“She’s with us now”: Informed Consent, Assimilation (“cure”), and Disability in Star Trek: Voyager

Brenda Tyrrell //

The Borg. Simply saying these two words makes such intrepid Star Trek captains such as Jean-Luc Picard turn tail and run. First introduced in 1989, the Borg instill dread, fear, and confusion into anyone who encounters them – and lives to tell about it; the pre-eminent bad guy of the Star Trek franchise. Picard says of the Collective: “In their collective state, the Borg are utterly without mercy driven by one will alone -the will to conquer. They are beyond redemption, beyond reason.” However, Captain Kathryn Janeway of the Voyager off-shoot, in her human exceptionalism, decides that she can and will offer her version of redemption to one Borg member – Seven of Nine, Tertiary Adjunct of Unimatrix 01. To do this, however, she must violate what we here on Earth recognize as Seven’s right to informed consent.

The American Medical Association (AMA) defines informed consent as a “communication between a patient and physician results in the patient’s authorization or agreement to undergo a specific medical intervention.” If a patient or the patient’s [chosen] surrogate is unavailable or in an emergency situation, it is the physician who “initiates treatment” and “inform[s] the patient/surrogate at the earliest opportunity and obtain[s] consent for ongoing treatment.” In the episode, “The Gift,” Captain Janeway and the Doctor must determine how to proceed with Seven’s disintegrating technology. The Doctor admits to Janeway that “If a patient told me not to treat them – even if the situation was life-threatening – I would be ethically obligated to honor that request.” Janeway has a different take on the situation and responds that, given her past experiences with the Borg, Seven of Nine is “no ordinary patient” and, until she is “ready to accept” that she is a human, “someone has to make the decisions for her.” After all, Janeway reminds the Doctor, “she’s with us now.”

To be clear, Janeway has not been designated Seven’s power-of-attorney at any time previous to this episode nor has Seven been deemed unfit to make her own medical decisions. We assume that Janeway’s power as captain allows for this type of situation. Problematically, Janeway’s own biases and fear lead her to decide that it is the human side of Seven that must be saved, not the Borg side. If we consider this fictional experience in terms of the lived experiences of those identified as disabled, we see that Janeway’s presumption that able-bodied/minded is the preferred state, then her insistence on ridding Seven of her disability of Borgness can be interpreted as the persistent need to “cure” disability exhibited by our culture and by our medicine. Alison Kafer recognizes this “presumption of agreement …[that] we all desire the same future” (3) and that future is free of disability and those identified as such. Kafer explains that “we” all agree that “A better future…is one that excludes disability and disabled bodies…it is the very absence of disability that signals this future” (3). Applied to Janeway’s decision to “cure” Seven of her Borgness, it is not difficult to surmise that Janeway also envisions such a future.

When Seven awakens from her surgery, she is livid, her anger palpable, as she repeats “We are Borg” and “no, no, no” when she discovers what has been done to her without her consent. There is little doubt that, had she been given the choice, Seven would not have agreed to these modifications, especially when she looks down at her “cured” body and snarls, “What have you done to me?” When the Doctor attempts to explains the procedure that saved her life, Seven spits out, “unacceptable,” adding “you should have let us die.” Clearly, becoming more human is not something Seven is invested in. In her attempt to empathize with Seven’s reaction, Janeway tries to commiserate with Seven, saying that she can “imagine” what it is like to be Borg . Here, we are reminded of Kafer’s remarks towards “disability simulation exercises” (4). Kafer posits that “[n]ot only do these kinds of exercises focus on the alleged failures and hardships of disabled bodies…they also present disability as a knowable fact of the body”(4). Like the participants of these simulations, then, Janeway cannot “know” what it is like to be Borg, any more than an able-bodied/minded person can “know” what is is like to experience a disability. And, no matter Seven’s resistance, and her attempts to leave Voyager and take her chances as a Borg, Janeway refuses to let her go.

By the end of the episode, Seven succumbs to Janeway’s insistence to return to her humanity but not before she ends up in the brig, a result of a failed attempt to return to the Borg. While there, she accuses Janeway of “being no better than the Borg” because she has “imprisoned us in the name of humanity, yet you will not grant us your most cherished human right – to choose our own fate.” Janeway’s response? “You lost the capacity to make a rationale choice the moment you were assimilated…And until I’m certain you’ve gotten that back, I’m making that choice for you.” The arrogance and human exceptionalism displayed by Janeway at this moment resounds in the medical model of disability studies, which insists on treating, curing, or in Seven’s case, assimilating the nonnormative characteristics of an individual into the normative ideals of an able-bodied/minded constructed society, whether they agree or not. In the words of the Borg, RESISTANCE to this model and to the disability-free future “we” all envision, it seems, IS FUTILE.

Sources:

“Informed Consent,” American Medical Association website. https://www.ama-assn.org/delivering-care/ethics/informed-consent. Last Accessed 01 April 2021.

“Q Who.” Star Trek: The Next Generation, S2:E16, 1989.

“The Gift.” Star Trek: Voyager, S4:E2, 1998.

Kafer, Alison. Feminist, Queer, Crip. Indiana UP, 2013.

Images:

Cover image: https://imgur.com/gallery/7v3FDjq. Last Accessed 01 April 2021.

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