I Have a Question


Questions of general gospel interest answered for guidance, not as official statements of Church policy.

Is it our understanding that we are to propagate children as long and as frequently as the human body will permit? Is there not any kind of “gospel family-planning,” for lack of a better way to say it?

Dr. Homer Ellsworth, gynecologist and former member of the Melchizedek Priesthood General Committee I hear this type of question frequently from active and committed Latter-day Saint women who often ask questions that are outside my professional responsibilities. Here are some of the principles and attitudes I believe apply to this fundamental question, a question most couples ask themselves many times during their child-bearing years.

I rejoice in our basic understanding of the plan of salvation, which teaches us that we come to earth for growth and maturity, and for testing. In that process we may marry and provide temporal bodies for our Heavenly Father’s spirit children. That’s basic, it seems to me. In contemplating this truth, I also take great delight in the Church’s affirmative position that it is our blessing and joy, and our spiritual obligation, to bear children and to have a family. It impresses me that the positive is stressed as our goal.

I rejoice in our understanding that one of the most fundamental principles in the plan of salvation is free agency. The opportunity to make free agency choices is so important that our Heavenly Father was willing to withhold additional opportunities from a third of his children rather than deprive them of their right of choice. This principle of free agency is vital to the success of our probation. Many of the decisions we make involve the application of principles where precise yes-and-no answers are just not available in Church handbooks, meetings, or even the scriptures.

Our growth process, then, results from weighing the alternatives, studying the matter carefully, and seeking inspiration from the Lord. This, it seems to me, is at the heart of the gospel plan. It has always given me great joy and confidence to observe that in their administration of God’s teachings, our inspired prophets do not seek to violate this general plan of individual agency, but operate within broad guidelines that provide considerable individual flexibility.

I recall a President of the Church, now deceased, who visited his daughter in the hospital following a miscarriage.

She was the mother of eight children and was in her early forties. She asked, “Father, may I quit now?” His response was, “Don’t ask me. That decision is between you, your husband, and your Father in Heaven. If you two can face him with a good conscience and can say you have done the best you could, that you have really tried, then you may quit. But, that is between you and him. I have enough problems of my own to talk over with him when we meet!” So it is clear to me that the decisions regarding our children, when to have them, their number, and all related matters and questions can only be made after real discussion between the marriage partners and after prayer.

In this process of learning what is right for you at any particular time, I have always found it helpful to use a basic measuring stick: Is it selfish? I have concluded that most of our sins are really sins of selfishness. If you don’t pay your tithing, selfishness is at the heart of it. If you commit adultery, selfishness is at the heart of it. If you are dishonest, selfishness is at the heart of it. I have noted that many times in the scriptures we observe the Lord chastising people because of their selfishness. Thus, on the family questions, if we limit our families because we are self-centered or materialistic, we will surely develop a character based on selfishness. As the scriptures make clear, that is not a description of a celestial character. I have found that we really have to analyze ourselves to discover our motives. Sometimes superficial motivations and excuses show up when we do that.

But, on the other hand, we need not be afraid of studying the question from important angles—the physical or mental health of the mother and father, the parents’ capacity to provide basic necessities, and so on. If for certain personal reasons a couple prayerfully decides that having another child immediately is unwise, the method of spacing children—discounting possible medical or physical effects—makes little difference. Abstinence, of course, is also a form of contraception, and like any other method it has side effects, some of which are harmful to the marriage relationship.

As a physician I am often required to treat social-emotional symptoms related to various aspects of living. In doing so I have always been impressed that our prophets past and present have never stipulated that bearing children was the sole function of the marriage relationship. Prophets have taught that physical intimacy is a strong force in strengthening the love bond in marriage, enhancing and reinforcing marital unity. Indeed, it is the rightful gift of God to the married. As the Apostle Paul says,

“The wife hath not power of her own body, but the husband; and likewise also the husband hath not power of his own body, but the wife.” Paul continues, “Depart ye not one from the other, except it be with consent for a time, that ye may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again, that Satan tempt you not for your incontinency.” (JST, 1 Cor. 7:4–5). Abstinence in marriage, Paul says, can cause unnecessary temptations and tensions, which are certainly harmful side effects.

So, as to the number and spacing of children, and other related questions on this subject, such decisions are to be made by husband and wife righteously and empathetically communicating together and seeking the inspiration of the Lord. I believe that the prophets have given wise counsel when they advise couples to be considerate and plan carefully so that the mother’s health will not be impaired. When this recommendation of the First Presidency is ignored or unknown or misinterpreted, heartache can result.

I know a couple who had seven children. The wife, who was afflicted with high blood pressure, had been advised by her physician that additional pregnancy was fraught with grave danger and should not be attempted. But the couple interpreted the teachings of their local priesthood leaders to mean that they should consider no contraceptive measures under any circumstances. She died from a stroke during the delivery of her eighth child.

As I meet other people and learn of their circumstances, I am continually inspired by the counsel of the First Presidency in the General Handbook of Instructions that the health of the mother and the well-being of the family should be considered. Thirty-four years as a practicing gynecologist and as an observer of Latter-day Saint families have taught me that not only the physical well-being but the emotional well-being must also be considered. Some parents are less subject to mood swings and depression and can more easily cope with the pressures of many children. Some parents have more help from their families and friends. Some are more effective parents than others, even when their desire and motivation are the same. In addition, parents do owe their children the necessities of life. The desire for luxuries, of course, would not be an appropriate determinant of family size; luxuries are just not a legitimate consideration. I think every inspired human heart can quickly determine what is a luxury and what is not.

In summary, it is clear to me that couples should not let the things that matter most be at the mercy of those that matter least. In searching for what is most important, I believe that we are accountable not only for what we do but for why we do it. Thus, regarding family size, spacing of children, and attendant questions, we should desire to multiply and replenish the earth as the Lord commands us. In that process, Heavenly Father intends that we use the free agency he has given in charting a wise course for ourselves and our families. We gain the wisdom to chart that wise course through study, prayer, and listening to the still small voice within us.

Do herb drinks fall into the classification of “hot drinks” forbidden by the Word of Wisdom or are they “herbs to be used with prudence and thanksgiving?”

Dr. Clifford J. Stratton, associate professor of anatomy, University of Nevada, School of Medical Sciences; high councilor, Reno Nevada North Stake That’s a good question but a difficult one to answer, since over a thousand different herbs have been identified to date but not all of them have been so thoroughly studied that we know all of their medicinal values. Fortunately, the most popular herbs and herb drinks have been analyzed—but the only source I’d recommend checking is a medical library. Information available from popular or commercial sources that I’ve examined is frequently unreliable.

All herb drinks can’t be discussed in this limited space, but I will include comments on some of the most popular.

Salvia, popularly known as sage, has been used in teas for centuries. Its active ingredient is a greenish-yellow volatile oil with a strong tannin content. One species, Salvia reflexa, is poisonous, 1 but extracts from Salvia officinalis are very effective in modern bronchitis medicines and in preparations for throat inflammation. As a gargle, it prevents excessive salivation and has a significant antibacterial effect. 2

Panax, or ginsing tea, is reportedly a daily drink for five or six million Americans. It stimulates the adrenal gland of the kidney and causes a dramatic increase in corticosteroid secretion. That means it interferes with carbohydrate, protein, and fat metabolism, electrolyte and water balance, the heart, kidneys, voluntary muscles, and the central nervous system. 3 Its use should be avoided unless advised by a physician.

Mint, spearmint, peppermint (Mentha) teas effectively aid in the release of gas from the stomach and intestine, 4 and can safely be used in moderation for that purpose. Dandelion roots (Taraxacum officinale) were used by physicians in the nineteenth century to treat chronic diseases of the liver, but their actual usefulness has not been substantiated.

Alfalfa (Medicago sativa) can increase cortisone production, but it also contains compounds which cause dermatitis in many individuals. Since synthetic cortisone is available by prescription, without the other undesirable components found in the plant, the traditional use of alfalfa for rheumatism and arthritis is strongly discouraged today. 5 Clover and sassafras teas contain poisonous substances (cyanide and safrole, respectively). Clover is therefore not used in medicinal compounds; the use of sassafras is prohibited in the United States. 6

Numerous “combination” herb drinks, used as pleasant drinks or for their medicinal properties, are also on the market. The effect of each of the herbs should be determined before the tea is routinely ingested. For example, red zinger contains seven herbs. The hibiscus, rose hips, and orange peel contain no drugs. However, the peppermint, lemon verbena, wild cherry bark, and wintergreen have known diverse medicinal properties. 7 One would not drink red zinger for pleasure since it contains medications, and neither is it used for its medicinal properties since they are so diverse.

Ephedra, popularly known in the western U.S. as “desert tea,” “Mormon tea,” “squaw tea,” or “Mexican tea,” contains no harmful alkaloids but is high in vitamin C. If taken in large quantities it decreases the heart rate and thus may decrease blood pressure. Earlier claims that it helped treat venereal disease and sore throats are probably unfounded.

It’s important, however, not to confuse the North American Ephedra with the Chinese Ephedra, Ma Huang, which contains a large quantity of ephedrine, a salt of an alkaloid which strongly stimulates the nerves and thus should be used only as a drug under a doctor’s care. 8

Thus, each herb tea can be classified as a “hot drink” or “an herb to be used with prudence” only after we know what effect it has on the body.

Many drinks contain no significant levels of drugs and can be used as tasty warm drinks with some nutritive benefit. However, a well-nourished body has no unnatural cravings and requires no drugs to perform well both intellectually and physically.

The Lord has given us herbs “to be used with prudence and thanksgiving” (D&C 89:10–11) “to strengthen the body” in certain cases of minor illness. But he has warned us that herbs should be used “with judgment” (D&C 59:17–20), “not in excess” and “neither by extortion,” based upon reputable information (see D&C 59:17–20; D&C 89:10–11).

As a doctor who has researched the pharmacologic components in herbs for many years, I must stress the importance of not “prescribing” herb teas as medicine for yourself or others. Many herb teas do contain drugs whose effect is unknown, and “folk knowledge” is not a reliable guide. Any illness requiring drugs should be treated by a physician; and a prudent individual will not consume large quantities of any herb for any reason.

  1.   1.

    Train and Archer, vol. 45, pp. 114, 127: Stedman’s Medical Dictionary (Baltimore: Williams and Wilkins Co., 1976), p. 1250.

  2.   2.

    W. Lewis and M. Elvin-Lewis, Medical Botany: Plants Affecting Man’s Health (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1977), pp. 372–76; L. Goodman and A. Gilman, The Pharmacological Basis of Therapeutics (New York: MacMillan, 1975), pp. 367–78, 500–501.

  3.   3.

    Goodman and Gilman, pp. 1471–1503.

  4.   4.

    Lewis and Elvin-Lewis, p. 294.

  5.   5.

    Ibid., pp. 12–20, 79–81, 166–67.

  6.   6.

    A. Segelman, F. Segelman, H. Karliner, and D. Sofia, “Sassafras and Herb Tea,” Journal of the American Medical Association 236 (1976):477.

  7.   7.

    Medicines from the Earth, ed. W. Thompson (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1978), pp. 67, 92, 165, 184.

  8.   8.

    C. Nielsen and H. McCausland, “The Occurrence and Alkaloid Content of Various Ephedra Species,” Journal of the American Pharmaceutical Association 17 (1928): 427–34; P. Train, P. Hendricks, and W. Archer, U.S. Agricultural Research Services, A Flora of Nevada; Medicinal Uses of Plants by Indian Tribes of Nevada with a Summary of Pharmacological Research, 45 (1957):114, 127; Goodman and Gilman, pp. 367–78, 500–501.