We owe each other our bodies

Along with text messages and cat memes, “the debate” is one of the forms of communication most favoured by our culture at the moment. Click around on the internet for a few minutes, and you’re sure to find the latest salvo in any of the following: science vs. faith, libeal vs. conservative, McDonald’s vs. Burger King. There is seemingly no topic that can’t be reduced to the journalistic equivalent of a pro wrestling steel cage match.

If you’re a conflict-averse Midwesterner like me, debates make you anxious. As soon as things get heated, you want nothing more than to make everyone hot chocolate. However, this means that you might not be all that knowledgeable about certain topics that only seem to get considered in the form of debate. You want to be a well-informed, conscientious citizen, so what to do?

An excellent place to start would be reading On Immunity: An Inoculation by Eula Biss. This short but dense book is about vaccination, a topic that can shift a pleasant conversation to a heated debate in no time. Biss certainly has opinions on the matter (in short, she thinks the benefits outweigh the risks), but what makes her book so valuable is that she’s not interested in winning a debate so much as wondering why we’re having the debate in the first place.

Biss became interested in the subject when her young son developed certain allergies and food sensitivities. Her son’s pediatrician said it might be a good idea for him to not get a flu shot, as the egg whites used to grow the vaccine could have an adverse effect on him. Several of Biss’ friends, mothers who are educated, upper-middle-class and, for the most part, white, like Biss herself, were also considering whether or not to have their children vaccinated. Their reservations included specific fears, such as the possibility that vaccines can lead to autism (a thoroughly discredited idea, as Biss elucidates), to the more general fears about the effects that such “unnatural” substances could have on their children’s health. All of these mothers were genuinely concerned for their own children, but that’s just the point. Vaccination is a tool used not just for protecting the health of individuals, but of the whole public. Forgoing vaccination, in a sense, means that one is forgoing participation in a society. Biss writes, “If we imagine the action of a vaccine not just in terms of how it affects a single body, but also in terms of how it affects the collective body of a community, it is fair to think of vaccination as a kind of banking of immunity.”

I’m not sure if it’s due to how hard it is to think in systemic terms, or how easy it is to think in individualistic ones, but much of the usual discourse around vaccination seems not to give enough credit to the public good that it enacts. Protect yourself and your family, say the advertisements at drugstores during flu season. Promoting the collective good and doing your part to uphold the social contract just doesn’t have the same ring to it, and not just because it’s awkwardly phrased. The very idea of a social contract seems dated, even regressive. The era of Rotary clubs and men wearing hats appears, from our historical moment, just as notable for its racism and sexism, as Mad Men demonstrates in stylish fashion.

But there are also losses that have resulted in turning away from the mores of that time. It was Margaret Thatcher, of all people, who best summarized the new era we’re still in. “There is no such thing as society,” she said, envisioning a world where it is the responsibility of individuals to take care of those less fortunate. Here’s the thing, though: left to their own devices, individuals will take care of themselves, their families and friends, leaving strangers to deal with their own problems. This is, in part, the dilemma Biss identifies through her examination. We are a society that doesn’t think of itself as a society, a body politic that doesn’t believe it has a body.

Making decisions out of fear isn’t just conduct unbecoming of a good citizen, it’s unbecoming of a Christian. We in the church, after all, have been commanded to care for the strangers in our midst, image-bearers of God as much as ourselves. Christians often don’t make this point as explicit as they should: loving one’s neighbour as oneself is inherently political, the basis for a good, just society. Although Biss isn’t religious herself, she certainly sees the implication of her promoting vaccination as a public good. Her father was a doctor, however, and often spoke of medicine in terms of his own religious upbringing.

“I was not raised in the church and I never took communion, so I was not reminded of Jesus offering his blood that we all might live when my father spoke of the universal donor. But I believed, even then, that we owe each other our bodies.”

  • Adam’s work has appeared in many venues, including the Paris Review Daily, Electric Literature and Real Life. He lives in Grand Rapids with his wife and two daughters.

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