Thirty-five years after Roe v. Wade, many Catholics wonder why the country still does not protect the life of every unborn person. The case against abortion seems compelling, so why does it often fail to convince? The greatest obstacle is fear. The opening chapters of the book of Exodus remind us of the close connection between fear and death, while suggesting that the choice for life cannot be the burden of one person—it is a mandate to the whole community.

The family of Israel went to Egypt because there was a famine in their own land. But Egypt, first a place of life, became a place of death. Pharaoh wanted to stop the Hebrews from increasing because he was afraid-afraid that they would become too numerous and strike out on their own. His solution was to command the Hebrew midwives to kill all Hebrew boys at birth.

Abortion, too, is often the result of fear. Pregnancy is scary. Before I gave birth I spent five weeks in a hospital a hundred miles from home, paralyzed with medication. Our son was born at twenty-eight weeks and stayed in the hospital for two and a half months. Yet we were very fortunate. We were supported by family and friends, nurses and doctors, local pastors we did not know, even the prayers of elementary-school children. I was a graduate student at the time, and my department assured me that they would work with me so that I could remain in my program. My husband’s employer gave him paid paternity leave. When we brought our son home, friends and neighbors brought us meals and baby-sat for us so we could sleep.

Not everyone can count on this kind of support. Mine was the experience of an English-speaking middle-class woman with a close family, a strong social network, and good health insurance. The case for life is not always so clear to one who is faced with hard choices. Can we ask a woman to choose life when she can’t afford rent, let alone child care? When she thinks she must choose between her baby and her job, her education, or her family? We cannot demand that she do the harder thing if we will not also comfort her, support her, pray with her, and make her community a place where she and her baby can thrive.

The Hebrew midwives ensured life for the unborn in direct defiance of Pharaoh’s command to murder Hebrew children. For him, children were an obstacle to Egypt’s comfort and safety. Today the church must also sometimes defy a culture in which children are too often regarded as an impediment. And to do this, it must not merely reject this culture’s values; it must replace them.

When Moses was born, his mother looked at him and saw that he was good. Instead of throwing him into the river, she hid him like a precious treasure. And when she was no longer able to hide him, she put him in an ark. She waterproofed the tiny vessel, just as Noah did his, out of hope, out of a determination to keep her child from drowning. This choice of life for her child was as momentous as Noah’s act of obedience. But it was not her choice alone that saved the child. Pharaoh’s daughter and her handmaids found the baby. They, too, made a choice in sparing the life of the child. What’s more, the baby’s sister had stationed herself to watch over him. It was because of her watchfulness and courage that mother and child were reunited. Finally, Pharaoh’s daughter offered to pay wages to Moses’s mother, and gave the child back to her so that she could nurse him.

But when we think of the book of Exodus, we don’t usually think about mothers. We think about slavery, oppression, and liberation. God hears the cry of the weak. He rejects the violence of an unjust economy, and delivers his people from slavery. He teaches them a new way, a way of justice and compassion, a way of care for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. And when he has led them out of Egypt, he gives them a choice: choose life or choose death.

In the debate about abortion, we have too often zeroed in on the choices made by individual mothers. We also need to examine our choices as members of the church, the people redeemed by God, led out of slavery, and taught a new way. Now the choice lies before us. If we do not work for justice—if we do not show compassion to young mothers who need not only our prayers but also material support—then we have chosen death.

Anathea Portier-Young is assistant professor of Old Testament at Duke University Divinity School.

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Published in the 2008-10-10 issue: View Contents
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