Posted in Death & Mortality Series

Medicalizing eating and drinking is more sinister than it sounds.

In my last post, I discussed the way food and water are medicalized when you get them through a feeding tube.  But the way I discussed it could’ve given the wrong impression.  I discussed it mostly in terms of its emotional effects.  The way it changes your relationship to food.  The absurdity of having to argue with doctors about how much water you’re allowed to drink.  When you have no medical reason for fluid restriction or any other actual excuse for them to act like they have a right to control something so basic.  The importance of eating food that you enjoy, even if you’re eating it through a tube.  The importance of food being emotional, sensory, cultural, all kinds of things besides medical.

Mel eating by holding an orange feeding syringe with an olive-green soup mixture going into a J-tube on hir belly.
Eating.  This is one way that I eat. That’s soup made from putting beans and vegetables (black beans, butternut squash, spinach, and guacamole, I think — possibly with some soy sauce and Sriracha) in a blender.  I’m eating it with syringes because there’s a clog in the line on my feeding bag, or I’d be eating it with a feeding pump.  Either way, it’s just eating, not medical treatment.  Food is not medical treatment no matter how the food gets into your body.

But in all of that discussion, I never discussed the most sinister part of food and water being considered medical.

When food and water become medical treatments, they become optional.  They become something you can refuse.  They become something a doctor, or an ethics committee (what an Orwellian name, given the way they so frequently treat disabled people), can decide is futile or unnecessary or medically inadvisable or something else along those lines.

In other words, when food and water become a medical treatment, then it becomes much easier to kill you by withholding them.

I filled out a living will awhile back.  Living wills are disturbing in all kinds of ways that most people don’t appreciate.  Most people see living wills as a wonderful way for people to indicate their future choices about medical treatments.  Most people don’t see the ways they’re set up to make it much easier to choose death than to choose life with a disability.  And to subtly nudge you in that general direction.  They’re not the value-neutral documents most people assume they are.  They already have values built into them that may not be the same values as the person filling them out.

I could obviously go on at quite some length about living wills. I’m not going to do it here though.  I want to talk about something very specific.

The structure of the living will I filled out basically went like this:  “If you needed this treatment in order to survive, would you want to die?”  The part that goes this treatment starts out with fairly noninvasive stuff.  And progresses through a series of medical treatments, in order from what the creators of the document consider least drastic to most drastic.

Anyway, the first treatment I remember having to answer questions about was a feeding tube.  Which does make sense within their structure:  Feeding tubes are pretty noninvasive and completely reversible.

But it disturbs me.

It disturbs me that a feeding tube is considered something you should have to decide whether to live or die about.

It disturbs me that food and water are medical.

Because that’s where it all starts.

Where food and water are medical.

Mouth Magazine reported once on a woman who’d had a stroke.  She had a living will saying she wouldn’t want continued medical treatment if she had brain damage.  She changed her mind once she had brain damage.  She wasn’t considered competent to change her mind.  They decided food and water were medical treatments — in her case, she didn’t even need a feeding tube.  She tried desperately to get food and water, but they prevented her from doing so, saying they were honoring her wishes and that she was incompetent to make her own decisions.

Mouth Magazine had this to say about itself at one point:

During the last ten years, it is fair to say, Mouth has lowered the level of discourse on the subject of the helping system. About time, too.

Mouth brings the conversation down to street level, where well-intentioned “special” programs wreak havoc in the lives of ordinary people. People talk about calling a spade a spade. We call Jack Kevorkian a serial killer. And when maggots outnumber nurses’ aides at what others call a “care facility,” we call it a hellhole. We say it out loud: if special education is so darned special, every kid in every school ought to have the benefit of it.

About Mouth Magazine

In that spirit, I will call what they did to that woman exactly what it was:  murder.

All the bullshit about honoring her wishes is bullshit.  She clearly wanted to be alive.  To declare someone incompetent to decide they want to survive, to declare someone incompetent to fucking change their mind… that’s some high-order bullshit.  Dangerous bullshit.  Deadly, murderous bullshit.

And this bullshit, and this kind of murder, happens daily.  One person I know who worked in the medical system said the disturbing thing to her was that she was complicit in at least one murder without being aware of it.  Because of the ways they warp your thinking to make it seem like something, anything is going on other than the intentional killing of another human being.

Except it is the intentional killing of another human being.

And often, it starts with the medicalization of food and water.

Food and water are not medical treatments.

Food and water don’t become medical treatments just because they take an unusual route into your body.

A feeding tube is just like having another mouth.  It’s just that the mouth is located in an odd spot.  That’s all it is.  It’s a mouth that opens directly into your stomach or your intestine, instead of going down your esophagus first.  (Then there’s NG and NJ tubes, which do go down your esophagus, but they’re still just another slightly unusual route for food to take into your body.)

There is nothing about a feeding tube that truly makes food and water medical treatments.

There is nothing about disability, including brain damage, that truly makes food and water medical treatments.

This reclassification exists in part to make it easier to kill us.  Not that every single person who medicalizes food and water has that in mind.  But that’s part of the point behind the reasoning’s existence.  And even when it’s not initially intended that way.  Anyone who wants to use it that way can easily just pick up the situation and use it in exactly that way.  Once food and water become a medical treatment, starvation and dehydration become withholding medical treatment rather than starving or dehydrating someone.

You can’t even have an honest conversation about the issues involved here, when everything’s replaced with a medical euphemism.  Because we’re actually talking about murder (the intentional killing of another human being) and suicide (someone intentionally killing themselves).  And you can debate the ethics of murder or suicide in various circumstances till the cows come home.  But you can’t even hold the debate in an honest or straightforward fashion when murder and suicide or even just killing are replaced with withholding medical treatment.

And when food and water are only considered medical treatment for a certain class of person (usually some subgroup of disabled people), I call that deadly ableism.  

So medicalizing food and water is never just an annoyance or nuisance.  It’s like a weapon:  Someone can absentmindedly carry it into a room and leave it lying around for some reason that has nothing to do with killing.  But then someone else can pick it up and seriously injure or kill you with it.  So it’s never not sinister, disturbing, and dangerous. 

And that’s important to always keep in mind:  Once something fundamental to survival is considered medical treatment, it can always be withheld much more easily without raising many eyebrows.  Hell, people who advocate withholding it can paint themselves as champions of your human rights rather than people trying to prevent you from exercising your human right to, well, food and water.  It makes it way easier to turn everything on its head without anyone noticing what’s going on.

Mel with headphones on, smiling and holding up a green coffee mug of kombucha with a feeding syringe sticking out of it.
Drinking kombucha and listening to country music doesn’t become a medical treatment just because a feeding tube and syringe are involved.

This post is part of my Death & Mortality Series.  Please read my introduction to my Death & Mortality series if you can, to understand the context I write this in.  Thank you.

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Author:

Hufflepuff. Came from the redwoods, which tell me who I am and where I belong in the world. I relate to objects as if they are alive, but as things with identities and properties all of their own, not as something human-like. Culturally I'm from a California Okie background. Crochet or otherwise create constantly, write poetry and paint when I can. Proud member of the developmental disability self-advocacy movement. I care a lot more about being a human being than I care about what categories I fit into.

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