Holding Ashley (X): Bestowing Identity Through Caregiving in Profound Intellectual Disability


Lisa Freitag and Joan Liaschenko, The Journal of Clinical Ethics 28, no. 3 (Fall 2017): 189-96.


The controversy over the so-called Ashley Treatment (AT), a series of medical procedures that inhibited both growth and sexual development in the body of a profoundly intellectually impaired girl, usually centers either on Ashley’s rights, including a right to an intact, unaltered body, or on Ashley’s parents’ rights to make decisions for her. The claim made by her parents, that the procedure would improve their ability to care for her, is often dismissed as inappropriate or, at best, irrelevant. We argue, however, that caregiving is a central issue in the controversy, as Ashley’s need for caregiving is a defining characteristic of her life. In this article, we analyze the ethics of the Ashley Treatment within the context of family caregiving. Through the physical and emotional work of caregiving, families participate in the formation and maintenance of personal identity, a process that Hilde Lindemann recently called “holding.” We argue that, in an intellectually disabled person such as Ashley, who depends on her family for every aspect of her care, the family’s contribution to identity is an essential source of personhood. We believe that the treatment can be justified if it is indeed an instance of appropriate family “holding” for Ashley.

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