Like Peter Singer and Jeff McMahan, I have sympathy for Anna Stubblefield, the Rutgers professor who was convicted in 2015 of raping a severely disabled man known as “D.J.” Her crime, horrid as it was, arose not from bad intentions or from failed duty, but from the consistent application of ideas we are all asked to applaud.
Stubblefield had dedicated much of her career to advocating for the “radical inclusion” of disabled people—and given her principles, rape was the only way to do it. Under a certain view, one that happens to be dominant today, people can be considered fully human only to the extent that they enter into sexual relationships. To refuse sexual expression to any class of persons—gays, say—is to deny their humanity.
This idea makes a kind of sense. Sex is the supreme act of physical intimacy, one blessed by the Church in the sacrament of matrimony. Today, though, we tend to regard it as a sacrament above and beyond all others, the measure of a happy life. If one believes that humans are ultimately material creatures who find their happiness in this world, if one believes that there is no higher intimacy than that of sex, then the logic of radical inclusion cannot help but allow—cannot help but demand—that the disabled have sex. If they cannot have it, then they cannot be fully or finally human. This is the logic Stubblefield followed to its end.
In doing so, she overcame her own better moral instincts. Throughout her career, Stubblefield had declared her opposition to “ableism”—the prejudice that assumes humans have dignity only to the extent that they possess certain abilities—but she also consistently succumbed to it. She did so first of all by practicing “facilitated communication,” a debunked method in which an assistant steadies the hands of the severely disabled while they pick out letters or point to objects. According to practitioners, this technique allows the disabled to communicate with the outside world. In fact, it merely treats them like Ouija boards, dumb objects manipulated by others. The hopeful assumption of this method is that the severely disabled suffer from only physical, not mental, disabilities. There must be a normally—perhaps preternaturally—intelligent person somewhere behind the convulsing neck and withered hand.
It is, of course, a fantastical assumption, and an ableist one as well. What if some humans really are mentally incapable of communication? What if they really are incapable of consenting to sex?
What would be needed then would be a different form of radical inclusion, one not dependent on the ability to communicate or to make love. We get a hint of what that might look like in the New York Times’ 2015 report on the Stubblefield case. Among the things that first made D.J.’s family wary of facilitated communication were the claims (mediated through Stubblefield) that he did not like gospel but did like a kind of bougie wine called “Fat Bastard”:
Other things raised Wesley’s suspicions, too. Some of D.J.’s messages didn’t seem as if they came from him. D.J. typed with Anna that he didn’t like gospel music, but Wesley knew his brother loved to sway in church, doing what Wesley called the “Stevie Wonder dance.” D.J. also typed, through Anna, that he enjoyed red wine—especially from a label called Fat Bastard. But Wesley spent Communion Sundays with D.J. and said he never showed much interest in drinking wine. “It seemed very class-based,” Wesley said. “It seemed very much of what she liked but not what [D.J.] liked.”
Of course, Stubblefield was projecting the dreadful prejudices of her own class (gospel, bad; crudely named wine, good) onto D.J. Tied up with those prejudices is an incomprehension of religion. Stubblefield did not know that D.J. liked gospel, presumably because she had never accompanied him to church. She wanted to be intimate with him, but she doesn’t appear to have accompanied him to communion.
If she had, she would have witnessed a different kind of radical inclusion—one based not on the assumption that each person is secretly intelligent, or capable of consensual and pleasurable sex, but instead on Christ’s blood poured out for many. The Eucharist is the Christian form of radical inclusion, the great visible sign of the soul’s union with God. Stevie Wonder once prayed that God keep “the mighty from the small.” However good our intentions, as long as we disdain the form of radical inclusion Christ offers, the small will continue to suffer injury at the hands of the mighty.
Matthew Schmitz is literary editor of First Things.