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.

Perhaps the thought of pregnant women and children suffering through disasters is so mind-boggling because in our culture, we work so hard to manage our childbearing. Reproductive technologies offer the opportunity to control our pregnancies and our children's genes. Genetic science even offers tools to manage our children long after birth. A test is now available, for example, that parents can use to determine if their kids have a gene associated with success in particular types of sports. And even parents who don't test their children's genes are bombarded with cultural messages about how the right birth plan, the right foods, and the right brain-stimulating activities will guarantee healthy, successful children.

Japanese mothers must live with the desperate knowledge that their children might not be healthy or successful—not because the mothers ate a hot dog or stood in front of a microwave during pregnancy, not because they needed a c-section or gave their babies formula, not because they use jarred baby food instead of the homemade organic stuff, not because they let their kids watch cartoons or try whatever sports they liked, regardless of their athletic prowess. These mothers' babies are threatened because something terrible happened to them at the worst possible time. It is a heartbreaking reminder that children are not ours to manage and control, but to receive in all their vulnerability.

Jesus offered God's hospitality, especially and explicitly, to the most vulnerable people, and so we offer our prayers and our help to the tiniest victims of Japan's earthquake. My paltry prayers and few dollars feel so inadequate. They are inadequate. I offer them anyway, trusting that in spite of evidence to the contrary, God is more powerful than an earthquake, and God's love more abundant than my stunted attempts to share it. And I hold my own children close, with all their maladies, mistakes, and limitations, everything unforeseen and unwanted yet welcomed along with their beauty, wisdom, and kindness.