Conflicting Advocate Hats: Alex Spourdalakis

Content Note: Ableism, murder of disabled child, suicide, abortion

Gray sad face with closed eyes. Keyword: Alex Spourdalakis

Image Description: Gray sad face with closed eyes.

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14-year-old Alex Spourdalakis was murdered by his mother Dorothy Spourdalakis and godmother Jolanta Skordzka.

And I say “murdered” deliberately, not to garner an emotional response, but because Alex’s mother and godmother did legally murder him. They gave him an overdose of sleeping pills with the intention of bringing about his death. When it became apparent that the pills weren’t going to kill him, they stabbed him repeatedly, and slit his wrists so deeply that they almost cut his hands off. They murdered him.

All this happened in 2013, but Alex Spourdalakis’ murder and the trial are back in the news again recently because Dorothy Spourdalakis and Jolanta Skordzka have been released from prison. They pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and were sentenced to time served. After getting credit for the three years that they spent at the the Cook County prison, they are now free women. They spent significantly less time in prison than Robert Latimer served for murder of his disabled daughter, Tracey or that that Kelly Stapleton will for the attempted murder of her autistic daughter, Isobel, both of which were considerably less violent crimes.

Alex Spourdalakis and Two Important Conversations

As I did when I wrote about Kelly and Issy Stapleton, there are two important conversations to have when we talk about what happened to Alex Spourdalakis. One of them is what happened to drive a mother to such hopelessness that she felt there was such a lack of options for her child that his death was the most preferable. Overall, the media has painted Dorothy Spourdalakis as a woman who couldn’t get any support to deal with Alex’s specialized support needs, but the Chicago Tribune talks about how Mary Betz of Autism Illinois visited Dorothy Spourdalakis when Alex was hospitalized to find out what supports she needed, and was told that only a lawyer was necessary. The same article talks about how Dave Clarkin, a Department of Child and Family Services spokesman, said that family members refused “referrals to community-based services ranging from respite to psychological counseling.”

Why?

What is it about services that made the family reluctant to accept them?

The second discussion is about how even if there’s a total lack of services, it’s not an excuse to murder a child. And I acknowledge that the stress level for parents taking care of disabled children can get very high — it still doesn’t make killing a disabled child excusable. There’s a perception in our culture that if a disabled child is in pain, or if we figure that the child isn’t going have what we define as “quality of life”, or if care of the child or watching the child go through the challenges potentially involved with having a disability is going to take too great a toll on the parent(s), then the child’s murder not only becomes justifiable, but understandable.

If the child is disabled.

We’re disgusted by parents who kill their non-disabled children.

But when the child is disabled…different story. And there needs to be more discussion about that — there needs to be more discussion about how when you kill a disabled child, you are killing a child, period, and the deliberations of the justice system and the penalties for that action need to reflect that.

Read this blog for more about the murder of disabled children and two important discussions

Dorothy Spourdalakis and Jolanta Skordzka were originally charged with first degree murder, they should have been convicted with first-degree murder, and they should have received the appropriate sentence. Parents and relatives don’t get to decide which children get to have a future and which don’t.

I was speaking about this last week, and a friend said, “Careful…you’re starting to sound pro-life again.”

Alex Spourdalakis and Conflicting Advocate Hats

When Zika first emerged, I blogged about how abortion for ableist reasons sometimes makes me feel conflicted as someone who is both pro-choice and opposed to ableism, and how I deal with that conflict. Alex Spourdalakis’ story brought up some internal conflict as well, once my friend explained his statement…how could I be so judgemental of Dorothy Spourdalakis for denying her son the right to live based on her own needs, when I essentially gave women who had abortions a free pass for doing exactly the same thing?

“That’s *not* what I do,” I said.

“Isn’t it?”

I went home and thought about it.

And lost a bit of sleep.

And decided that no, that’s *not* what I do, although you’re certainly welcome to disagree.

Sounding the Same, But In Fact Very Different

Very soon after starting this blog and reading other peoples’ blogs, I started coming across perspectives that made me question, for really the first time, what my stance on abortion was going to be if I was going to be a disability activist. It was a more complicated question than I’d thought, and it made me fine-tune my stance to “It’s not a baby until it can live outside the mother” which can both simplify and complicate the whole business.

For the purposes of my friend’s query, however, it makes things very simple — for me.

I mentioned earlier that I wasn’t using the word “murder” in this context to evoke emotion because Alex was legally murdered. I just as deliberately *won’t* use the word “murder” when I’m talking about abortion because “murder” is a legal term that presupposes that a fetus is a person. And there’s where the rubber hits the road for me. My friend may be correct in that the language that I use to talk about the murder of disabled children sounds like the language that some (not all) pro-life people use to talk about abortion, but the two situations couldn’t be more different in my eyes.

Alex Spourdalakis was a person with rights guaranteed to him by both the United States Constitution and by the United Nations. He was a minor in his mother’s custody, which meant that she was responsible for his well-being. Her rights as a US citizen do not guarantee her a child that is easy to take care of, but in the state of Illinois a parent can voluntarily surrender a child should care of that child become too difficult for the parent to manage — it’s a drastic step involving relinquishing parental rights, but it’s not as drastic as making a profoundly ableist assumption that a disabled child has no chance at happiness in life and that death would be preferable to life in “the system” and committing murder based on those those assumptions.

Even though Dorothy Spourdalakis’ intention was obviously to kill herself after murdering Alex, her suicide note indicated that his murder was about what *she* couldn’t deal with putting him through anymore and with what she didn’t want for him (as it seems to often be in these cases.) A picture circulated through the media, showed the following excerpts from her handwritten note, touted as reasons that Dorothy believed Alex Spourdalakis was better off dead:

  • Alex will not be neglected and abused by the medical community anymore.
  • Alex will not suffer under “the system”
  • Alex will not be discriminated against anymore
  • Alex will not be treated as “retarded” or less than human because he is disabled and cannot speak for himself.

I have empathy for parents that are beaten down by a lack of support and the pain of seeing their beloved children suffering. I really do. But justifying the murder a 14-year-old who is “disabled and cannot speak for himself” in the name of getting him away from those that would treat him as “less than human” would be laughable if it wasn’t so infuriating. After all, what could be more dehumanizing than deciding that you have the right to take that child’s life based on your assumptions on his feelings about it? So forgive me if I can’t buy Dorothy Spourdalakis’ noble-sounding rhetoric.

Murdering your child because of any of the things she mentioned (or, as I believe it more accurately is, a parental desire not to see a disabled child deal with those things) is not okay. It’s simply not.

Which brings me back to what my friend said to me. As I said, Alex Spourdalakis (and Tracey Latimer, and everyone on this list of disabled people murdered by parents or caregivers, which is only current to the end of 2014) were people that were murdered. They had legal rights that a fetus (or developing child, if you prefer) doesn’t — and that I’m not invested in fighting for a fetus to get, frankly (or interested in arguing about why that position is right or wrong.) That’s a whole other fight to me, and one that, for a variety of reasons, I’m not willing to take on.

I do feel very strongly about the murder of disabled people and the how their murderers get the sympathy of the public and media and the leniency of the justice system. It’s a fight that I *will* take on because it’s simply not right.

Bottom Line

So that’s why my friend’s challenge to my thinking didn’t make me lose (much) sleep — and why I’ll continue to fight to make sure that:

1) There’s more investigation into why parents get pushed into these places of desperation, where murdering their disabled children seems like the only option for dealing with the challenges that they encounter on that journey

2) Ableism in all forms continues to be recognized and eliminated as much as possible.

3) Safe and affordable abortion is available to all women, regardless of their reason for making that choice.

I can manage wearing conflicting advocate hats, but I’m glad that people call me on it when my thinking appears inconsistent. I need that to stay the best advocate I can be.

Rest in peace, Alex Spourdalakis. I will not forget you.

Please read the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network’s Statement on the Sentencing of Alex Spourdalakis’ Murderers

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