What if you do not want to pray for life? That thought ran as an undercurrent through my mind as I prayed the extra prayers during the Ten Days of Repentance that culminate with Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement. Many of those prayers plead with God for the opportunity to live for another year. The soft whisper I heard was spurred by a beautifully written article, dictated by use of voice recognition technology because author Ben Mattlin cannot use his hands. Severely disabled from birth, he fights for life each day as he has done from infancy. During that time, he graduated from Harvard, became an accomplished financial journalist, married and raised two children, and achieved many other goals of which many healthy people only dream. In his article, he explains how much he values his life and how much value his life has. He was partially motivated to write by the legally sanctioned refusal of treatment to a fourteen-year-old born with the same birth defect as he, spinal muscular atrophy.
Mr. Mattlin, correctly in my opinion, does not judge the young girl who chose to die or her mother, family or friends. According to articles about her, Jerika Bolen faced her excruciating challenges bravely along with her loving mother. He simply wishes that she, like him, had found the will to live.
In earlier times, neither Ben Mattlin nor Jerika Bolen or their parents would have had the choice of life. They would not have survived for long no matter how loving their families or dedicated their doctors. Technology has radically changed our ability to physically sustain life, presenting us as individuals and as a society with an ever-increasing number of moral decisions. Medical advances have also provided us with expanded options for ending life. We can end the life of a fully formed baby in its mother’s womb without dramatically risking his mother’s life and know in advance of the likelihood of a baby being born with certain diseases allowing us to abort in the early stage of that pregnancy. We can transition a person into death with drugs that keep the experience pain free.
Most of us, thankfully, never need to grapple with the challenges of life that Ben Mattlin or Jerika Bolen faced. But the minute that their personal difficulties intersect with public law we are all involved. It might be that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump share a morality and that both their moralities stand in stark contrast to mine in countless ways. Yet, we can expect them to speak, influence the culture and rule in strikingly different ways on these issues of life and death. There is no question that in individual cases, life sometimes feels like a burden rather than a blessing. Probably many of us have periods where we feel that way though with maturity we understand that those times will pass. For other people, life is so difficult and painful, that the word burden would be an understatement for the afflictions they suffer. However, society is called upon to make a stand that guides itself correctly, while sympathizing with and providing support for individuals.
This time of year when we add prayers beseeching God for life for ourselves and others is coming to a close. The prayers aren’t recommended or optional during this period. They are mandatory. In ways that my great-grandparents would not have understood, the message that life is valuable no matter its complexities, is one that is necessary for our generation to hear.