Legal Critic Discusses the Law, Gender and Disability
February 4, 2009 — The case of Ashley X, a Seattle child deformed by encephalopathy who underwent radical medical procedures to halt her physical development, raises ethical issues on multiple fronts, Patricia Williams said on Feb. 4.
The James L. Dohr Professor of Law at Columbia Law School and a MacArthur fellow, Williams appeared at Drexel for a talk sponsored by the Women's Studies Program and the Greater Philadelphia Women's Studies Consortium and co-sponsored by Earle Mack School of Law, the Great Works Symposium and the Department of Africana Studies.
In introducing Williams, Earle Mack School of Law Professor David S. Cohen said he had never considered a career in the profession until he had read her 1991 book, "The Alchemy of Race and Rights."
Williams criticized the treatment of Ashley X, who at age 9 underwent a full hysterectomy, had her breast buds removed and was bathed in hormones to prevent her body from growing into adulthood.
Although Ashley's parents sought those treatments to make her care more manageable and prevent her from being institutionalized, Williams said the child had been "objectified."
"This was done to women with very good brains until very recently," Williams said, challenging the assumption that "the closest person to her should decide what's best for her."
Williams said that when she talks about the case in a class she teaches at Columbia University with law students, medical students and journalism students, the reactions vary, depending on the discipline in which they focus their studies.
"Many of my law students in particular think this is absolutely fine," Williams said. "They conflate the parents' and child's interests. Many students see it as a cost-benefit analysis."
With the advent of cosmetic surgery, Williams said, the medical profession has turned its attention to commercial transactions as much as to the effort to treat conditions that necessitate surgery.
Both the medical and legal professions have been dominated by men, Williams said, adding that practitioners from both fields should be helping to promote accommodations for the disabled and their caretakers.
Williams went on to discuss the slow pace of progress for women in the legal profession, noting that female attorneys who argue cases before the U.S. Supreme Court have been denounced for wearing suits of the wrong cut or color.
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