Search This Blog

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Ashley Treatment in AJOB

Last October I wrote about the latest article set to be published about the Ashley Treatment by Doug Diekema and Norman Fost. Here I refer to "Ashley Revisited: A Response to Critics". Well, the paper has just been published by the American Journal of Bioethics, AJOB, in its latest issue (V. 10, #1 January 2010). This was a dreadful paper when I read it months ago and it remains dreadful today. I need not rehash my criticism I posted in October despite the fact I am tempted to do so. What is of interest is the Open Peer Commentary. Nine scholars wrote short replies to the target article by Diekema and Fost. Of these nine commentaries I would consider one supportive and the other eight critical. It will take me a few days to assimilate all the critics various viewpoints. Suffice it to say I am delighted by the sharply critical replies. Most of the commentaries are polite to a fault but one stands out for the severity and tone of its critique. Here I refer to John Lantos, "It's Not Growth Attenuation It's Sterilization!" I do not know Lantos who works at Children's Mercy Hospital nor have I ever read a word he wrote but the man can write that's for sure.

Lantos appropriately praises Diekema for his 2003 paper "Involuntary Sterilization of Persons with Mental Retardation: An Ethical Analysis" that reviewed the controversial issue with a checkered past. The fact Diekema wrote this paper is fascinating as he of all people should have been acutely aware of the legal and moral issues involved in sterilizing a child like Ashley. Lantos points out Ashley's doctors should have sought a judicial review and the fact this was not done was a "major, inexplicable, and damning transgression". Worse yet, Diekema and Fost now defend that course of action or inaction. Others have raised this point and focused on the procedural violation but Lantos has a fascinating point to add: "The case becomes an example of arrogance and secretiveness by doctors and hospitals. It reinforces, rather than challenges, the strong societal prohibitions on sterilization for children like Ashley". Lantos also argues that the title of Diekema and Gunther original paper was misleading, an effort to get people not to look too closely to what was done, especially the removal of Ashley's breast buds. Lantos suggests that the original paper, "Attenuating Growth in Children with Profound Developmental Disability: A New Approach to an Old Dilemma" should have been titled "Attenuating Growth, Involuntary Sterilization, and Prophylactic Mastectomy in Children with Profound Disability: A New Approach". Ouch, that one hurts!

After reading all the commentaries about which I will have more to say in another post I was struck by Diekema and Fost staunch defense. They clearly believe they have done nothing wrong and that there are no flaws of any sort in their line of reasoning. Critics, especially those in the disability rights field are driven by ideology rather than factual information. This is not only wrong but ironic in that many errors in fact and contradictory statements have been made by Diekema and Fost since 2007. People such as Dick Sobsey and others have pointed out such factual errors. For more information in this regard read the excellent posts on What Sorts of People. What I find amazing is that an institution like Seattle Children Hospital can admit it made mistakes, state this publicly and yet Diekema and Fost cannot admit to any error or mistakes. Perfection I suppose must be a wonderful thing. Too bad we humans are incapable of this--even Diekema and Fost.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Terri Schiavo and the Politics of Disability

Like most people, I followed the Terri Schiavo case when it was splashed across the national news. I was not impressed with anyone or any group that spoke out. I was even less impressed when legislators got involved. To me, the case was a family matter, one that should have been resolved by those that knew and loved Schiavo. If blame needed to be assessed, and we Americans love to play the blame game, it should have been pointed squarely at the family for their inability to put aside their differences. In short, I think the case never should have become a media and political circus.

I have been thinking about the Schiavo case for two reasons: first, I am struggling to get through the Montana Supreme Court decision in the Baxter case. I am not a lawyer and reading through the 68 page decision is an exercise in frustration. Second, a book has been published, The Case of Terri Schiavo: Ethics, Politics, and Death in the 21st Century edited by Kenneth W. Goodman. The book consists of ten chapters written by different scholars and includes a fascinating chapter by Schiavo's guardian ad litum and a particularly useful appendix that has a timeline of key events. The scope of the book is impressive and for those interested in first hand accounts of what took place I highly recommend the book with the proviso the entries all have a particular point to make. Politics and passion abound even after the passage of time. Of great interest to me was the Introduction by Kenneth W. Goodman and the chapter, Disability Rights and Wrongs in the Terri Schiavo Case, by Lawrence Nelson. Both Goodman and Nelson are severely critical of the disability rights activists involved in the Schiavo case, notably Not Dead Yet. Goodman decries the fact the the Schiavo case became the "cause celebre by the militant wing of the disability rights community". Goodman did not consider Schiavo to be disabled. He wrote that "to regard Schiavo disabled was a perverse disservice to the millions of people who need assistance with tasks involving moving, hearing, seeing, even thinking. With assistance, they can accomplish and experience many things". Gee thanks! I guess with assistance we crippled people can accomplish amazing things! Obviously Goodman perceives disability as being nothing more than a physical or cognitive deficit and those with a disability in need of assistance. He acknowledges and quickly dismisses the social dimensions of disability and disability based prejudice. A medical model of disability is accepted without question but what seems to annoy Goodman the most is the lack of rigor among disability activists. He considers the position of disability activists in the Schiavo case flawed on three grounds:

1. They had no coherent definition of disability.
2. Disability activists actions were politically motivated. Disability activists also made alliances with conservative groups that had expressed no prior interest in disability rights.
3. The actions of disability rights activists reduced the rights of people with a disability who wanted to refuse burdensome treatment.

Goodman is correct in maintaining that the Schiavo case created strange political alliances. These alliances, particularly between disability activists and conservative Christians, exist to this day and are highly problematic in my estimation. As I have already noted it is these alliances that prevent me from becoming more active in the movement against assisted suicide. But what bothers me is why Goodman cannot understand why the definition of disability must be precise or in his words coherent. Disability is an elastic term, its definition broad by design, and this has not changed legally in over 30 years. Like Goodman, in Nelson's chapter on disability and the Schiavo case he struggles with the idea she was disabled. He considered the position of disability rights activists inherently flawed because of this and based on ideology and their own convictions. Thus Nelson does not even begin to grasp the points made by Diane Coleman of Not Dead Yet for instance. While Nelson, like Goodman acknowledges prejudice exists against people with a disability and condemns such behavior but considers it to be apart from from individual cases like Schiavo. In his estimation it is not wrong to forego medical treatment in any individual case involving a disabled person. In a world free of bias I would agree with Nelson's position. However, we live in a world where people with a disability existence is not valued, they are likely to be poor, under or not insured, socially disadvantaged, and with far fewer options than a person without a disability. Accordingly, it is disingenuous to characterize Coleman's claim that some people want to kill the disabled behind closed doors as being "bizarre", "unsupported by evidence", and "irresponsible". The fact is people with a disability have often been subject to questionable medical treatment, forcibly sterilized during the Eugenics era, and considered "dogs" by contemporary insurance companies. A pattern of abuse is well established as is a long history of devaluation.

Nelson concluded his chapter by writing the disability activists involved in the Schiavo case were shrewdly practical and political. I agree the involvement of disability activists was political. This does not mean their ultimate aim, equality for people with a disability is wrong as I am all for creating a new and positive view of disability in American society. What Goodman and Nelson do not consider or want to write about is the shadowy history and tenuous place people with a disability have in American society. When the Schiavo case was in the news Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, a Democrat and proponent of disability rights told reporters, "There are a lot of people in the shadows, all over this country, who are incapacitated because of a disability, and many times there is no one to speak for them, and it is hard to determine what their wishes really are or were. So I think there ought to be a broader type of a proceeding that would apply to people in similar circumstances who are incapacitated." I for one think this is not only a good idea but in the best interests of all people, those with and those without a disability at the present time.