Growth Attenuation

Photo of a man with his forehead planted onto an open laptop computer's keyboard

Here is the article that started it all:

Should Parents of Children With Severe Disabilities Be Allowed to Stop Their Growth?
Genevieve Field, New York Times Magazine - March 22, 2016

Here are two great responses to it, in tweet form:

No, @NYTmag, #AbleistViolence is NOT ok!
Alice Wong, Storify - March 23, 2016

Language, Framing, and Perspective in Reporting on Disability
Kayla Whaley, Storify - March 23, 2016

This New York Times Magazine article has occupied my thoughts for most of the last few days. It purports to examine the ethics of parents of significantly disabled children choosing a medical "treatment" that stops their growth, both in size and in sexual maturity. In effect, it renders them physically permanent children. If there are people who don't immediately get why this is wrong and extremely creepy, nothing I say is going to make any difference. Plus, others have done a great job of responding already.

Still, I've got this blog, so ...

It begins and ends with consent. As described, this "treatment" is only used on children who are intellectually disabled and don't communicate. In other words, they can't give consent to such drastic procedures, both because of their age and, more significantly, their disability.

Anticipating an objection: It's not the same as parents giving consent for a child to have life-saving heart surgery. This "treatment" is in no way necessary to a disabled child's better health, and is not even close to being "life saving." At best it is exactly the kind of optional but consequential procedure that would normally absolutely require informed consent ... but in these cases, the children can't give consent and aren't even asked.

In fact, it's hard to imagine parents daring to ask a fully conscious, communicating child whether they would agree to have their growth stopped and adulthood cancelled, to make them easier to care for. But why not? If it's all about physical convenience, what difference does their intellect make? I'd never say never, but I think even supporters of this procedure would shudder to look an 8 year old son or daughter in the eye and say, "Look, we really think it's for the best if you just don't grow up. You'll be a lot easier to take care of if you stay small and never experience puberty. Okay?" It's too horrific to contemplate, but it's the only acceptable situation I can think of in which to discuss this sort of thing. The only reason any parents even consider this is that their children's cognitive and communication disabilities spare parents the obligation of asking them. But that's exactly why it's unthinkable.

Let's look at this another way. Here you have what are reputed to be the most "severely" disabled children living. Their parents decide that to make caring for them easier, they're going to mess with the one thing they can still do more or less like other people, grow and develop into adults, in body if not entirely in intellect or conventional maturity. They've got one thing that makes them like other people, and you take that away from them, too.

A few more thoughts:

How much help is this "treatment" anyway? It makes a child easier to move around, but that seems like a pretty small benefit to get for radically and permanently altering your child's body chemistry and development. It would be less traumatic and just as useful to bolt sturdy grab handles onto their sides, so they can be carried like a briefcase.

Hysterectomies too? Really? Do we detect a bit of weird sexism thrown into the mix? Are they castrating boys as well? I guess as long as you're tinkering, you might as well mess around with their sexuality, too, because monthly periods are unpleasant and erections are ... what? awkward and embarrassing?

And what's the deal with calling these kids "Pillow Angels?" Nobody explicitly says they do this thing specifically in order to keep their son or daughter a perpetually cuddly child. But, with all the sentimentalizing and infantilizing language they use, it seems like in at least some families there are bizarre ideas, obsessions, and mythologies of childhood in play. Maybe the parents are just freaked out at the thought of providing all this intimate care to a big, hairy guy or a fully developed woman's body. Nothing cute or cuddly about that, right?

Why don't these parents, doctors, and "ethicists" fight this hard and tenaciously for better support services, for families and for adults with significant disabilities? I get that activism doesn't come naturally to everyone, but is turning your child into a permanent baby doll really better than advocating for better funding or working to pass better long term care legislation? Are we really going to say that massive body alteration is an acceptable substitute for decent disability services and social justice?

The most important thing missing from the New York Times Magazine article is that for disabled people it is a personal attack on our personhood, even when it's not happening to us personally. This point is critical, because counter-critics will say that vocal disability activists can't speak to the issue because our disabilities aren't like these kids' disabilities. First of all, there are many of us who are as physically disabled as them, who can really speak to this quite directly. Plus, we have all experienced at some point in our lives the horror of feeling that control our lives and bodies has been deliberately taken out of our hands, by others, precisely because we are disabled. And the "others" doing the taking are almost always either experts with medical degrees that outrank us, or loved ones who, after all, only want the best for us. You simply can't discuss this dispassionately and insist it's purely practical or an interesting head-scratching moral dilemma. The emotional, even existential component is essential.

About all we get in the article is that disability activists are shaming these parents on social media. So instead of having a valid point of view based on personal experience, we are just another gang of cranky online social justice warriors who are making parents feel bad.

We are talking here about using unnecessary medical procedures to make social policy, with dire and to some extent unknown consequences for real human beings ... without their consent.

Yes, it all comes back to consent. Every other argument is moot. You can't do this to people ... any people ... without their informed consent. If you can't get consent from the person most affected, then don't do it. End of discussion.

Unless, of course, we decide that severely disabled kids who don't communicate aren't actually people. Maybe they're something else? If that's the case, then it's all good! Is that, in fact, what we're saying? Is that what we want?

On a more personal note:

I don't get truly angry much. When I read about some injustice or bad policy affecting disabled people, my anger usually dissipates pretty fast as I think about all the arguments and counterarguments, put myself in other peoples' shoes, play Devil's Advocate, etc. I intellectualize things, probably too much. In this case, I started out kind of bemused, ("Wait, what???), and the more I thought about it the angrier I got. That means something.