Robert Mortensen has been serving as a bishop for two years in Meridian, Idaho. We previously interviewed Robert on the “How I Lead” segment of the podcast in Jan 2016 about Creating a Culture of Missionary Work. He has written several articles for us: 3 Tips for Bishoprics that Lead to Better Sacrament Meeting Speakers; That Their Burdens May Be Light | Church Leaders Need the Atonement Too and Empowering the Underutilized and Counsel for Those Longing for Leadership. Robert is proud to be a Core Leader and also one of our moderators on the Leading Saints Helpers Facebook group.
A couple is seeking your advice about the sensitive subject of surrogate motherhood while they struggle with opposing opinions from family members and friends. You are one of their ecclesiastical leaders. Where do you even begin?!
You’ve probably never been in training meeting with a visiting general authority when this was laid out clearly for you. Well, if you’re like me, you might stumble and fumble a bit. My hope is that this article will help you avoid my mistakes.
I opened my printed copy of the church handbook of instructions. First mistake! The printed version was outdated and in particular, the verbiage on the subject of surrogacy was outdated. I gave this couple bad counsel that they felt restricted their decision-making with hard opposition from the church’s point of view.
LeadingSaintsHack: Discard all paper copies of the church handbooks and stick to the digital versions and to the archive of official communications to be sure you have the latest and greatest.
Fortunately, a couple of days later, I checked the digital copy of the handbook and found the following information correcting my previous counsel. I quickly shared the updated verbiage with the couple to their relief.
Handbook of Instructions:
Book 1 Section 17.3.16 Surrogate Motherhood The Church strongly discourages surrogate motherhood. However, this is a personal matter that ultimately must be left to the judgment of the husband and wife. Responsibility for the decision rests solely upon them. If parents want a child who was born to a surrogate mother to be sealed to them, the stake president refers the matter to the Office of the First Presidency. (Emphasis added)
I need to go back to my second mistake of offering my thoughts prematurely about the issue which left them in a tough place for a couple of days. The updated handbook clearly shows that “the responsibility for the decision rests solely upon them.” If advice and counsel from an ecclesiastical leader is being sought, rather than weighing in with potentially harmful opinions, it would be wise to offer priesthood blessings and willingness to fast and pray with them as they struggle through to make their own decisions. It’s all about connecting those we lead to Heaven, right?!
To help this couple find peace in dealing with family judgment and controversy on the subject I also shared this powerful point from the handbook:
17.3.4 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. (Emphasis added)
There was still a line from the handbook that troubled me and piqued my curiosity to dive deeper: “The Church strongly discourages…” Here are the items the handbook indicates that the church strongly discourages:
- Artificial Insemination (17.3.3)
- In Vitro Fertilization using semen from anyone but the husband or an egg from anyone but the wife (17.3.7)
- Sperm Donation (17.3.13)
- Surgical Sterilization (Including Vasectomy) as an elective form of birth control (17.3.15)
- Surrogate Motherhood (17.3.16)
Most of these come with “howevers” and other exceptions.
As I contemplated why the church would use the words “strongly discourage” I wanted to figure out why. Drawing out each scenario creates loads of doctrinal ambiguity, uncertainties, and complications.
As I studied, pondered, and prayed about this couple’s particular situation, I put my notes into letter form which I provided the couple in my ward. So, below are the thoughts and many still unanswered questions from a lowly bishop in Idaho.
Dear Sister ( ), In an effort to assuage the concerns of your extended family, I’d like to share this information with you and your husband. As noted in the church handbook of instructions we’ve discussed, this decision is ultimately between you and your husband, and nobody else. Some church policies on moral issues encourage couples to consult with their bishops, but interestingly, the subject of surrogate motherhood does not. It is your sole responsibility for the decision and members should not judge one another in these matters.
Notwithstanding the words “strongly discourage” in the handbook, I have not felt like I should dissuade you. I have felt that your approach is generous, noble and loving. Surrogate motherhood in no way reflects your temple worthiness nor your good standing in the church.
Your situation has sent me down a path of study for a few days. I’d like to help you and your family understand principally or doctrinally why surrogate motherhood might be “strongly discouraged”, but not “prohibited” by the church. These are my own thoughts opinions and still open-ended questions. Some of the reasons I have considered for the church’s hesitation and strong discouragement may be related to legal ramifications and the intentions of both the surrogate mother and the receiving family. Legally, there would have to be solid contractual agreements in place protecting both parties. It could easily get complicated and heartbreaking. The surrogate mother may only want to do this for the money and may not be responsible and healthy during the pregnancy. How many fertile eggs are implanted? Would there be morally-challenging repercussions if more than one egg became viable? Would abortion have to be on the table as an option? All these are potential reasons to avoid surrogate motherhood and possible reasons for the church to take the position of “strongly discourages”.
“The Family: A Proclamation to the World” states: “WE DECLARE the means by which mortal life is created to be divinely appointed.” This is in a separate paragraph from the discussion about the sacred powers of procreation as laid out in the previous paragraph of the proclamation. However, the two lines seem connected indicating that a sexual relationship between a man and his legal and lawful wife is the preferred “means by which mortal life is created” and that any other means for procreation used should not be taken lightly. Or perhaps the lines are in separate paragraphs intentionally allowing for scientific advances in which mortal life is created asexually.
But what if all of these concerns and discouragements are overcome? Based on what you’ve shared with me I feel like they have.
For me, there remains some doctrinal ambiguity that we may not be able to resolve yet. There are some logical and practical questions, too.
Another couple in our ward has had children through in vitro fertilization using fertilized eggs from donors, not their own, which is also “strongly discouraged” in the church handbook. I know that they had explored the depths of this doctrinally before proceeding, so I asked them about their experience. When making the decision to use IVF they had consulted with his mission president who is a brother to a member of the Quorum of the Twelve. The mission president took the matter to Elder ( ) and the family received an email from Elder ( ). I don’t know the content of the letter, but it sure helped this family feel good about proceeding with IVF. This wonderful family has taken the approach that in vitro fertilization is simply adoption, just a step earlier in the process allowing mom to go through a full-term pregnancy and to deliver the children from her own womb. They received donated fertilized eggs, not of either of their DNA, yet these children are considered “born in the covenant” per Handbook 1 3.6.2.
“Children Conceived by Artificial Insemination or In Vitro Fertilization Children conceived by artificial insemination or in vitro fertilization are born in the covenant if their parents are already sealed. If the children are born before their parents are sealed, they may be sealed to their parents after their parents are sealed to each other. If a child was born to a surrogate mother, the stake president refers the matter to the Office of the First Presidency.”
This leads me to even more questions:
What does being “born in the covenant” really mean?
If a child born of a donated fertilized egg to a sealed couple is “born in the covenant”, wouldn’t it stand to reason that a child from a donated fertilized egg born from the womb of a surrogate mother, who is also in a celestial marriage, be a child “born in the covenant”? Would there be some level of blessing to that child for having been born of a surrogate mother sealed in the temple even though raised by a non-member family?
Is the act of being born from a sealed mother’s womb the act that entitles a child to the privilege of being “born in the covenant”? Does the biological parentage (DNA) even matter, or only the womb? Would fertilized eggs from a sealed couple implanted into and the resulting child born from another woman’s womb be considered “born in the covenant” or would they have to be sealed to the biological non-womb parents?
If science progresses to the point that children are born from DNA splices from multiple parents and perhaps an artificial womb is involved, what about these children?
Do our concerns about these things make the Lord smile and look mercifully upon our mortal contracts and our ever-growing god-like science—He being able to distinguish between all the scenarios—and acknowledge children born in such a variety of new ways as to which children are born with the covenant birthright and those that are not?
When it comes to my multitude of unanswered questions, I take a lot of comfort in this statement from the handbook: “Members who have concerns about the eternal nature of such relationships can find peace in the knowledge that Heavenly Father is loving and just. He will ensure that eternal family relationships will be fair and right for all who keep their covenants.”
This article was originally shared on the LeadingSaints Helpers Facebook group. Thanks to the wonderful team of people there here are some additional insights on the topics of IVF and Surrogacy:
“I did a diagram of “Artificial” Insemination, In-Vitro Fertilization, and Surrogacy to understand the different aspects of the counsel in the Handbook.
By policy, a child conceived artificially or by IVF is born in the covenant.
Children born through surrogacy are not born in the covenant.
“My” conclusion is that surrogacy means the child is “born” to the surrogate and not the wife. In other words, it has everything to do with being “born” in the covenant and nothing to do with being “conceived” in the covenant.
When a baby is born to a surrogate mother who is not sealed to a man, the baby is not born in the covenant, so the matter is referred to the First Presidency, presumably to authorize the sealing to the biological parents.
When a baby is born to a surrogate, sealed sister, that baby is then “born” in the covenant of that sealing. Again, the matter is referred to the First Presidency, in this case, to presumably authorize breaking the sealing to the “birth” parents and then the sealing to the biological parents.”