abortion. That is when I had another flashback. I am in my parents’ living room having my interview to be baptized as a member of the church. A young missionary I had never met asked me if I had ever had an abortion. We both choked on awkward laughs.

Five years later, when I met that same missionary at Brigham Young University and dated him briefly, I hadn’t remembered that big question. But I concede that there is one church interview where women are asked about abortion. Women and men are also, of course, asked if they are generally in line with the teachings of the church, so that could also count as asking about abortion, in theory.

If this is a topic that is rarely brought up, if this is a faith with a policy that is actually protested by other churches that want the stance to be more strict, if this is a group of sensible, loving, community members, why are they voting for leaders who write dangerous laws that put all of us at risk? Is it because, as I did, they make a guess about how the church or the prophet or God might want them to vote? Is it because of a deep sense of love of the human spirit before, during and after life?

Whatever it is, people outside of the church don’t understand it and aren’t getting it right. I hear non-Mormons say things like, “The church will tell people how to vote,” or “Mormon women will vote however their husbands tell them to vote.”

None of that is true. It’s deeper than that and it is a sign that we — those outside of the Mormon faith — do not know our neighbors. We don’t know these people we are voting with and for. We don’t really understand these mamas and women and children we are trying to protect with pro-choice legislation.

There was one more conversation I recently remembered. I’m on the couch with that same neighbor and dear friend who had helped me vote for Romney. She has a feeding tube in her nose. She is sick with hyperemesis, severe nausea and vomiting that can occur in early pregnancy, and pregnant with her fourth baby. She is getting sicker every day. She is staring off into space above three big black-and-white pictures of her children ages 8, 6 and 3.

“I’m not sure I can do this,” she says. “I might not make it.” She was not going to let herself die. The implication was clear. She was gonna have to make a devastating decision about how to survive. A week later when she miscarried, she blamed herself. She never had a fourth baby.

Abortion is complicated. Faith might be even more complicated. If Utah is going to find safe and sensible solutions to our differences on abortion — to keep pregnant people safe and to honor religious freedom — we will need to listen more closely. We will need to listen to words that aren’t said and lines we can’t see. We will have to spend more time in rooms with people we don’t understand, and we will have to stop believing that we know it all.

Jill Fellow is a candidate for Utah Senate District 20, from Park City to Vernal. She has four kids, coaches soccer and serves as the secretary for the Utah Democratic Party.

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