Do mummy and daddy know best?

Ashley X, treatment and whether parents always make the right choices for their children

The recent headlines about ‘Ashley X’, the girl who was given hormones to prevent her growth, not to mention a hysterectomy, threw up the usual conflict between the medical establishment and its critics which arises in such cases.

However, I was struck by another opposition it reflected, one that is seldom discussed, and that is the one between disabled people and our parents. By this, I do not mean arguments within the family, although no doubt many took place in every type of household over Christmas, but rather between the distinct lobbying groups which represent each party but have rarely been acknowledged.

Disabled people have generally expressed opposition to the ‘treatment’, which has been condemned by the Disability Rights Commission and the charity, Scope, while there have been many messages of support on the website set up by Ashley’s parents, from people in similar situations.

Such differences of opinion seem obvious and yet are somehow elusive in most of the media reports. This is nothing new. When journalists deign to obtain the views of interest groups at all, they usually fail to specify which particular lobby is being represented. It is probably overly generous to say that they do not consider it important enough to mention. It is rather more likely that they are just unaware of the difference.

There are important consequences. For example, charities such as the National Autistic Society were founded by the parents of disabled children and often continue to reflect the views of these members in their press releases. The imaginative scares about vaccinations originate largely from parents, while most autistic people simply observe from a position somewhere between indifference and incredulity.

Nevertheless, there are also occasions in which the disability rights orthodoxy is overly harsh and the views of parents provide a useful corrective. When Ruth Kelly decided to send her seriously dyslexic son to a public school, rather than a local comprehensive, she could be accused of betraying her party’s principle of integration as well as that of a free state education. On the other hand, there is sometimes a bittersweet necessity to put your own child first and your politics second.

The reaction of David Cameron, whose son has cerebral palsy, was telling. Rather than play party politics, he decided to respect her choice, wisely keeping his own options open for the future. I find myself in the same boat.

As I grow older, fortunately not prevented by oestrogen from doing so, and I start to contemplate the possibility of one day having a family of my own, I gain more sympathy for parents of disabled children and the tough decisions that they face. After all, it is highly probable that my children will inherit some autistic traits and I do not yet want to rule out any possibilities for their education. It is sensible that groups representing disabled people and our parents should try to come to a mutual understanding. We agree on a large number of issues and, even where we do not, it is often assumed we do, so we can only benefit from knowing where the other stands.

But understanding only goes so far. However tough it is to be a carer, and however badly the state has failed to provide adequate support, it can never be justified to employ highly invasive procedures simply to make a child easier to carry. Now that Gordon Brown has revealed that his son has cystic fibrosis, we are soon likely to be in a situation in which the leaders of both main parties have disabled children. Unfortunately, I lack confidence that this will result in policies which will genuinely address the needs of disabled people.

As a child, I was very successful in my schoolwork but found it difficult to make friends. I went to Cambridge University but dropped out after a year due to severe depression and spent most of the next year in a therapeutic community, before returning to Cambridge to complete my degree. I first identified myself as autistic in 1999 while I was studying psychology in London but I was not officially diagnosed until 2004 because of a year travelling in Australia and a great deal of NHS bureaucracy. I spent four years working for the BBC as a question writer for the Weakest Link but I am now studying law with the intention of training to be a solicitor. My hobbies include online poker and korfball, and I will be running the London Marathon in 2007. I now have many friends and I am rarely depressed but I remain single.
Garry Knight via Creative Commons
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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.