I’m FEDup with feeling like my feelings aren’t really essential components of conversations about bioethics.
About a year ago, in the midst of a cross-disability Human Genetic Engineering webinar that I was a support staff person for, one (not all) of the panelists named several disabilities, some congenital, as examples where you’d want HGE to be available. One of the conditions named was muscular dystrophy, the umbrella term that my own unnamed disorder falls under. I took the panelist’s choice to name each to mean that they were conditions that are particularly undesirable. There was a vague mention of parents opting out of children who have these specific conditions. (I’m in favor of enthusiastic consent for all parenting, including the parenting of disabled children. It’s the singling out of only certain children that needs to be addressed very carefully.)
I had some feelings about that, which I have since translated into the image of the tear-down in the gentrifying neighborhood. I explained my feelings in the Q&A – though I didn’t have questions, really — and then I felt afterwards like I’d made it weird. It was a murky boundary thing; if the panelist had mentioned his own disability rather than mine, I might have disagreed but I wouldn’t have had such an emotional reaction.
It may not be a terribly marketable skill but exploring and describing the emotional landscape of being my particular type of disabled person is what I know how to do, though I usually think fiction — #criplit, specifically — is better suited to the task than anything expository. There is emotional terrain in the development of bioethical and other disability policy, law, and research — as there is in the policy, the legal analyses, the studies, and all of the work-product items — and it deserves representation. That’s what I’m trying to do here.
I can do it because of privilege: I’m white, have a college degree, and the time/money to write this; this all adds up to a baseline expectation that the world will agree my feelings matter. I also grew up in a family that, however messed up, was an oasis from ableist BS and — most importantly — treated my feelings as valuable and in need of care.
But the episode has stuck with me, I think, because it was a last straw kind of thing after nearly five decades of being bombarded with messages from random childhood people, telethons, and the famously rational that I will never, ever be envied.
One of the webinar folks sought me out at another event subsequently and was kind enough to say that my comment had value. But the episode has stuck with me, I think, because it was a last straw kind of thing after nearly five decades of being bombarded with messages from random childhood people, telethons, and the famously rational that I will never, ever be envied. I was simply not prepared to get hauled into a disability justice-branded webinar as Disaster Exhibit A while I was sitting at my DREDF desk.
If I could respond to the panelist, here’s what I’d say: “To be very clear: Difference in emotional reactions is a good thing, I’m not pleading for conformity here. But I have a problem when feelings aren’t identified as such. I get it — muscular dystrophy is frightening or repugnant or whatever to you. Some folks with MD hate it. But it’s not a given. It’s a feeling. And you presented your feeling as a fact. You’re regarded as a bioethics expert, plus you’re disabled yourself. That’s why you harrowed up my feelings so deeply.”
I’m FEDup with “debates” about my sexuality, my reproductive choices, my existence. There is so much to love about social media and one of those reasons is the experience of going on Twitter to
quickly check my popularity see what I can do to better the world and finding an objective discussion underway regarding whether someone like me should be “allowed” to reproduce. The person who asked the question may not even understand that, by placing my reproductive choices and existence within the frame of public approval, they’ve reinforced bias against me, a woman with a congenital disability who lives “like that.” Check out another guy who asks rational questions just like you did.
I’m not answering on Twitter because — unlike when I was in my 20s, 30s, 40’s — I no longer feel required to justify my existence just because somebody decided to have an “objective” “discussion” about whether I’m really worth the hassle.
Yup, even when your purpose is ostensibly positive, how you frame the conversation matters. Growing up with muscular dystrophy means I’ve heard more times than you can imagine that my particular disability places me — of course! — on The List of Lives That Suck. What’s newer or less personal to you is very different to me as a woman with a congenital disability. So here’s an excerpt from a longer past post that elucidates where I’m coming from. Continue reading
Gretchen Lowe, age 35 at the 90’s midpoint, was not dying, as she was at pains to point out more frequently than she would have wished. She had muscular dystrophy, a distinction often lost on those who equated strength with muscle mass, consciousness with cognition, and worth with productivity. A growing chorus assumed this would be her preference, death before disability, rather than the indignity of grappling with that terminal condition from which the chorus-members, themselves imperfect, suffered: life that is both enviable and bleak, and always, always unfair in distribution of the same.
Like so many of her friends, Gretchen had swapped one coast for the other after college and she left DC, a city of increasingly impossible winters, lawyers, and three years of an uninteresting technical proofreader job, and moved to San Francisco, a city of manageable weather, bike messengers instead of lawyers, and apparently no editorial jobs. Five years in, she was the administrative director of a small free clinic for women and had cycled through four shared flats before the Recluse, her boyfriend, gave up his Pacific Heights studio and moved in, more or less, to Gretchen’s two-bedroom flat on a quiet street in Cole Valley.
Like ancient Rome, San Francisco was a city of hills and, with few exceptions, honored its dead by housing them firmly and in perpetuity outside its official boundaries. Gretchen lived and worked firmly within those boundaries, mostly because taking public transportation to and from work everyday took what limited energy she had. She did have an increasingly hard time breathing and walking, her grip was undeniably poor, her fingers lacking in dexterity, but she had an even harder time imagining herself dead, or wanting to be dead.
But she had no master plan, no Disability for Dummies to be her guide, just a lifetime of experience in a body that was weak, breathless, and clumsy, and getting more so year by year. So Gretchen did what was practical and what made life – her life, none other’s – worth living. She kept to the flatter parts of town, used the bathroom before she left home and work, and thought more about her next meal than eternity. In this last concern she had the unwavering support of her family; Gretchen did know how to find a decent restaurant.
She needed this particular skill on this particular evening because her mother, Alice, had flown in. Festive feelings aside, Gretchen had serious misgivings to broach, misgivings that were about a clinical research opportunity that divided them called “Genetic Reparative Therapy.”
When Alice had first excitedly called her daughter months before about GRT, Gretchen couldn’t bring herself to say a hard, “No.” She herself didn’t know exactly why she was flat-out rejecting this “cure” — or why she couldn’t tell Alice no. She’d certainly done it before.
It wasn’t until she burst into tears after half-watching an old Sally Field movie about a mother not leaving her daughter that the feelings coalesced within her as a single as-yet-unspoken fear: “I could be taken from you and you would never get me back.”
2018 UPDATE: STILL ALIVE
STILL OPPOSED TO EUPHEMIZING DISABLED PEOPLE BY NORMALIZING OUR SUICIDES THROUGH LANGUAGE
I’m still disabled, still degenerating, and still filled with joie de crip, but even if I weren’t, I still wouldn’t be buying the double-speak that calls my suicide “a rational choice,” “death with dignity,” and “ending my life on my own terms,” while a (seemingly) nondisabled person’s suicide is “a public health problem.”
The terms we use in talking about an issue set the terms of the debate. Suicide is a public health problem. Distorting that through
sophistry marketing language feeds suicide contagion.
September 10 is World Suicide Prevention Day. But for a disabled person like me, it’s just not my day. Literally.
What would be a “threat of self-harm” for you, is a “personal choice” for me.
What calls for an intervention for you, calls for a pre-suicide party for me.
Your movie is It’s a Wonderful Life. My movie is It’s a Wonderful Death.
When it comes to people like me, suicide is rapidly becoming normalized. Or more exactly, suicide is being erased through re-branding. “It’s not ‘suicide’! It’s ‘ending your life on your own terms’!”