Pressured to procreate

National Post, Canada/January 29, 2011

Have as many babies as you can," Jorjina Broadbent recalls being told. "My husband always said that it's not quality we're looking for, it's quantity, how many children we can have before this life is up."

Multiply and replenish the Earth. She did as instructed. A child of polygamists, raised as a Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Ms. Broadbent produced 12 children; her husband, also a church member, took a second wife and had some more.

Ms. Broadbent's daughters felt pressured to wed early and procreate. One daughter was married at 17. "She had four babies, right straight in a row, in four years," Ms. Broadbent said in a videotaped interview, entered as evidence this month at a B.C. Supreme Court hearing testing the validity of Canada's anti-polygamy laws.

Ms. Broadbent was born in Utah, and she raised her large family there, but her church has an affiliate community in Bountiful, an isolated community in the B.C. interior. FLDS members in Bountiful also practise polygamy. It's prohibited in the United States and in Canada, but the specific laws are rarely enforced because of difficulties authorities have finding harm.

People loyal to the church paint a rosy picture of polygamy. Residents of Bountiful describe their community as loving, peaceful and happily insulated. They just want to be left alone.

But lawyers for the B.C. Attorney General say polygamy must be prosecuted, to protect the moral fabric of Canadian society and to protect women and children from abuse. If the FLDS in Bountiful can practise polygamy under the guise of religious freedom, then other groups will surely come to Canada seeking the same protection.

The B.C. Attorney General wants to show that harms can and do arise from polygamy. But this isn't easy. One strategy is finding witnesses such as Ms. Broadbent and having them share with the court disturbing life stories. Another is producing statistics that show anomalous rates of teen pregnancy.

According to an affidavit sworn last week by a director of B.C.'s Vital Statistics Agency, there were 28,740 teen births in the province from 1986 and 2009. That's 2.7% of all births in B.C. for the period. Meanwhile, there were 833 births by Bountiful women; of those, 85 -- or 10.2% -- were teen births.

The Bountiful numbers are anomalous, but are they cause for alarm? Not necessarily, according to other documents produced by the B.C. Attorney General.

An affidavit sworn by BC provincial health officer Perry Kendall demonstrates a "higher-than-provincial-average rate of teen pregnancy" in and around Bountiful; however, Mr. Kendall also noted that this "did not present a serious public health concern because most of the health risks associated with teen pregnancy reflect the impact of a lack of prenatal care, which was not an issue in Bountiful."

Attached to his affidavit is a 2005 document prepared for a provincial deputy minister of health services. It also downplays the high rate of teen pregnancies at Bountiful. "[Government officials] have been keeping a 'close eye' on the community, have conducted multiple investigations, and have never found a child (any person under the age of 19) in that community who ... was in need of protection."

What about Bountiful men, those who married teenaged girls and impregnated them? They are, on average, 8.2 years older than their teen wives, according to statistical evidence filed in court last week. The data indicate that 142 Bountiful fathers have, on average, 5.7 children each. Seven of the 142 men have 14 children each. Another seven fathers have 233 offspring among them; that's an average of 33 each. Those are shocking statistics, but on their own they cannot lead to allegations of crime.

According to the evidence filed, one Bountiful man has 107 children of his own. And one has 22 wives. No names are mentioned but local media have previously reported that Winston Blackmore, Bountiful's former bishop, has more than 100 children and more than 20 wives.

Mr. Blackmore split with U. S-based FLDS leaders in 2002, following doctrinal disputes, but he still leads his own fundamentalist faction within Bountiful. Neither he nor members of his flock are participating at the B.C. Supreme Court hearing. The other Bountiful faction is taking part. Led by James Oler, it remains loyal to FLDS prophet Warren Jeffs, an American accused of child sexual assault. Mr. Jeffs is sitting in a Texas jail, waiting for criminal proceedings to begin.

Three of his Bountiful acolytes testified at the polygamy hearing in Vancouver this week. They all spoke in favour of the church and plural marriage. Unlike Ms. Broadbent -- who speaks openly about abuses she claims to have suffered as an FLDS member before leaving the church and her husband a few years ago -- the three Bountiful women spoke of happiness, mutual respect and personal freedoms, such as choosing career paths, in midwifery, teaching, or accounting. They also described the benefits -- and the necessity -- of shared child rearing.

"We're all in one house," one of the women told the hearing this week. "We hold meetings every night, or we try to. We talk over the day's events, talk about the children and if there are changes needing to be made."

As far as she is concerned, these are the only family data that matter: Four sister wives, one husband, 24 children. "I know all of their names," the woman said, proudly.

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