Safe Haven? A Baby Abandoned in a Nativity Scene isn't a "Feel Good" Christmas Story
Yesterday, a friend posted a link to an NPR piece that drew heartwarming conclusions of Biblical proportion regarding the recent abandonment of a newborn in a New York nativity scene. "Bible stories stay compelling over centuries," writes the author, Scott Simon, "because they show people struggle to do something good." The adoptive father of two seemingly likens the baby left at the church to Moses being placed in a basket to float in the reeds of the Nile river. In a world where parenting can be difficult and overwhelming, Mr. Simon invites us to find hope and inspiration from people, like this mother, who make hard choices. With this feel-good conclusion to this story, we almost miss the ache from the pit of our stomachs, a reminder that we're all somehow culpable for the separation of a mother and her much loved child.
The law under which this infant was abandoned exists less altruistically than as "a door in the law for parents who may feel...unable to care for their child...to safely leave them, with some confidence that they will be....eventually taken in by another family," as Simon puts it. More accurately, Safe Haven laws serve to address unsafe abandonment and infanticide--enacted in all 50 states "[a]s an incentive for mothers in crisis to safely relinquish their babies to designated locations where the babies are protected and provided with medical care until a permanent home is found" (source). In other words, Safe Haven laws are based on the idea that decriminalized and anonymized infant abandonment will keep mothers--who may be in crisis from a variety of circumstances--from hurting their babies.
Certainly wanting to hurt her baby or not being prepared to raise him weren't issues for Moses's mother, Jocebed. After all, she was tasked with Moses's care after Pharaoh's daughter found him. So why did Jocebed have Moses placed into a waterproofed basket in the Nile? One source suggests that it was because Jocebed could not bear to watch Moses die, because the prophetess Miriam told her it would save Moses, or to convince astrologers advising Pharaoh that the savior of the Jews was one of the babies already thrown to the Nile--thus prompting him to end his slaughter of children.
Regardless of Jocebed's intentions, it so happened that Moses was placed in the exact spot where another woman and a person who commanded privilege, protection, and power would--and did--find him.
The mother who placed her tiny son in the nativity scene did so under the protection of these laws often nicknamed "Baby Moses Laws." Are there parallels between Jocebed and this baby's mother? She lives in a state that publicly shames teen pregnancy and young parenthood. She lives in a society that continues to challenge a woman's access to reproductive health care. She lives in a country in which 45 million people live below the poverty line and in which 15.3 million children do not have enough food to eat. This is without examining intersecting factors relating to race, age, ability, so on and so forth. It is more than possible that the assumptions upon which "Baby Moses Laws" are based--that she would otherwise unsafely abandon or hurt her child--are absolutely false and she so much like Jocebed left her child lovingly in that manger as her best answer to insurmountable oppression in the society around her.
Regardless of the exact reasons this mother had, the systemic factors I just listed are the context in which she lives, in which all women in the U.S. live, and are unavoidably the context of her decisions. And it just so happened that her son was found by people who command privilege, protection, and power in society. Many parishioners, having no other notice than hearing of a child left in their parish, voiced having the resources and ability to care for him.
We don't know exactly why this mother left her son at that church. The nature of Safe Haven laws, and as Joy Messinger recently put it, child welfare systems, is that they "invisiblize" original mothers. We can't assess her needs of offer her support: we've made her anonymous. And because we can't hear her voice, we're able to shift whatever has happened to her that brought her to place her baby into a decorative manger into a special interest story that gives us hope that the world is fine the way it is. We applaud mothers, and other marginalized people, for the self-sacrificing decisions they make under oppression while doing nothing to lift the oppression they face.
Miriam, the sister of Moses, was the first of a handful of prophetesses mentioned in the Bible. Miriam was not just the mouthpiece of God, she was the mouthpiece of her people and she stood with her mother in defiance of the oppression around them. Biblical prophetesses and mothers of the Bible alike were often social change agents seeking to better the way those in suffering live. Should we be able to hear the voices of women, should we listen when women speak, might we be so uncomfortable we'd be inspired take up our duty to change the world to be a different place than it is now.