Sunday, November 24, 2013

Adrienne Asch, bioethicist and pioneer in Disability Studies, dies at 67

From The NY Times:

Adrienne Asch, an internationally known bioethicist who opposed the use of prenatal testing and abortion to select children free of disabilities, a stance informed partly by her own experience of blindness, died on Tuesday at her home in Manhattan. She was 67. 

The cause was cancer, said Randi Stein, a longtime friend. 

At her death, Professor Asch was the director of the Center for Ethics and the Edward and Robin Milstein professor of bioethics at Yeshiva University in Manhattan. She also held professorships in epidemiology and population health and in family and social medicine at Yeshiva’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine. 

“She certainly was one of the pioneers in disability studies,” Eva Feder Kittay, a distinguished professor of philosophy at Stony Brook University and a scholarly colleague of Professor Asch’s, said in an interview. “She was a very strong voice, always bringing in the disability perspective, trying to change the view of disability as some tragedy that happens to someone, rather than just another feature and fact about human existence.” 

Professor Asch, who was trained as a philosopher, social worker, social psychologist and clinical psychotherapist, produced scholarship that stood at the nexus of bioethics, disability studies, reproductive rights and feminist theory. 

She maintained that the lives of disabled women should be as much a feminist concern as those of able-bodied ones. Disabled women, she argued, had long been doubly marginalized: first because of their sex, and again because they failed to conform to a collective physical ideal — an ideal to which at least some able-bodied feminists subscribed. 

Professor Asch’s scholarship centered in particular on issues of reproduction and the family. In an age of fast-moving reproductive technologies, she found that those concerns dovetailed increasingly with issues of disability rights. 

She became widely known for opposing prenatal testing as a means of detecting disabilities, and abortion as a means of selecting babies without them. 

Professor Asch supported a woman’s right to abortion. (She was a past board member of the organization now known as Naral Pro-Choice America.) But in her lectures, writings and television and radio appearances, she argued against its use to pre-empt the birth of disabled children. She argued likewise for prenatal testing. 

For her, supporting abortion in general while opposing it in particular circumstances posed little ideological conflict. The crux of the matter, she argued, lay in the difference between a woman who seeks an abortion because she does not want to be pregnant and one who seeks an abortion because she does not want a disabled child. 

In the first case, Professor Kittay explained, “you’re not seeking to abort ‘this particular child.’ ” In the second, she said, “when you’re seeking to abort because of disability, it’s not ‘any potential child,’ it’s this child, with these particular characteristics.” 

Adrienne Valerie Asch was born in New York City on Sept. 17, 1946. A premature baby, she lost her vision to retinopathy in her first weeks. 

When she was a girl, her family moved to New Jersey, then one of the few states that let blind children attend school with their sighted peers. She attended public schools in Ramsey, in Bergen County. 

On graduating from Swarthmore College with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy in 1969, she found employers unwilling to hire her — an experience, her associates said, that made her keenly aware of disability as a civil rights issue. 

After receiving a master’s degree in social work from Columbia in 1973, she spent much of the ’70s and ’80s working for the New York State Division of Human Rights, where she investigated employment discrimination cases, including those involving disability. 

Trained as a psychoanalytic psychotherapist in the 1980s, she maintained a private psychotherapy practice throughout that decade. In 1992, she received a Ph.D. in social psychology from Columbia. 

Before joining the Yeshiva faculty, Professor Asch taught at the Boston University School of Social Work and at Wellesley College, where she was a professor of women’s studies and the Henry R. Luce Professor in biology, ethics and the politics of human reproduction. 

Her publications include two volumes of which she was a co-editor: “Women With Disabilities: Essays in Psychology, Culture, and Politics” (1988, with Michelle Fine) and “Prenatal Testing and Disability Rights” (2000, with Erik Parens). 

A resident of the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Professor Asch is survived by a brother, Carl, and a sister, Susan Campbell. 

In an article in The American Journal of Public Health in 1999, Professor Asch laid out her philosophy in no uncertain terms. 

“If public health espouses goals of social justice and equality for people with disabilities — as it has worked to improve the status of women, gays and lesbians, and members of racial and ethnic minorities — it should reconsider whether it wishes to continue the technology of prenatal diagnosis,” she wrote. 

She added: “My moral opposition to prenatal testing and selective abortion flows from the conviction that life with disability is worthwhile and the belief that a just society must appreciate and nurture the lives of all people, whatever the endowments they receive in the natural lottery.”