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Prayers for Japan's Unborn Children

Mar 21 2011
As the country quells a nuclear crisis, I'm reminded that even the best-intentioned parents can't fully protect their children.

I was a fairly relaxed mother-to-be during each of my three pregnancies. I didn't even try to follow the overwrought "Best-Odds Diet" popularized by the blockbuster What to Expect When You're Expecting, for example, preferring my normal, reasonably healthy diet, including grateful consumption of calcium-rich ice cream, which my obstetricians kindly included on their list of excellent foods for pregnancy. But I did develop one odd habit: Whenever I used my microwave, I never stood directly in front of the machine as it hummed along, just in case those waves of instantaneous heat could harm my baby.

My microwave avoidance seems silly today, as I read about the potentially dire effects of radiation exposure on pregnant women and their fetuses in Japan's earthquake-devastated north, where damage to a nuclear reactor has caused an ongoing crisis. Experts warn that unborn fetuses are particularly vulnerable to the effects of radiation, which their mothers can breathe in or ingest through tainted food. Radiation levels that do not pose major threats to adults can be devastating to babies in utero, particularly during vital periods of development. According to The Daily Beast,

Should the worst-case scenario become a reality, it could lead to a generation of children born with all manner of maladies, from congenital malformation to mental retardation. Even at radiation levels too low to make a mother-to-be sick, health consequences for a fetus can be severe, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fetal exposure to radiation is particularly damaging during the stage of organogenesis (9-42 days), a period of gestation crucial to the development of the heart, lungs, and brain …

Studies of Russia's Chernobyl nuclear accident indicate that unborn Swedish children who were at 8 to 25 weeks gestation when they were subjected to radiation fallout had lasting cognitive damage, even though the radiation levels were low enough to be considered safe at the time.
In Japan, concern over babies' health is compounded by parental anxieties about their children being labeled hibakusha, or "radiation-exposed people." The atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki have given Japanese people a tragic familiarity with the health and social ramifications of radiation exposure. In a culture that celebrates conformity, children who grow up with health damage from radiation may have trouble finding jobs or marriage partners.

The radioactive threat to Japan's unborn children is a stark reminder that in nearly any disaster, natural or human-made, the weakest and most vulnerable people (the young, the old, the sick) usually suffer the most. In the Gospels, Jesus says bluntly of the end times, marked by wars and famine, "How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers!" (Matt. 24:19; Mark 13:17; Luke 21:23). Like most pregnant women, I turned inward as my babies grew in my womb, nurturing my body, my family, and my home to create a hospitable space to welcome this new person. I simply do not know how women living in the world's sore spots bear up under the knowledge that their efforts at hospitality can be completely undone when natural disaster, war, famine, and persecution make this world a most inhospitable place.

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