Wednesday, February 10, 2016

"Facilitated Communication" and the Sentencing of Professor Anna Stubblefield

Anna Stubblefield, former chair of philosophy at Rutgers, has been sentenced to 12 years in prison for rape of D.J., a 31 year old man with severe cerebral palsy who she insisted was mentally competent to consent to a sexual relationship. His family, the state, and the jury, saw him as severely disabled in cognition as well as motor capacity and incapable of a consensual relationship. (See here for my October post on the situation. Make sure to read the thoughtful comments as well!)

Professor Stubblefield "communicated" with D.J. by "facilitated communication," also called "supported typing," a technique in which the otherwise non-communicative person's hand is used to "guide" the facilitator at a keyboard. Multiple professional organizations, most recently the International Society for Augmentative and Alternative Communication, have studied the technique. The distinguished international review committee didn't mince its words: "...messages generated through Facilitated Communication are authored by the facilitators rather than the individuals with disabilities. Hence, Facilitated Communication is a technique that has no validity." (See here for the systematic review and here for the Society's formal position statement). Other groups, including the American Association on Mental Retardation, American Psychiatric Association, and the American Academy of Pediatrics, concur.

But facts don't change the position of true believers. Sadly, the sense of being beleaguered has led advocates to circle their wagons and advocate more vehemently. Professor Stubblefield's parents were educators with a passionate commitment to facilitated communication. They brought her up to have the same convictions, as she is doing with her own 16 year old daughter. People with severe disabilities like D.J. are often stigmatized and warehoused. Bringing out hidden potential, as dramatized so well by Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot, is a noble aim. 

The pseudo-science of facilitated communication nests with concerns about social justice. Advocates feel that a misguided society is thwarting the efforts of (a) families to get help for their disabled children, (b) facilitated communication practitioners to carry out their belief that they can relieve suffering, and (c) disabled persons seeking to realize their potential. That's a powerful mix!

I see Professsor Stubblefield as a tragic victim of this witches' brew of passionate belief in a view that we all wish were true, but, alas, isn't. From the perspective of ethics we should ask - what is the right societal response? Here are what I see as the key considerations:
  1. Facilitated communication has been proven to be a false theory.
  2. It still has committed adherents who argue for the theory on the basis of anecdotes.
  3. The anecdotes don't change the fact that the theory has been disproved.
  4. Anna Stubblefield passionately believed (and, from what we know, still believes) that facilitated communication could rescue otherwise hopelessly disabled people.
  5. She is not a sexual predator. No one suggested a pattern of exploitation on her part. (Unlike my own profession, where there have been psychiatrists who recurrently exploited patients for sex.)
  6. She fell in love with D.J.
  7. She firmly believed that D.J. loved her in return and was mentally competent to consent to a sexual relationship.
  8. As I said in my previous post, even if D.J were competent, he was, in effect, Professor Stubblefield's patient, and having sex with him was unethical..
  9. The jury found her guilty of initiating a sexual relationship with a person who could not consent. Despite her belief that the relationship was consensual, it must be seen as rape.
Professor Stubblefield does not appear to be a risk to society the way a serial rapist is. She believed she was doing something with D.J., not to him. But although a female professor of philosophy who has set out to help a severely disabled person does not fit our ordinary conception of a rapist, the fact that you love the person you are having non-consensual sex with does not change the fact that the action is rape.

For that reason, I see some time in jail as an appropriate societal response. But twelve years is excessive. From the perspective of ethics, a short incarceration, to make clear that society does not tolerate rape, even if false beliefs led the perpetrator to misperceive the rape as a positive, caring action. Jail would be followed by an extended period of probation that included prohibition of any and all practice or advocacy of "facilitated communication." In addition, Professor Stubblefield should make a full apology to D.J.'s family. To me that seems like the  right outcome for this tragic situation.

No comments: