When Mary Collett was pregnant with her fourth child, her doctor told her some grim news — her baby had a heart defect. Throughout the pregnancy, she was routinely tested and in her third trimester, her doctor offered an abortion. The reason? Her baby would have Down syndrome.

She was agitated by her doctor’s offer to abort her child. “They thought his life wasn’t worth it because he had Down syndrome,” she said. Collett was able to deliver her son and he lived for 912 months before he died due to health complications. She fondly recounted how her son made her whole family more compassionate and through his short life, influenced their neighbors and friends to become better people.

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Collett’s short time with her son galvanized her pro-life activism, which led her and two of her children to go to Washington, D.C., on Jan. 20 for the March for Life. In the sea of religious and secular organizations, she marched with Latter-day Saints for Life — it was the first time this group attended the march. Though the group may be small in numbers, they have a big vision: to transform into one of the most visible groups on the national pro-life stage.

Latter-day Saints Mary Collett and her daughter Maddy, 15, take part in the March for Life in Washington, D.C. on January 20, 2023.
Latter-day Saints Mary Collett and her daughter Maddy, 15, take part in the March for Life in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 20, 2023. | Joshua Roberts, for the Deseret News

Why Latter-day Saints for Life?

Latter-day Saints for Life was founded by Jessica Spackman in October 2022. After she was married, the couple tried to conceive. At the same time, she stumbled upon information that explained how abortions were performed. She was horrified by the procedure and over time learned how many abortions are performed in the U.S. annually — 930,160 in 2020, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

As Spackman dug deeper, she learned there was an abortion clinic two miles from her home. She became passionate about opposing abortion, especially as she became a mother. She said she formed the group with the goals of “increasing pro-life understanding, values, and action within the membership of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in alignment with the doctrine of the Church and by providing a voice for those members in the public sphere as we link arms with others in protecting life.”

Although the group seeks to align with the values of the church, it is not sponsored or affiliated with the church.

According to its newsroom website, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints says, “The Church opposes elective abortion for personal or social convenience, and counsels its members not to submit to, perform, encourage, pay for, or arrange for such abortions.”

The church does allow for exceptions in cases of “Pregnancy (that) results from rape or incest, or a competent physician determines that the life or health of the mother is in serious jeopardy, or a competent physician determines that the fetus has severe defects that will not allow the baby to survive beyond birth.”

But, the church says, “Even these exceptions do not automatically justify abortion. Abortion is a most serious matter. It should be considered only after the persons responsible have received confirmation through prayer. Members may counsel with their bishops as part of this process.”

It continues: “The Church’s position on this matter remains unchanged. As states work to enact laws related to abortion, Church members may appropriately choose to participate in efforts to protect life and to preserve religious liberty.”

In a 2021 general conference talk, Elder Neil L. Andersen of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said, “If an unanticipated child is expected, let us reach out with love, encouragement, and, when needed, financial help, strengthening a mother in allowing her child to be born and continue his or her journey in mortality.” He said that there is “no question” for members that all people existed in a pre-mortal life before birth and that members have a responsibility to protect them.

Spackman couldn’t attend the March for Life, but was happy when members of the group decided to go. “I’m so excited Latter-day Saints for Life had a wonderful group representing members of our church at the March for Life,” she said. “The world needs to see that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is pro-life and that we both talk the talk and walk the walk — and today, they saw that we literally do walk the walk.”

Latter-day Saints Christian Cranney, 13, Nathaniel Collett, 13, Sarah Barlow and Simeon Cranney, 11, take part in the March for Life in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 20, 2023. | Joshua Roberts, for the Deseret News

Latter-day Saints like Collett and Spackman say that the scriptures and church teachings have inspired them in their pro-life activism.

Collett shared an experience from when she was 10 weeks pregnant and had an ultrasound. “I saw this baby who wasn’t very far along. And the baby was just moving and kicking. At that moment, I just felt this great love for this baby — this great spiritual connection with the fetus.”

Devastatingly, she miscarried five weeks later.

She believes God gave her that experience to help her develop a special connection with her baby, she said. She didn’t have any other experience like that before and considers it sacred — a special moment that influenced her passion for supporting life and mothers.

Collett marched alongside Brigham Young University Students for Life club president Erica Smith. Smith has been involved in the pro-life movement for several years and attended the national March for Life for the first time this year.

Latter-day Saint Erica Smith takes part in the March for Life in Washington, DC, on January 20, 2023.
Latter-day Saint Erica Smith takes part in the March for Life in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 20, 2023. | Joshua Roberts, for the Deseret News

Smith said the march was especially meaningful to her because of the conversations with fellow marchers. “I talked to a Latter-day Saint woman named Sarah. She talked to me about how firmly she believes that pro-lifers have a responsibility not just to make abortion illegal, but to provide vulnerable women and their children with the resources and support they need during and after pregnancy.”

How pro-life activism benefits women

Smith said some have misconceptions about the pro-life movement and see it as only trying to restrict women’s access to abortion, but she believes the movement is much more than that. She spoke about how important it is to provide resources during and after pregnancy because low-income women may see abortion as the best option — Smith and others want to ensure that these women can choose life.

“In 2016, I began volunteering occasionally with a group called Pro-Life Utah. They found out there was a woman named Bryonna who was being pressured to have an abortion,” Smith said. Bryonna Jones grew up in foster care and has cerebral palsy — she was being pressured to have an abortion because “her immediate needs weren’t being met.”

Smith said a number of women — Latter-day Saints, Catholics, atheists — worked together to provide resources and support for her during and after pregnancy. At the time, Smith lived on campus at BYU. “I remember buying diapers in my campus mini-mart at BYU to be able to attend Jones’ baby shower.” She reminisced on the outpouring of love that Jones experienced from women who were committed to helping her be able to have her child.

Jones said she felt isolated because she wanted to have a child although she suffers from disabilities, but women with Pro-Life Utah celebrated her. “I’ve had so many people that are so cruel and cold about the idea that I have cerebral palsy and I’m trying to have a baby. Like what are you doing, you can’t run after it. And it’s like I see people here that they’re not thinking about that; they’re thinking about she’s trying to have a baby, good for her.”

Women who are in crisis pregnancies or are single are of special concern to Smith. Now that the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe, she said that she is looking forward to more pro-life advocacy that helps these women. BYU professor Jenet Erickson spoke about how women are in need of this type of advocacy.

Marchers take part in the March for Life in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 20, 2023. | Joshua Roberts, for the Deseret News
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Erickson said that women often feel trapped in pregnancies and know having a child will make their life more complicated, but she believes that abortion on-demand is a barrier to helping women. Erickson said, “But when we unpack abortion on-demand, (we see) that it’s created this funnel where we shove all the reasons she’s in that very difficult situation in the first place and we don’t ever address those.”

We’ve never had to address how women are much more likely to be impoverished, how men are absolved of sexual responsibility in relationships because of abortion, and “the rupture of relationships” that has ensued, Erickson said.

While some believe that abortion made women equal to men, Erickson pushed back on that idea and said that’s not what happened. “What happened is men became free to engage in sexual relations without consequences and so you had not liberation for women, but you had legitimacy for male promiscuity.” Women, then, have to bear more burdens as a result of having abortion on-demand.

What’s happened, Erickson said, is that we stopped seeing each other as dependent beings who impact one another. She quoted Camille Williams, who said, “Each elective abortion is some woman’s pain; every abortion is some kind of failure — not of contraceptives — but the failure of human beings to care for each other.” 

Erickson said that it’ll take righting those wrongs to mend society.

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The necessity of interfaith activism

Stephen Cranney, a Latter-day Saint father and data scientist, has attended March for Life now four times in a row. “I’ve always been pro-life, my wife has been pro-life. When we found ourselves living in D.C., this was the big kind of signature march for this issue, so it just seemed like a good thing to do.”

This year, Cranney attended the march with three of his kids in tow. He knows the route well, but this year the route was different. Instead of ending up on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court, symbolizing protest against Roe v. Wade, this year, protesters culminated their march near the U.S. Capitol building — symbolizing how the pro-life movement will gravitate toward state-by-state legislation.

The march was historic for everyone in attendance, but for Cranney, it was also unique because it was the first time that he marched with a group of Latter-day Saints instead of just his family.

“We’re usually there, the only ones holding up a ‘LDS for Life’ sign, but it was affirming to have other Latter-day Saints marching alongside us.” He said that it’s inspiring to walk among believers, both of his own faith and other faiths, and that the feeling that he’s with people who strongly value life “permeated the whole march.”

Leading pro-life advocate Robert George, who is Princeton University’s McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence, said that even though Roe is overturned, pro-life people of faith need to be committed to “the principle of the profound inherent and equal dignity of each and every member of the human family.” And he said they need to work together.

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“To be true to themselves, our traditions of faith have to reassert, reaffirm, constantly reaffirm and remind our own faithful and everyone else of the truth and the importance of the principle,” George said. “In our own time, that principle is challenged by the abortion license, by the move towards euthanasia, by the devaluing of the lives of cognitively disabled people, people suffering from dementia and other mind and memory impairing details. And so it really is incumbent on the traditions of faith to reaffirm, reassert and remind people of that principle.”

George said it’s impossible for only one faith to achieve what needs to be done in the public square and via public policy. Living in a pluralistic society, he said, always requires this type of cooperation. He gave the example of the civil rights movement, pointing out how the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., a Protestant minister, cooperated with faith leaders from other traditions.

“Speaking for myself as a Catholic, I’m very happy — delighted, honored — to work with evangelical Christians, Latter-day Saints, Jews, Muslims, agnostics, atheists in the cause.”

Cecily Routman, president of the Jewish Pro-Life Foundation, said that she thinks it’s vital for the pro-life movement to work together and that Judaism in particular has unique offerings.

She explained that when she was young, she was taught abortion was permitted in Judaism. “But in 2005, I was listening to a National Public Radio broadcast. They were having a show about the review of the ban on partial birth abortions. This was in 2005 — there had been a legal challenge to it. And on that program, they had a Jewish woman insisting that she had a religious right to a partial birth abortion.”

Routman said that she had been taught as a young child that as soon as a child was born, the child had equal status as the mother. This experience catalyzed her interest in abortion — she started learning more about the issue and became passionate about becoming a Jewish pro-life voice in the public square.

Now Routman runs the Jewish Pro-Life Foundation. Routman and others from her organization attended the March for Life and said it is amazing to connect with people of different religions — and no religion at all — at the march. “I think it’s very important to build bridges and affiliations. That’s one of the reasons we attend the March for Life.”

“There are secular people that believe in the right to life in this country, partially because it’s in our founding documents and partially because it’s a moral stance,” she said. But when it comes to the religious pro-life movement, Routman pointed to shared scripture as a unifying force.

“Not everyone needs to go out and march,” Collet said as she listed the many ways people can contribute to the pro-life movement, such as writing on social media or donating baby supplies. “As individual members we have been encouraged to be involved politically and in serving in our communities.” She believes we can all be leaders in unique ways.