Monday, October 26, 2015

"Why I am Bioconservative" with Rosemarie Garland-Thomson


“Who gives dignity? 
Humans or God?"

Rosemarie Garland Thomson
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Pro-Life Disability Politics

On September 17th, 2015, Rosemarie Garland Thomson spoke on "Why I am a Bioconservative" to a packed lecture hall at the George Washington University. The event was coordinated by the GWU English Department as part of its Crip/Queer Studies programing. David Mitchell introduced the speaker, praising her as a foundational figure in Disability Studies, authoring such influential texts as Freakery, Staring: How We Look, and Extraordinary Bodies. In an hour and a half, Thomson spoke on the important but often unspoken alliance between religious conservatism and non-religious disability activists around "Pro-Life" issues, specifically the abortion of fetuses to be born with physical or mental impairments, euthanasia, and the assisted suicide of the disabled.

Historicizing the systematic elimination of disabled bodies, Thomson traced many recent and current practices to the eugenics of the early 20th century, citing proto-holocaust programs in Germany where gas chamber technologies were pioneered through the mass incarceration and killing of peoples with disabilities. While eugenics has since changed names and strategies, the bio-technologies that eliminate or impair socially undesirable lives continue to multiply. Such medical mechanisms target the youngest and oldest groups but cluster around those lives marked as impaired or chronically ill. Critical to the continuation of eugenic ideology are the cultural assumptions and values that encourage society to believe that persons are "better off dead than disabled." 


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Unexpected Allies

By opposing not only the use but the cultural indoctrination of eugenics, disability activists find themselves joining forces with religious conservatives. Thomson contends that while religious and non-religious "bioconservatives" may disagree in first principles, these groups join together in their conclusions. For instance, "dignity" is a key issue within bioconservatives of either ilk. In this context, dignity designates a life worth living and deserving of "moral personhood" (rights and duties) as well as a "quality of life" (well being in medical care, politics, and employment). Religious and non-religious groups may disagree in the source and authority that bestows dignity: humanity or God. Nonetheless,  persons of different belief systems can come together to preserve the dignity of those marked as undesirable: those who are "too expensive" in relation to their social worth.

Despite a history of shared political agendas, the cooperation of religious and disability activism is an uncomfortable and often controversial topic in the University setting. "Using the word 'God' tends to tick off liberal academics," Thomson admits after carefully defining the diversity of those who might be considered bioconservative. In the light of increasingly partisan politics and rhetoric, many liberal scholars overtly or indirectly oppose suggestions that any part of the Pro-Life agenda might be worthy of consideration by non-religious fields - as academia is often imagined. A shift towards less reactivity at words such as "God" or "conservative" as well as a willingness to see reasonable middle grounds or overlaps in Pro-Life and Pro-Choice movements is necessary to critical, thoughtful engagement in the preservation and improvement of disabled lives. Indeed, Thomson admits, the goal of "preserving" rather than "eliminating" lives implicit in disability activism suggests within it a kind of "conservatism" - even as it may be distinguished from religious extremism.


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Rituals of Care

Besides legal and medical initiatives, Thomson stressed the important cultural work of bioconservatism that promote a culture of life. In particular, ritual practices such as the washing of bodies are acts of care common among religious and non-religious communities. Washing in hospitals, elderly care facilities, families by caregivers, as well as the sacramental blessing of children, the sick, and the dead are all examples of rituals that recognize the dignity of the bodies they encounter. Such rituals recognize the dignity of embodied experiences, Thomson argued. Through repetition, rituals directly create the conditions for a quality of life while affirming moral personhood. If washing (including toileting) were more openly a communal practice where the reception of care is a sign of dignity rather than shame, fewer people would be instilled with the belief that they would rather be dead than unable to clean themselves. Fewer people with disabilities, including the elderly, would be associated with wallowing in filth if indeed fewer would be left to wallow. Ritual practices would bond care givers and care receivers, instilling a culture of life in the community.

In her conclusion, Thomson fielded some questions about other fields that share similar values as the disability activists who may have reason to rethink the old opposition to bioconservative politics. One example offered was the case of HIV+ gay men, lesbian, and transgender persons. During the AIDs outbreak of the late 20th century, there developed a similar culture of death where the death of LGBTI communities by the disease were seen as excusable even laudable by those who saw non-normative gender and sexualities as abominations against God or Nature. In this time, images of caregivers washing the sick and dead bodies of AIDs victims became politically charged. Such acts gave dignity of those dying and stated that despite the high cost of care, LGBTI lives were worth preserving. Thomson affirmed that many peoples, especially the subjugated, have reason to reexamine their positions on bioconservativism and work towards creating a culture of life.


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Other Crip/Queer Events at GWU




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Rosemarie Garland-Thomson is Professor of English and Bioethics at Emory University, where her fields of study are disability studies, American literature and culture, and feminist theory. Her work develops the field of critical disability studies in the health humanities, broadly understood, to bring forward disability access, inclusion and identity to communities inside and outside of the academy. She is the author of Staring: How We Look and several other books. Her current book project is Habitable Worlds: Disability, Technology, and Eugenics.


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