Ashley X parents have updated their blog. I know this because I have read the reactions at two sites: Mysteries and Questions Surrounding the Ashley Case (also posted at What Sorts of People) and Life with a Severely Disabled Child. I urge people to read these two reactions to the parental update. I am not surprised by what Ashley's parents have written. However, I am distressed by their continued salesmanship for such an ethically questionable "treatment". There is not doubt the parents think they have the answer for not only their daughter but all other so called "pillow angels". This term remains creepy years later and does nothing but divert attention from the meaty issues involved in the Ashley Treatment or what doctors involved now call growth attenuation.
I remain adamantly opposed to the Ashley Treatment. I would like to believe I am open minded on the subject. I keep reading, and hoping the major players involved, Douglas Diekema and Norman Fost among others will actually engage in a productive dialogue with those critical of the Ashley Treatment. To date, this has not happened in large part because, like Ashley's parents, they know they have the one and only answer to treating children with profound physical and cognitive disabilities. Critical views are read and dismissed. There is no real effort to engage in a nuanced debate and disability rights activists such as myself are quoted out of context or characterized as being driven by a political agenda. Ashley's parents views are even more strident. While I may disagree with people such as Diekema and Fost nor are my concerns regarding the ethics involved allayed by their work at least they make the pretense of engaging with others. Ashley's parents in contrast are not content with attenuating the growth of their child. They are now akin to the used car salesmen of growth attenuation. I have tried to be restrained in my criticism of Ashley's parents but the latest update to their blog, January 13 third anniversary, was disheartening and biased in the extreme. Ashley's parents raise six bulleted points:
1. Ashley has a significant scoliosis, a curve of 56 degrees that has been stable for the last 14 months. If her scoliosis gets worse, to 75 degrees, surgery to straighten her spine and protect her organs will be required. The lack of progression of her scoliosis has lead her parents to wonder if growth attenuation has slowed its development. This is pure speculation. Scoliosis treatment has changed radically in the last four decades. As one who spent years in braces and eventually had scoliosis surgery I am well aware much of what was done to me decades ago could be considered experimental. Science has advanced as has the treatment of scoliosis but there is by no means a definitive course of treatment. To suggest growth attenuation slows the progression of scoliosis is misleading if not irresponsible.
2. Ashley's parents report that a dozen parents from all over the world have contacted them and reported their children (boys and girls) have had the Ashley Treatment. No country or countries of origin is identified. The parents also maintain that some hospitals have provided treatment while others have not. They refer to a case where the hospital ethics committee approved the treatment but hospital officials declined citing public relations concerns. These statement are dubious. For instance, they make a point to mention that both boys and girls have received the Ashley Treatment. To the best of my knowledge, no doctor, including Diekema, has suggested growth attenuation was a viable option for males. As for for hospital administrators declining to perform the Ashley Treatment because of adverse public relations seems misleading. I suspect the truth is that it is legally difficult to sterilize a minor. The laws in this regard are quite strict (not that they helped Ashley). Moreover, if the Ashley Case was looked at as setting a precedent lawyers would surely be aware of the added safeguards agreed to by the hospital and WPAS.
3. The parents refer to a 2008 panel on growth attenuation at a pediatric conference held in Hawaii. For more on this see the Mysteries Surrounding the Ashley Case website. The parents state most people attending this conference and panel in particular were in favor of growth attenuation. This may or may not be true. The parents were not present nor was I. They seem to rely on the private email from an unnamed physician present. It is worth pointing out here that the panelists included David B Allen, Douglas Diekema, Norman Fost, and Michal Kappy. All four have written and are outspoken proponents of the Ashley Treatment. These men can hardly be considered an unbiased source.
4. According to the parents, at the 2009 Treuman Katz Center for Pediatric Bioethics Diekema stated that the ethics committee at two major children hospitals have investigated growth attenuation and concluded there was no ethical reasons why the treatment could not be performed. If this is true, why did Diekema not identify the hospitals by name? This could only lend more credence to his position. Is it possible he exaggerated to make a point? Is this claim true?
5. The parents refer to an article in Pediatrics entitled "Growth Attenuation Therapy" noting that two pediatric endocrinologists and two bioethicists are in favor of the Ashley Treatment. This is correct and misleading at the same time. The people they are referring to are none other than Allen, Diekema, Fost and Kappy. The same men who were in Hawaii to present their findings.
6. The parents refer to an article in the American Journal of Bioethics, "Ashley Revisted", by Diekema and Fost that I have already critiqued on my blog. This paper is dreadful and utterly failed to do what it set out to do--engage critics of the Ashley Treatment. What the parents do not mention is the devastating rejoinders that accompanied the AJOB article. As is the custom for AJOB, critics had a chance to reply to the target article. Of the nine people that replied, I would consider eight sharply critical. The authors of these critiques are a diverse group and their comments worth serious consideration.
I did not expect Ashley's parents to suddenly be balanced when they updated their blog. But their rigorous and unrelenting sales job for growth attenuation is hard to understand. They had their proverbial fifteen minutes of fame and were on Larry King. What more do they want? Such updates come across badly, as though they are slapping themselves on the back for a job well done. What the parents have done is make some inroads among four men--Allen, Diekema, Fost and Kappy. All their references in medical journals refer to these men alone. No mention is made of a single critic. Hundreds of "supportive" and private emails are referred to on their blog yet not a single critic is identified or worthy of passing reference. One possible explanation for this is the fact the parents accept without question a medical model of disability. That is their daughter's problem is a physical and cognitive deficit. This is of course correct but the solution to the issues need not be met with a radical surgical solution. Doctors under a medical model of disability are the "experts" and this is true provided this expertise is limited to the human body. When it comes to the social ramifications of disability I have a far greater understanding than most people, including Ashley's doctors. I have spent much of my adult life thinking about disability and its meaning inside and outside of a hospital. I do not mean to dismiss the profound consequences of Ashley's disabilities but rather know that many of the issues she and her parents will encounter have well established solutions. They appear to me to not like these solutions and have instead distanced themselves from the very people who could provide answers to the dilemmas they will encounter. In short, Ashley's parents and their most recent update reveals they are hopelessly misguided. This is sad, a social failure if you will, and one I hope will not delude other parents into making a comparable mistake.