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We are all “cyborgs, hybrids, mosaics, chimeras,” as Haraway suggests in her feminist provocation A Cyborg Manifesto. She envisions a cyborg world “in which people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines, not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints.”
The debate over vaccination tends to be described with what the philosopher of science Donna Haraway would call “troubling dualisms.” These dualisms pit science against nature, public against private, truth against imagination, self against another, thought against emotion, and man against woman.
The metaphor of a “war” between mothers and doctors is sometimes used for conflicts over vaccination. Depending on who is employing the metaphor, the warring parties may be characterized as ignorant mothers and educated doctors, or intuitive mothers and intellectual doctors, or caring mothers and heartless doctors, or irrational mothers and rational doctors—sexist stereotypes abound.
Infectious disease is one of the primary mechanisms of natural immunity. Whether we are sick or healthy, disease is always passing through our bodies. “Probably we’re diseased all the time,” as one biologist puts it, “but we’re hardly ever ill.”
Allowing children to develop immunity to contagious diseases “naturally,” without vaccination, is appealing to some of us. Much of that appeal depends on the belief that vaccines are inherently unnatural. But vaccines are of that liminal place between humans and nature—a mowed field, Berry might suggest, edged by woods. Vaccination is a kind of domestication of a wild thing, in that it involves our ability to harness a virus and break it like a horse, but its action depends on the natural response of the body to the effects of that once-wild thing.
True as it may be, the idea that our medicine is as flawed as we are is not comforting. And when comfort is what we want, one of the most powerful tonics alternative medicine offers is the word natural. This word implies a medicine untroubled by human limitations, contrived wholly by nature or God or perhaps intelligent design. What natural has come to mean to us in the context of medicine is pure and safe and benign. But the use of natural as a synonym for good is almost certainly a product of our profound alienation from the natural world.
One of the appeals of alternative medicine is that it offers not just an alternative philosophy or an alternative treatment but also an alternative language. If we feel polluted, we are offered a “cleanse.” If we feel inadequate, lacking, we are offered a “supplement.” If we fear toxins, we are offered “detoxification.” If we fear that we are rusting with age, physically oxidizing, we are reassured with “antioxidants.” These are metaphors that address our base anxieties. And what the language of alternative medicine understands is that that when we feel bad we want something unambiguously good.
The definition of toxin can be somewhat surprising if you have grown accustomed to hearing the word in the context of flame retardants and parabens. Though toxin is now often used to refer to man-made chemicals, the most precise meaning of the term is still reserved for biologically produced poisons. The pertussis toxin, for example, is responsible for damage to the lungs that can cause whooping cough to linger for months after the bacteria that produce it have been killed by antibiotics. The diphtheria toxin is a poison potent enough to cause massive organ failure, and tetanus produces a deadly neurotoxin. Vaccination now protects us against all these toxins.
In this context, fear of toxicity strikes me as an old anxiety with a new name. Where the word filth once suggested, with its moralist air, the evils of the flesh, the word toxic now condemns the chemical evils of our industrial world. This is not to say that concerns over environmental pollution are not justified—like filth theory, toxicity theory is anchored in legitimate dangers—but that the way we think about toxicity bears some resemblance to the way we once thought about filth. Both theories allow their subscribers to maintain a sense of control over their own health by pursuing personal purity. For the filth theorist, this means a retreat into the home, where heavy curtains and shutters might seal out the smell of the poor and their problems. Our version of this shuttering is now achieved through the purchase of purified water, air purifiers, and food produced with the promise of purity.
Toxoid is the term for a toxin that has been rendered no longer toxic, but the existence of a class of vaccines called toxoids probably does not help quell widespread concerns that vaccination is a source of toxicity. The consumer advocate Barbara Loe Fisher routinely supports these fears, referring to vaccines as “biologicals of unknown toxicity” and calling for nontoxic preservatives and more studies on the “toxicity of all other vaccine additives” and their potential “cumulative toxic effects.” The toxicity she speaks of is elusive, shirting from the biological components of the vaccines to their preservatives, then to an issue of accumulation that implicates not just vaccines, but also toxicity from the environment at large.
As for mercury, a child will almost certainly get more mercury exposure from her immediate environment than from vaccination. This is true, too, of the aluminum that is often used as an adjuvant in vaccines to intensify the immune response. Aluminum is in a lot of things, including fruits and cereals as well as, again, breast milk. Our breast milk, it turns out, is as polluted as our environment at large. Laboratory analysis of breast milk has detected paint thinners, dry-cleaning fluids, flame retardants, pesticides, and rocket fuel. “Most of these chemicals are found in microscopic amounts,” the journalist Florence Williams notes, “but if human milk were sold at the local Piggly Wiggly, some stock would exceed federal food-safety levels for DDT residues and PCBs.”
“He was too pure,” a Baltimore mother said of her son, who developed leukemia as an infant. His mother blamed the pollutants in vaccines for his illness, and herself for allowing him to be vaccinated. Fears that formaldehyde from vaccines may cause cancer are similar to fears of mercury and aluminum, in that they coalesce around miniscule amounts of the substance in question, amounts considerably smaller than amounts from other common sources of exposure to the same substance. Formaldehyde is in automobile exhaust and cigarette smoke, as well as paper bags and paper towels, and it is released by gas stoves and open fireplaces. Many vaccines contain traces of the formaldehyde used to inactivate viruses, and this can be alarming to those of us who associate formaldehyde with dead frogs in glass jars. Large concentrations are indeed toxic, but formaldehyde is a product of our bodies, essential to our metabolism, and the amount of formaldehyde already circulating in our systems is considerably greater than the amount we receive through vaccination.
I already practiced some intuitive toxicology before my pregnancy, but I became thoroughly immersed in it after my son was born. As long as a child takes only breast milk, I discovered, one can enjoy the illusion of a closed system, a body that is not yet in dialogue with the impurities of farm and factory. Caught up in the romance of the untainted body, I remember feeling agony when my son drank water for the first time. “Unclean! Unclean!” my mind screamed.
The idea that “toxins,” rather than filth or germs, are the root cause of most maladies is a popular theory of disease among people like me. The toxins that concern us range from particle residue to high-fructose corn syrup, and particularly suspect substances include the bisphenol A lining our tin cans, the phthalates in our shampoos, and the chlorinated Tris in our couches and mattresses.
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Such a list depends on an effective algorithm to process it. There are three main requirements which have to be kept in balance. These are urgency, importance and psychological readiness. Traditional time management systems have tended to concentrate on the first two of these. The neglect of psychological readiness is probably the reason that most people don’t find time management systems particularly effective or congenial.
Anyone distracted in class doesn’t just lose out on the content of the discussion, they create a sense of permission that opting out is OK, and, worse, a haze of second-hand distraction for their peers. In an environment like this, students need support for the better angels of their nature (or at least the more intellectual angels), and they need defenses against the powerful short-term incentives to put off complex, frustrating tasks. That support and those defenses don’t just happen, and they are not limited to the individual’s choices. They are provided by social structure, and that structure is disproportionately provided by the professor, especially during the first weeks of class.
Ces projets de corrections, comme par exemple celui entamé par les Cantons du Valais et de Vaud pour le Rhône, s’appuient par essence sur le principe de consensus. Ce principe est un fondement du mode de vie helvétique. Il est important que les agriculteurs soient écoutés et entendus. Pour ce faire, il existe des instruments démocratiques, comme par exemple les mises à l’enquête. Utiliser le mauvais instrument, à savoir un référendum contre le modèle de financement, est contraire à l’esprit qui a construit la Suisse. Les agriculteurs ne sont qu’un prétexte de plus dans une campagne systématique de destruction de nos institutions… car même si le peuple le décide dans les urnes, l’eau ne remontera pas les rivières.
Il n’est donc pas impossible qu’une mère d’aujourd’hui soit morte en couche si elle avait dû accoucher au XVIIIe siècle. Surtout si, durant son enfance, elle a subi de graves privations de nourriture ayant perturbé son développement osseux. Ou si elle travaille comme domestique et a été violée par son patron puis contrainte d’accoucher dans un hospice. Ou encore si elle vit dans un village reculé n’offrant qu’une matrone comme option d’accompagnement. Voire si elle a déjà onze enfants. En tant que femme vivant au XXIe siècle, il est cependant beaucoup plus probable qu’elle ait subi une série d’actes médicaux inutiles ayant perturbé la naissance de son enfant. Il est bien plus vraisemblable qu’elle ait vu son accouchement accéléré, normalisé et optimisé en fonction de l’organisation du service hospitalier plutôt qu’en réponse à sa propre physiologie. Il n’est pas exclu que cette avalanche de gestes intrusifs et violents ait finalement rendu indispensable une prise en charge en urgence au bloc opératoire. Mais il est évident que, quoi qu’il soit arrivé, les médecins lui auront asséné la bouche en cœur qu’elle serait morte s’ils n’étaient pas intervenus.
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