When a couple conceives a child outside of marriage, the consequence of that sexual relationship affects many people. These consequences can be very difficult and, in many cases, become a lifelong impairment to happiness and freedom.
I shall never forget the experience of sitting at the side of a hospital bed with a young member of my ward. This young unmarried woman* had just given birth to a baby boy, and she faced some very difficult questions. As her bishop, I had been asked to visit with the family.
Well-meaning but mostly uninformed friends and family members were showering her with conflicting and confusing advice. They used implications of guilt and responsibility to support unwise and impractical solutions to the young woman’s situation. It seemed that each adviser was able to recall specific examples to support his or her advice. Most, it seemed to me, had motives of their own which were not properly focused on the two most important questions: What was best for the baby, and what was best for the young woman?
The young woman wept as she faced the decisions which she must make, and then, as never before, she wanted the advice and assistance of her bishop. She had no desire to seek her own self-interest as she contemplated the magnitude of her problems. Over the next two days, we talked a great deal about these questions, during which time I provided her with as much information as I could. We both knew that in this case, as with everything else, the best information would come from those we sustain as prophets of the Lord.
On 1 February 1994 the First Presidency wrote a general letter on this very important subject. The letter reads, in part, as follows: “Priesthood and auxiliary leaders are again encouraged to renew their efforts to teach ward and stake members the importance of living chaste and virtuous lives. We note with alarm the continued decline of moral values in society and the resultant number of children being reared by unwed parents. … Every effort should be made in helping those who conceive out of wedlock to establish an eternal family relationship. When the unwed parents are unable or unwilling to marry, they should be encouraged to place the child for adoption, preferably through LDS Social Services. … 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. … When deciding to place the baby for adoption, the best interests of the child should be the paramount consideration.”
The impact of the birth of her baby made it unnecessary to lecture my young friend about the consequences of breaking the law of chastity. Due to her suffering, she then, maybe for the first time in her life, was completely willing to accept new lessons about the importance of God’s commandments. She recognized that as a result of her behavior, she had given up important freedoms and rights which now could never be completely restored. She knew that it would have been so much better if she had listened to and learned from her parents and Church leaders. She now understood that this process was a difficult way to learn.
One positive benefit of her situation was her newly increased interest in the advice and counsel of the prophets and her bishop. I read to her the following quotations from President Ezra Taft Benson: “‘Thou shalt not commit adultery,’ and also, ‘Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife.’ (Ex. 20:14, 17.) Here God gives the great law of chastity. … In the category of sins, unchastity stands next to murder, nor may we forget that growing crime of abortion, which often follows unchastity. Never in this generation of ours have morals been so loose as now. Sex is all but deified, and yet at the same time, it is put before youth in its lowest, coarsest, and most debasing forms. The curtain of modesty has been torn aside. In play, book, movie, and television, in magazine story, picture, and advertisement, immorality stands out in all its vulgarity and rottenness.”1
At that moment I needed to assure this young mother that with proper repentance, forgiveness was possible. She needed assurance of the constant love of her Father in Heaven and the support of her bishop. I reminded her that: “The mission of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is to call people everywhere to repentance. Those who heed the call, whether members or nonmembers of the Church, can be partakers of the miracle of forgiveness. God will wipe away from their eyes the tears of anguish, and remorse, and consternation, and fear, and guilt. Dry eyes will replace the wet ones, and smiles of satisfaction will replace the worried, anxious look.”3
“Seek ye the Lord while he may be found, call ye upon him while he is near:
“Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon” (Isa. 55:6–7).
There is a serious increase in the number of out-of-wedlock pregnancies. In the United States, in the year 1990, about one out of every four women who had a child was not married.4 And a 1991 report indicated that unwed parents in the United States gave birth in one year to a total of approximately 1,100,000 children, of which 97 percent or 1,060,000 are kept by the single parents.5
Upon learning that sexual activity outside of marriage has resulted in pregnancy, a young woman has four choices: marrying, not marrying but keeping the child, having an abortion, or placing the child for adoption. It is important to examine these four choices in light of information from various medical studies and in light of the teachings of the leaders of the Church.
On the subject of abortion the Church has taken a very clear stand. President Spencer W. Kimball said, “Abortion, the taking of life, is one of the most grievous of sins. We have repeatedly affirmed the position of the Church in unalterably opposing all abortions, except in two rare instances: When conception is the result of forcible rape and when competent medical counsel indicates that a mother’s health would otherwise be seriously jeopardized.”6
President Ezra Taft Benson taught: “We oppose and abhor the damnable practice of wholesale abortion and every other unholy and impure act which strikes at the very foundation of the home and family, and our most basic institutions.”7
Together, my young friend and I watched the nursery across the hall, where the new infants were in their bassinets. After we had observed the new baby for a few minutes, this fragile, frightened little mother expressed, with great emotion, her deep love for the child. She bore her testimony that she knew without question that the baby’s life was a miracle and that the baby was innocent of any wrongdoing. Her expression of a complete desire to do what was best for her baby was deep and sincere. She had learned earlier in her pregnancy about the seriousness of abortion and knew that it was not an alternative which she could even remotely consider.
In the case of my young friend, marriage was not a practical choice. The father, yet in his teens and living in another part of the country, denied that he was responsible and, with his parents, rejected any part of the solution to this challenge. The serious sin of this young man’s abandonment of the young woman and the baby which was conceived through his selfishness should be recognized. How challenging and difficult for a young man to repent and find forgiveness when he adds the sins of abandonment and irresponsibility to his immoral conduct!
Sitting in the hospital room, we again read from what the prophets have said. President Kimball spoke often about the serious consequences of the sin of immorality: “If pregnancy results from the sin, … it is the girl who suffers most. She must not have an abortion, for that would add serious sin to serious sin. She carries most of the burdens, while the boy often seems to go penalty-free. The girl must go through the uncomfortable nine months with its distress, deprivations, limitations and embarrassments, and then the pain and expense of delivery and the difficult life afterward. It is a cowardly boy who would not propose marriage, pay the costs, share the deprivations and embarrassment. Yet many young men have walked away and abandoned the girl to all the devastating payments for the sin of them both. Parents frequently excuse the son on one pretext or another, and leave the girl to suffer for the sins of them both. Sometimes, parents of the boy curiously feel magnanimous when they offer to pay the actual financial costs of the delivery, not taking into account that the financial is a one-time experience, while the girl has the problems throughout her life, and they are heavy burdens.”8
What about marriage under these circumstances? In the 1 February 1994 letter, the First Presidency directed that “every effort should be made in helping those who conceive out of wedlock to establish an eternal family relationship.” This option may not always be feasible. However, studies show that pregnant teens who marry before giving birth generally have more stable marriages, do better financially, and have healthier babies than those who do not marry or who marry after the birth of the child.9 This data provides very strong support for the idea that if marriage is feasible, marriage should be considered well before the birth of the child. Unfortunately, if marriage occurs after the birth of an out-of-wedlock child, the probability of the marriage’s failure is very high.10
As we continued to discuss the alternatives with the parents and their daughter, it became clear that there were in reality only two available choices: to keep the baby or to place the child for adoption. It was interesting to observe the extended family members give advice, most of it consisting of uninformed, emotional considerations which had almost nothing to do with the baby’s or the young woman’s long-term welfare. Of course, family members were sincere in their various recommendations, but they did not counsel with full information and facts concerning unwed mothers and their babies.
We read from the official position of the Church: “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.”11
My young friend’s parents were most supportive and willing to sustain their daughter in the final decisions. This was a new experience for them also and they were not prepared to understand all of the elements of the decision. It was important to review the best information available so that the new mother and her parents could prayerfully make the best choice. We had several questions which needed to be examined in an effort to completely understand the consequence of each alternative. We wanted to learn as much as possible about the experience of other young people and the consequences of out-of-wedlock births.
What are the facts relative to keeping the baby? The economic facts are harsh for unwed mothers who choose to keep their babies. Three-fifths of all illegitimate children and their mothers depend on welfare assistance for a minimal subsistence. The social consequences are even worse for single teenage households where the mother has not had opportunity to prepare for the responsibility of caring for her family. Studies of families at equal economic levels show that even in the best conditions, children without fathers tend to receive lower grades, score lower on achievement tests, and get into trouble with school or legal authorities far more often than children with fathers. Several studies show that these fatherless children are more likely to participate in gangs, commit crimes, start fires, use drugs, or attempt suicide.12 Daughters of single, teenage mothers have a greater likelihood of later becoming unwed teenage mothers themselves, according to researchers at the National Center for Health Statistics and the University of Maryland.13
What about placing the baby for adoption? Children of adoptive couples, even when compared to the general population, have better economic environments and have parents who are better educated and more mature than the parents of the general population.14 Other studies show that the parents of adoptive children generally have more stable homes and are less likely to divorce than the general public.15 The First Presidency included in their official letter the very important statement that unwed parents should be encouraged to place the child for adoption “preferably through LDS Social Services.”16
When adoption is arranged through LDS Social Services, the baby will be placed in the home of an active Latter-day Saint couple. The adoptive parents have been carefully screened and are considered worthy under Church guidelines. All of the children placed for adoption by LDS Social Services have ultimately been sealed to their adoptive families in the temple.
What about the mother? It is important to know that unwed mothers who place their children for adoption generally obtain a higher education and better employment and are less likely to repeat or abort another out-of-wedlock pregnancy than other unwed mothers. Among the major findings is a study which demonstrates that unwed mothers who keep their children are much more likely to have serious employment and financial problems than unwed mothers who place children for adoption.17 When the adoption is carried out with counsel from a bishop through LDS Social Services, the young mother has a much better prospect for later marriage in the temple and for a successful economic and social life of her own.
As I counseled that particular young unwed mother, we sought the guidance of the Lord, which is always appropriate when dealing with these serious, sensitive issues. We all knelt in prayer prior to fulfilling her request for a blessing under the hands of her father and her bishop. Both the prayer and the blessing were dedicated to a decision which would be best for everyone concerned. With tears in her eyes, but with the confidence of knowing a correct course of action, my young friend made her choice.
Today, as I think of her, I recall the words of the Lord: “Behold, verily thus saith the Lord unto you, O ye elders of my church, who are assembled upon this spot, whose sins are now forgiven you, for I, the Lord, forgive sins, and am merciful unto those who confess their sins with humble hearts” (D&C 61:2).
Today, some years after placing her child for adoption, my friend is the wife of a temple-worthy man. Their family is united by eternal covenants made during their temple marriage, which occurred several years after the events I have related. Children have been born in the covenant, and the family enjoys full activity and participation in the Church. Of course, her memory of the events of those months is not pleasant, and she wishes she had been more obedient to the teachings of her parents, teachers, and Church leaders. She would like to remind young people everywhere to listen to the voice of the prophets. There is no happiness in disobeying the law of chastity. However, after those unhappy circumstances, she informs me that she feels a deep peace for having made the best decision at the time when she was confronted with the difficult choices of an unwed teenage mother.
She and I completed a recent discussion wherein we reviewed other words of the prophets, including a quote by President Kimball, who spoke of the forgiveness that may be earned following an individual’s sincere repentance: “Fortunately, active Church members are aware of modern miracles. … When we think of miracles, most of us think of healings under the power of the priesthood. But there is another, even greater miracle—the miracle of forgiveness.”18