Sunday, May 30, 2021

Miscarriage in the context of the Plan of Salvation

I’ve held a few different callings in the Church over the years. One of the most rewarding callings to have is that of a teacher. I’ve taught in Elders Quorum, Youth Sunday school, and Primary—alongside my wife Danica, who is an elementary school teacher. I’ve also served in the Sunday school presidency in a few different congregations, including this one.

In recent years we’ve seen a number of changes in Church policies and practices, from the new two-hour meeting block to adjustments in temple ordinances, and shifting the focus of our scripture study from the Sunday school classroom to being centered in our homes.

When the pandemic happened, we found ourselves having to worship from our homes out of necessity. 

At the start of quarantine, my step-mother observed,

“We have been prepared for this time through the trend away from Church-centered activities to personal and family development of our relationship with Jesus Christ and Our Father in Heaven…”

The pandemic gave us an opportunity to really put home-based gospel study into practice. As the family is the basic unit of the kingdom of God—and that includes families of one or two members—our studies should have a clear connection to the basic principles of the gospel, the simple truths that lead to conversion, which does not end when we step out of the waters of baptism but is a continual process.

In preparing for this talk, this idea of getting back to basics prompted me to consider the Plan of Salvation.

When looking it up on the Church’s website, I saw an article from The Friend. I thought, “This is Perfect! It even has pictures!”

I remember when the missionaries first came to teach my family about the the Plan of Salvation, which provides the answers to the big questions about life:

• Where did I come from?

We lived with our heavenly parents in our premortal life [where we] chose Heavenly Father’s plan.

• Why am I here?

…we come to earth, [to] gain bodies, live in families… [and] to receive the ordinances that will help us return to Heavenly Father…

• Where will I go when I die?

[Our] spirit[s] will continue to live… will go to the spirit world… [until the] Resurrection…

It’s with this plan in mind that many of us strive to have children.

Danica and I have been trying to have children for a number of years now… and so far it hasn’t happened. We have gotten pregnant—at least twice—but those pregnancies ended in miscarriages.

Like most people trying to have children, we’ve been brushing up on the basics of fertility and conception. Trying to make sure we get the timing right.

There’s an app for everything!

Of course, our age has made us keenly aware of potential difficulties. Our commitment to clear communication with each other, our families, and friends have made these experiences feel a little less lonely; as does our respect for advances in medical science, as we continue to gain a better understanding of the biological processes that are integral to God’s plan.

It should be understood that scientific truth is as much a part of the Gospel as the truths that are revealed to us through scripture, through our prophets, and through personal revelation.

There are different types of pregnancy loss. Miscarriages are losses that occur prior to the twentieth week of pregnancy. Loss after the twentieth week is considered a “stillbirth” an experience that is considerably more difficult to endure and complicated to process.

As I mentioned earlier, since we started trying to get pregnant, we’ve been through two miscarriages but we also acknowledge that there may have been others that we were not even aware of.

Most people think that there’s always some evidence that a miscarriage has occurred but that is not the case. Statistically, as much as “…22% of all conceptions never even complete implantation…if you factor in fertilized eggs that fail to implant along with pregnancies that end in miscarriage, around 70% to 75% of all conceptions will end in pregnancy loss.”

We also draw a great deal of comfort from knowing that miscarriages are not atypical events. They are “…the body's way of stopping a pregnancy that has no chance of success.”

Nevertheless, the psychological and emotional response to any pregnancy loss, and the particular circumstances surrounding the event, can vary greatly from person to person, and even from occurrence to occurrence.

A miscarriage can be emotionally devastating and worthy of grief that needs to be honored and processed. It can also be seen as something that’s disappointing but incidental.

We know this because we have personally experienced this variance.

As anyone might imagine, the first miscarriage that we went through was particularly sad for us, but when the second one occurred, we hadn’t even realized that we were pregnant.

It happened in the middle of a week and while it was a lousy way to learn that we had been pregnant, this time it wasn’t so difficult, physically or emotionally, that Danica felt the need to even take time off from work.

We’ve been pretty open and honest about our experiences with pregnancy loss out of a simple desire to let people know that this was something our little family was going through. We were not seeking attention or sympathy. It’s just that—despite the fact that miscarriages are so common—historically, it’s been a taboo subject; carrying with it a stigma that fosters unwarranted feelings of guilt and shame. All for something that is ultimately a natural process that no one can control.

In recent years, more people are talking openly about pregnancy loss and we feel it’s important to keep that discussion going, to do our part to help break that unfair stigma.

Throughout our experience, we’ve heard a lot of platitudes, which we expected:

“…count your blessings,”

“…hang in there,”

“Have you considered adoption?”

Danica has a brother who’s adopted so, yeah.

Of course, we’ve appreciated the more empathetic thoughts that were shared:

Those that reminded us that our “…feelings are valid.…” That it’s okay to “…Honor the grief… [That] there is something about giving the pain room to breathe that makes it easier to bear.”

In addition to the expressions of sympathy, and the thoughtful remarks that are often shared in response to hearing about a miscarriage, I’ve also noted a troubling presumption embraced by some that I did not find helpful at all; the notion of conflating a miscarriage with the death of a child.

To be frank, I find the expression of this belief—especially within the context of a much-needed discussion about miscarriage—to be inappropriate and even potentially harmful. The emotional toll that pregnancy losses can take are difficult enough to endure in isolation. For anyone to suggest to someone that their miscarriage—as tragic as it may already be for them—is tantamount to a child’s death, I think is irresponsible and cruel! To say nothing of the long-term psychological harm that it could cause.

I feel it important to emphasize that this is a belief. It is not grounded in any scientific principle or theory. Nor is it based on any theological creed that I’m aware of, nor any canonical doctrine.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ teaches us that human understanding is finite and the gathering and acceptance of knowledge and truth—regardless of its source—is ongoing.

To ask questions is expected and encouraged but not all questions have been answered. We are free to speculate and to reason but we must keep our minds open to the likelihood that our limited understanding may lead us to embrace as true, notions that are, at best uninformed, or, at worst, completely false. And we must be prepared to let them go.

The initial stages in the Plan of Salvation, the concept of ethereal spirit-beings waiting for an opportunity to gain a body for the purpose of experiencing a mortal life is shared by many different faiths. What is not known with any certainty—and remains a matter of speculation—is at what point a spirit joins with a body.

There are those who argue that “life begins at conception.” Biologically, that would appear to be the case. It’s difficult to argue that embryogenesis is not a living process when we can watch it happening with the aid of a microscope…but at what point does a spirit enter a body?

That is a question that cannot be answered scientifically.

Among theologians—even those that subscribe to the same religions—there is no consensus. So, all we are left with is speculation, and it’s my personal opinion that those who speculate that a fertilized ovum is host to a spirit are a vocal minority. Were this not the case, I think that funeral services following pregnancy loss—even for miscarriages—would be standard practice. Considering how such a ritual might affect those experiencing recurrent miscarriages, I’m grateful that it’s not.

When one considers all the possible variables that can—and do—occur during pregnancy, I see a major flaw in the belief that spirit and body are joined at conception. The Plan of Salvation teaches us that we lived with our heavenly parents in our premortal life and we chose Heavenly Father’s plan. As spirits, we were conscious entities with an awareness and understanding of our purpose to “…come to earth, [to] gain bodies, [and] live in families…”

While not explicitly doctrinal, many of us have come to believe that we were privy to knowing who our parents would be and what our mortal lives might be like. It’s generally understood that as spirit children, we were eager to begin our mortal existence. This brings up some important questions:

If the purpose of mortal life is to gain knowledge and experience, how can one achieve that goal if they haven’t even developed the physiological capabilities to do so?

If a spirit has knowledge of what their mortal life would be like, what would be the point of entering a clump of cells that will never have a chance of becoming a living person?

Consider the fates of abandoned frozen embryos at fertility clinics, described in a 2019 NBC News article as

“an unanticipated… byproduct of… advances made in assisted reproductive technology… causing concern among bioethicists, attorneys, religious groups and the medical community.”

Do all those frozen embryos represent spirits that are trapped in long-term cold storage? That same article even described them as “…in a frozen state of limbo…”

Would a conscious spirit not see that as a possibility when it enters a diploid cell in a petri dish instead of their mother’s body?

While a frozen embryo does not show signs of life—because it’s frozen—it still has the potential for life. Whether or not that potential is realized is what should be considered. I think the same thing can be said for any prenatal organism—human or otherwise.

They have the potential for life. If that potential has diminished to the point that the body in which it is developing is able to recognize that diminished potential, it will end the pregnancy on its own. That is a miscarriage.

Thus what has been lost was not a life, just the potential for one.

It is my personal belief that as spirits, with some foreknowledge of our mortal lives, and also having free agency, we would not choose to enter a prenatal body—regardless of what stage of development it may be in—if we knew that we would not be born, for any reason.

To offer an analogy—one that Danica told me was very helpful for her:

A spirit being experiencing a mortal life is like a person traveling in a vehicle.

Mortal life is the journey within the vehicle and it comes to an end when it reaches its destination—or concludes prematurely because of an unexpected change in itinerary or an accident.

From the perspective of a premortal spirit, a pregnancy loss—including miscarriages, stillbirths, and even those resulting from a medical procedure—is more akin to missing a bus than getting into a car that immediately crashes upon entering traffic.