Though the concept is most familiar to us in fairy tales and folklore, thanks to modern science it is now a reality. Just like Neverland’s Peter Pan, nine-year-old Ashley "X" of Seattle, WA will never grow up.
Ashley-whose last name is dubbed "X" to maintain the privacy of her family -has undergone three major treatments to ensure that her body does not develop along with her impending adolescence. Though the procedure has sparked much controversy around the world, Ashley’s parents confidently deemed the treatment necessary because of their daughter’s unique disability.
Ashley was born a normal child, but after only three months of life, her mental and motor abilities failed to develop. She is now a nine-year-old with the mentality of an infant, and entirely dependent on her parents’ care.
According to Ashley’s father, who recently posted an extensive blog detailing his daughter’s post-surgery condition, the decision to proceed with the operation (now called the "Ashley Treatment") was easy to make. The high-dose estrogen therapy Ashley underwent will stunt her growth, the hysterectomy will prevent her from the inconveniences through menstruation and cramping, and the removal of her breast buds will eliminate the possibility of womanly curves; but when all is said and done, Ashley will be reliably compact and easy to care for. Who wants to lift, bathe, and tend to a fully-grown woman?
Because of Ashley’s treatment, her father argues, Ashley is more manageable and thus easier to be around. "We’re often huddled around her holding her hand, thus sensing a powerful connection with her pure, innocent and angelic spirit," Ashley’s father wrote in his blog. He even goes so far as to liken his daughter to the household’s barometer: "When she’s happy, we’re happy," he wrote.
This is a lot to attribute to a little girl who, for all anyone knows, has no emotional intent or control over her behavior.
Innocence and purity are common perceptions of what it means to be a child in general. Is this to say that little Ashley’s physical maturation would strip her of this heavenly aura? Is it harder to care for a child-like mind in a mature woman’s body than it is in that of a child’s?
Our society is quick to pin angelic purity on children, who are yet uncorrupted by matters of the adult world; and recent governmental legislation seems to buy into the trend.
It’s unsettling to know that science has been given the right to tamper with the life and size of a nine-year-old girl, when embryonic stem cells are left untouched with apparent respect to the hypothetical life of an unborn child. Protecting childhood, in this sense, comes at a very high price-even for Ashley.
Medical breakthroughs are being snuffed, while permanent correctional treatment is allowed to flourish. The point is: because of the "Ashley Treatment," Ashley’s case is closed-even if the future does one day prove to hold other options.
Of even more concern than the individual circumstances of Ashley’s case are the precedents it will set for the future. What is to stop parents of children with autism or Down Syndrome from using similar treatment? Where will we draw the line?
The ethics betrayed by the "Ashley Treatment" are an insight into the ethical deliberations we will have to make as science moves from the ordinary to the extraordinary.
With the great powers that science grants us, we must employ great responsibility.