Anti-Vaccination and Bioinsecurity

dailydose_darkstrokeThis morning we have a post from Travis Chi Wing Lau of the University of Pennsylvania, Department of English. You may contact him at

Contemporary anti-vaccination debates have frequently been reduced to simplistic narratives of either neoliberal individualism, anti-science or anti-intellectualism, or religious fundamentalism. While this has enabled those in favor of vaccination (colloquially called pro-vaxxers) to dismiss the arguments of their counterparts, I want to resist this reductionist thinking, which not only ignores the historical underpinnings of anti-vaccination but also misses how the movement relates to equally sensationalized rhetorics of national security or what critical theorists have recently termed biosecurity.

Biological health, long tied up with the well-being of the nation, has now become deeply connected with national security concerns since 9/11. In response to the 2001 anthrax attacks, the Bush administration made the decision to initiate a mass smallpox inoculation of US citizens based purely on intelligence reports suspecting Russia of experimenting with their stores of smallpox virus. Crucial here is that there were no actual cases of smallpox in the US; rather, speculations and paranoia about smallpox potentially becoming the next global bioweapon merited swift preventative action. Postcolonial scholar Neel Ahuja rightly reminds us that such an event is all too familiar: “With steady media attention to health care policy, humanitarian intervention, abortion, prenatal genetic testing, drug patients, assisted suicide, animal rights, environmental regulation, and biosecurity, the idea of the vulnerable body as an object of governance—its transformation for better or worse through state policies, technological intervention, and ecological forces—is today quite conventional.”1 The US citizen’s body and the preservation of its health has become a means by which national security functions in the contemporary security state.

From the early inception of vaccination as a practice developed in England during the 1790s, national health has been mobilized as a justification for often invasive interventions into individual bodies. In fact, Edward Jenner’s project to make vaccination a nationwide practice inaugurated a culture war that debated the right of the state to literally puncture the bodies of its citizens with a lancet purely on the grounds that England was “threatened.” Conservative writers like Edmund Burke likened England to a body whose boundaries were being permeated by both metaphorical and literal contagions be it revolutionary ideas or smallpox and cholera epidemics. Working-class people, too often the target of mandatory vaccination programs enforced by state-appointed vaccinators, experienced the lethal consequences of hasty impulses toward such intervention deemed necessary for the self-preservation of the state. If the national body could be consistently imagined to be at risk, the state could be prescriptive about individual bodily practices (i.e. compulsory vaccination) and the relations between those bodies (i.e. quarantine). It is no surprise that during this period the anti-vaccination movement emerged out of a populist recognition of the state’s dependence on rhetorical and ideological mutations of “national health” as an explanatory mechanism for its violent interventions. The rise of vaccination always came with reservations as to what state medicine was truly trying to prevent or regulate.

Through a similar framing of the public as a population of vulnerable bodies constantly threatened within and without, US national policy depends largely on a logic of preemption and prevention. This anticipatory mode, characterized by virtual disaster modeling and the proliferation of agencies like the Department of Homeland Security, projects threat by underscoring the precarity of American bodies or their bioinsecurity in the face of diffuse threats like global terrorism.2 Particularly salient examples of this are Donald Trump’s campaign promises of constructing a wall to keep out Mexican immigrants or enacting a nationwide ban on Muslims. This impulse to “make America great again” by purging the country of individuals marked out as contagious or dangerous echoes the xenophobic overtones of the English vaccination debates during the late eighteenth century. Such political fearmongering prioritizes white American life as that which urgently requires securing against externalized others that are necessarily figured as parasitical or latent pathogens that can strike unexpectedly. Public health initiatives like Bush’s Smallpox Vaccination Program (SVP) literalize this paranoia by underscoring the vulnerability of the American body to deliberate infection by terrorists increasingly more difficult to identify and isolate in our globalized world. The vagueness by which such threats are defined allow them to be persistently and conveniently mobilized in national security discourses to a feverish pitch.

Rather than affirming the anti-vaccination position, I want to contextualize the anti-vax movement as one that directly challenges the state’s potential co-optation and (mis)use of medicine in the name of national security. A turn to the long history of the anti-vaccination movement since the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries3 reveals that vaccination’s prophylactic function has never been purely a biological issue but rather one of political importance involving the problematic relationship between body and state. We must linger on the question that anti-vaxxers rightly raise: can and should the state be able to monitor, regulate, or even make compulsory health interventions based on projected or imagined national threats?


1. Ahuja, Neel. Bioinsecurities: Disease Interventions: Empire, and the Government of Species. Durham: Duke University Press, 2016. vii.

2. See Brian Massumi’s Ontopower (Duke UP, 2016) for a thorough analysis of how this preemption operates in contemporary state politics.

3. See Nadja Durbach’s Bodily Matters: The Anti-Vaccination Movement in England, 1853-1907 for a rich historical account of the development of the anti-vaccination movement in Victorian period.

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