The Bookends of Life: A Reflection on Human Dignity
“My water just broke!” It’s the phrase every new dad waits to hear from his wife in anticipation of a new child, yet, somehow is never truly prepared for. I heard this phrase for the first time just a few weeks ago on June 1st when my wife and I unexpectedly welcomed our first child into this world a whole month early. Having lost our first daughter to a miscarriage two years ago, it was a day I had dreamed of for a long time, and we were on cloud nine.
Then, just over a week later, the rose-colored glasses fell off, as I received word that my grandmother, who had been battling multiple myeloma (cancer of the blood), also had late-stage kidney failure and was being moved to hospice care. My grandmother, now 88 years old, could not wait for her first great granddaughter to be born and, in some ways, used her coming birth as motivation to keep going.
I watch my wife change our daughter’s diapers, feed her, clothe her, and comfort her, and at the same time see my mother change my grandmother’s diapers, feed her, clothe her, and comfort her. The juxtaposition of these two acts of love put into perspective the bookends of life.
As a new father, it struck me how vitally important God’s design for the human family, containing that crucial duty to sacrifice and love those entrusted to our care, is. Family life means leaving behind our own desires to put those we love before us — first God and then our family members. It is amazing to experience how natural the instinct to care for our loved ones is. Whether that was me waking up against my body’s internal sleep clock to feed my daughter, or my mother and her siblings setting aside their own jobs and families to care for my grandmother, that natural instinct to love one another until the end cannot be beaten. Yet our society has worked to erase that natural and supernatural desire to love our own families in a sacrificial way let alone our neighbors.
When society tells young men and women that their careers, personal ambitions, and Starbucks coffee budget are more valuable then starting a family or taking care of your own elderly family members, the inherent value of human dignity suffers. And this devaluing of human life starts at the earliest point possible — in the womb.
Today, the powers that be decide which lives have value and which do not. When our most vulnerable nascent humans in the womb and their mothers are not treated as something to be nurtured, protected, and cared for, but rather, something to be discarded, it’s not hard to see why born humans — whether young or old — also begin to lose their value in our society. It’s not hard to imagine that self-sacrificial love has become a burden, rather than a joy.
My grandmother did not live an easy life. She was born in 1934 at the height of the Great Depression, and she and her five siblings lost their father a day before her 11th birthday. My grandmother endured the tragic deaths of two of her sons and one grandson, and she has faced numerous physical ailments — beating late-stage colon cancer, a broken arm, hip, and pelvis. And at the same time, she created a beautiful family with five children, five grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren. She graduated college in her late 40s and became an occupational therapist, and then a librarian. Her Catholic faith grew so strong that she would never miss a Sunday Mass even if it meant missing out on watching her beloved Pittsburgh Pirates.
In a world that treats taking an abortion pill like eating candy, potential pain and suffering in life is used as an excuse to determine that life is not worth living. But comments like, “Why would I bring a child into this world just to suffer?” ring hollow when you see the joyful life my grandmother lived, and I hope my daughter will live. Yes, life is challenging. Yes, there are difficulties that can be so hard to bear we think we cannot make it through. And yet, when we reflect on God’s love for us, the sacrifice on the cross He bore for us to one day share eternity with Him, the ups and downs of life make sense. It is out of sacrifice, out of being burdened by another, that love abounds and pushes us into becoming the men and women God intended us to be.
Every single human life, from the embryonic stage to 88 (and hopefully beyond) with late-stage cancer is valuable. And there is nothing that makes that more evident than a father’s love for his daughter, and a child’s love for her mother. As the Supreme Court overturns an egregious precedent that at its core did one thing, devalued the sanctity of human life in our nation, may this simple story of the self-sacrificial love of family life be an example for our society.
Connor Semelsberger is Director of Federal Affairs - Life and Human Dignity at Family Research Council.