Respect Life Month: A Reflection on Human Dignity and Chronic Illness

by Chelsea Duffy

At twenty-five years old, I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis. It is a chronic illness caused by my immune system attacking the walls of my colon. The symptoms are painful, unpleasant, and bathroom-related, so I’ll let you Google them on your own time.

Developing a so-called “bathroom disease” in my twenties was already the pits. But what made it far, far worse was the fact that I had a two month old baby to take care of when it developed. I was still deep in the throes of first-time mom worrying, the kind where “Am I doing this right?” is an hourly question and Google* was my go-to for answers to everything. All of I sudden, went from fretting about when to introduce a pacifier** to wondering how I was going to feed and care for my child when I was extremely weak from illness-induced dehydration and malnourishment.

In the month it took me to receive a diagnosis and get my body into remission, I was totally reliant on friends and family for not only my needs, but also my son’s. They fed me broth, while they gave my son a bottle. They let me lay down, while they held my son for an hour or two. They slept in my son’s nursery at night, while I laid in my bed, longing for life to go back to what it was before.

One thing I never realized as a pro-lifer is how some of the ideas that support the culture of death can so easily enter into our own thoughts. My greatest fear during this time was that I was becoming a burden for my family. I felt that my physical limitations were unfair to them, and that my value to them was less because I couldn’t do what I could do before. This particular fear, while understandable, is dangerous. And as a pro-lifer, I know this fear is one of the primary motivators for individuals who seek physician-assisted suicide***.

Now, I am not saying that I was suicidal at this time. But I definitely allowed myself to believe some real lies about my value as a person. If you had asked me then if assisted suicide should be legalized for those who feel like a burden, I would have given you a clear no, and shared with you that all human lives are inherently valuable from the moment of conception to natural death. But if you had asked me about myself? I would have said that I was failing my family because I was so sick, and that I wasn’t worth anything much to them.

Eventually, thanks to the passage of time, a good support system, and a great therapist, I realized how I had internalized a lie, one that I knew was used to justify taking the lives of the medically vulnerable like me. I couldn’t hold onto this lie any more than I could tolerate the lies of our culture that say the elderly and ill are disposable. I had to let it go, and instead internalize what is true – that I, and every other human being, are inherently valuable, at every age and stage of life, at every level of ability.

Today, I am pregnant with my second child, and facing a one-in-three chance of my disease flaring again postpartum. I feel like I owe it to my children and to our society to affirm the truth about our collective human dignity. The truth is that we are valuable no matter our physical state, and worthy of protection and care. We need to disabuse ourselves of the notion that our identities are merely the sum of what we do or accomplish. Our physical state will change constantly throughout our lives, but our value is enduring.

This October is Respect Life Month. During this time, I encourage you to reflect on what you have internalized about human worth. Do you truly believe you are valuable? Do you apply that value equally to others at all ages and stages?

Take some time to embrace the truth about yourself and others. Because someday, all of our bodies will weaken. All of us will slow down, “contribute” less, whether due to age or other reasons. How we conduct ourselves and value ourselves during those inevitable times in life speaks volumes to our culture as a whole.

For me, I want my children to know that I am still valuable even when I’m sick and vulnerable. I want them to see the grace that comes with accepting help. And I want them to know that in the times when they are weak and defenseless, they are still worth the same care and concern. When we embrace this truth for ourselves and our families, we testify to the truth about all human dignity.

 

 

*Learn from my mistakes and don’t do this. Call your actual doctor, or talk to a veteran mom. Avoid mommy blogs at all costs.

**According to the internet, only the “good moms” wait until their baby is four weeks old to introduce the pacifier. We didn’t last that long, because sleep is everything.

***See page 23 here: https://patientsrightsaction.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/Final-Primer.pdf

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