Reading, writing, and flailing

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As I stared at the screen thinking about this blog post, this “helpful” WordPress noticed appeared with its calming red hue and encouraging “!”.

I am starting a new project on the emergence of bioethics in Australia. Well, actually I am 12 months 16 months in. I have been reading. There is always a lot to read. Yet I haven’t written much. I have been writing a lot, but little seems to be related to the project.

To help get myself and this project together I have started reading Finding Time for Your Scholarly Writing by Jo VanEvery. I’ll admit, it does feel like procrastination to read a book about writing rather than just write.

VanEvery helpfully talks about writing as a process (that does include reading) and that while not everything that is written will turn into a conference paper, article or book ‘all writing is worthwhile if it helps move your thinking forward’.

To that end I am going to try and use this blog in a more intentional way to establish a writing practice.

Establishing a writing practice

During my PhD (2007-2011) I used my blog a lot more regularly for “non-output driven” writing. It helped establish a practice and habit of writing that contributed to my thesis in a variety of ways – content, style, development and rejection of ideas etc.

For a number of reasons that habit slowed during post-docs (2011-2017). This was partly due to the pressure of publishing, as well as wanting to avoid airing half-baked ideas in public (this was before Twitter). The emergence of platforms like The Conversation and other websites that seek content from scholars is also partly to “blame” – why write a blog post for a few hundred readers when the same piece could receive thousands of “clicks”?

Anyway, as I “get into the teeth” of this new(ish) project, I hope to re-establish a habit of writing. Following VanEvery’s advise I plan to use this blog to write regularly about my project on the emergence of bioethics in Australia in the hope that:

The relationship between time spent focused on your writing project and visible outcomes isn’t direct. Some days it feels like you have accomplished practically nothing, but struggling with your ideas impacts what you are able to write another day.

As I struggle with how to write a history of the emergence of bioethics in Australia, I will reflect on the research and writing process. I may share more from VanEvery’s book, but I also plan write about the substance of the project – what I have found in archives, methodological questions I am struggling with, and other tangential thoughts that may produce fruit or whither on the vine.

Feel free to share tips, recommendations, or questions in the comments.

NEW BOOK: Unsettling Food Politics

60% off discount Unsettling Food Politics

I had the initial idea for this book in 2013. In December 2014 I pitched it to the series editors during the Australasian Society for Continental Philosophy at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne. Almost five years later, my book – Unsettling Food Politics: Agriculture, Dispossession and Sovereignty in Australia – is being released by Rowman & Littlefield.

During that five years, there were many changes to the scope and direction of the book. I could probably spend another five years making further changes. Fortunately deadlines meant that was not possible. I’ll post more on the back story later. For the moment here is the synopsis and some very kind endorsements.

UFP_Twitterpost_McMichael

Synopsis

This book uses social and political theory to critically examine the historical constitution of contemporary alternative food discourses. While alternative food activists appeal to food sovereignty and agrarian discourses to counter the influence of neoliberal agricultural policies, these discourses remain entangled with colonial logics of sovereignty and dispossession of indigenous peoples. In particular, this book addresses the influence of Enlightenment ideas of improvement, the use of agriculture to establish ownership, and the production of a white population in Australia. In combination with this critical history, this book brings continental political philosophy into conversation with Indigenous theories of sovereignty and alternative food discourses in order to open new spaces for thinking about food and politics in contemporary Australia.

Endorsements

The inter-disciplinary nature of the work is reflected in the generous endorsements from a variety of scholars from different disciplines.

Mayes’ book is an important and, yes, unsettling reminder that in the Australian context, too, a return to smallholder farming as an antidote to the world’s food woes, is a return to an imaginary thick with dispossession and unfree labour.

Julie Guthman, Professor of Social Sciences at the University of California, Santa Cruz

Too often debates around food focus on the individual consumer and consumer choice without acknowleding the way in which those choices are determined by the culture of possibilities in which the consumer is situated. The impact of current food practices on health, the environment, and social inequity cannot be addressed merely by changing individual habits; rather, food justice will require fundamental changes in the systems of production and distribution that determine what and how we eat.

This important and timely book exposes the complicity of commodity agriculture not only in the global obesity crisis and environmental injustice, but also in the food insecurity of vulnerable populations. Drawing on the resources of Foucault, Mayes demonstrates convincingly the role of agriculture in the project of colonialism and its historic injustices. Though he focuses primarily on Australia, his analysis of the way in which contemporary agricultural practices reflect racism and the dispossesion of indigenous peoples has a global reach.

Mayes does not only offer a critique of the provision of food as a biopolitical act that privileges some bodies over others; he also offers positive strategies for transforming our current food culture in order to address the injustices inherent in it. As he argues, by recovering the knowledges of indigenous peoples and by giving the marginalized a place at the table where decisions are made, we may be able to revolutionize current food practices in ways that will not only address inequity, but also improve the well-being of each and all.

Mary C. Rawlinson, Professor and Director of Graduate Studies, Department of Philosophy, Stony Brook University

Unsettling Food Politics is an extraordinary rethinking of food sovereignty politics beyond formal sovereignty structures and discriminatory discourses of settler-colonial states. Fashioning a reflexive historical method to construct a substantive sovereignty of indigeneity, Mayes raises profound ethical questions for food sovereignty movements and practices within states and farming systems founded on indigenous subjugation. This is powerful food for thought.

Philip David McMichael, Professor, Department of Development Sociology, Cornell University

This is the book we have been waiting for. Unsettling Food Politics finally provides the critical study of settler-colonial food regimes that we so desperately need today. Historically grounded and well argued, this book is essential reading.

Thomas Nail, Associate Professor, Department of Philosophy, University of Denver

Unsettling Food Politics models a radically different conception of political responsibility. He achieves this by means of a brilliant, and wholly convincing, double movement. One the one hand, Mayes widens the net of our complicity in Indigenous dispossession beyond what many are likely to find comfortable – as he puts it, unforgettably, “If you eat, you are involved in settler-colonialism”. On the other, he insists that any credible response must proceed from the acknowledgement of the moral primacy of the First Peoples of this land, their claim on the soil, their food practices. Mayes’s book is, in effect, a startling demonstration of what it would mean to accept the invitation extended by the framers of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, for non-indigenous Australians to join the First Peoples at a table they have set, to discover what it might mean, finally, to become political companions (in the original sense of the word). And perhaps that is the best description of what Mayes sets out in this remarkable book: a politics of companionability. Unsettling Food Politics is an extraordinary achievement.

Scott Stephens, Religion & Ethics editor, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and Co-host of The Minefield, on ABC Radio National

Whiteness as a bioethical problem

Below is a link to a pdf of my keynote at the Australasian Association for Bioethics and Health Law conference in Townsville, 22nd-25th September, 2018.

Link: Mayes_Whiteness_as_a_bioethical_problem_AABHL_2018

AABHL 2018

 

Abstract

In March 2018 the Nursing and Midwifery Board of Australia (NMBA) released new editions of their codes of conduct, standards of practice, and code of ethics. In the glossary section, “cultural safety” was described (among other things) as providing “a de-colonising model of practice based on dialogue, communication, power sharing and negotiation, and the acknowledgment of white privilege”. Conservative media commentators reacted by claiming that white nurses were being asked to apologise for being white prior to caring for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander patients. Media personality Andrew Bolt called the code a new form of racism and Senator Corey Bernardi characterized the situation as a “new medical Marxism”. These responses serve to illustrate the sensitivity some sections of Australian society have to examining whiteness and white privilege in general, and health institutions in particular.

In recent years, whiteness studies has emerged as a way of examining race relations and the effects of racism by focusing on assumptions that “white” occupies a position of normalcy and neutrality. Black feminist scholars such as Audre Lourde have been significant in turning the critical focus from the racialised other to the institutions, beliefs, systems, and practices that do the work of racialising, while reinforcing white privilege. In Australia, this has meant that instead of focusing exclusively on the injustices suffered by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, the whiteness analytic lens allows scholars such as Irene Watson and Aileen Moreton-Robinson to draw attention to the material conditions, histories, ideas, and practices that make such racialised injustices possible, and even normal.

This paper explores the historical legacy and contemporary implications of whiteness in the provision of health care, health-related research, and bioethics itself to ask: If biomedicine and bioethics are implicated in the privileging of whiteness, is it possible to begin a process of decolonisation and move towards a postcolonial bioethics?

IVF and the Birth of Bioethics in Australia

In the four decades since the birth of the ‘test-tube’ baby, the field of bioethics has been at the forefront of trying to understand what advancing biotechnologies mean for society, writes Alfred Deakin Institute researcher, Dr Christopher Mayes.

July 25, 2018 marked 40 years since the first baby was born via in vitro fertilisation (IVF), signalling a radical shift in human reproduction. The birth of Louise Brown in Oldham General Hospital, England in 1978 realised the technological capacity to fertilize a human egg outside of the body, opening new possibilities as well as provoking anxieties.

While the medical research team in England achieved the world-first live IVF birth, a team of researchers from Royal Women’s Hospital, Monash University and Queen Victoria Hospital in Melbourne were in close competition. Under the direction of Carl Wood and Alan Trounson, these Melbourne-based researchers achieved the world’s first IVF pregnancy in 1973 and the birth of the third IVF baby in 1980.

Since these dramatic early developments, IVF has become a relatively routine procedure. But it wasn’t just babies being born through the development of IVF; the technology also birthed a new field that became known as ‘bioethics’.

1980s and the emergence of bioethics

IVF created the possibility of fertilising an egg with sperm outside the human body. This procedure addressed a range of infertility problems, such as blocked or damaged fallopian tubes and low sperm count or motility.

It also presented a dizzying array of new possibilities, including: creating embryos from donated sperm, ova, or both; screening embryos for genetic diseases or desired traits prior to implantation; surrogacy arrangements; experimentation on embryonic life; ectogenesis (growth of a baby in an artificial womb); freezing eggs or sperm for future use; and cloning.

The potential for IVF to radically alter reproduction as well as family formation provoked an explosion of conferences, seminars, committees and institutions that sought to address resulting ethical and legal questions.

In 1980, Monash University established the Monash Centre for Human Bioethics with Peter Singer as its founding director. Shortly after, in 1981, the Catholic Archdiocese in Brisbane created the Queensland Bioethics Centre under the directorship of Sr Regis Mary Dunne. These centres sought to educate the public and influence policy debates on the ethical and social implications of developments in biomedicine.

The legal field was also responding to the new developments. In 1982, the Attorney General of Victoria appointed Professor Louis Waller to chair a committee exploring the implications of reproductive technologies in terms of the law as well as legal ethics. This led to the Victorian parliament passing the Infertility (medical procedures) Act 1984, a world-first legislation addressing IVF.

Other states soon followed but the federal government wanted a uniform approach and, in 1985, the Family Law Council released a report titled Creating Children: A Uniform Approach to the Law and Practice of Reproductive Technology in Australia, which detailed a national approach to reproductive biotechnologies.

In 1988, the federal government established the National Bioethics Consultative Committee (NBCC) to address, among other things, surrogacy, information in relation to donated eggs and sperm, and genetic counselling. Coinciding with the release of an NBCC report advising legislation to permit surrogacy, state and federal health ministers disbanded the body. Yet some NBCC members were included on the newly-formed Australian Health Ethics Committee (1991).

During the 1980s, these committees and institutions contributed to the creation of policies and legislation designed to regulate IVF use, and the directions and limits of scientific research – especially in relation to embryos. These debates also contributed to the birth of bioethics in Australia.

Conflicts and disputes

Not everyone was happy with the way bioethics was emerging. A young Kevin Andrews, for example, used his maiden speech in federal parliament to lament that “some of the same personnel from the widely-discredited National Bioethics Consultative Committee” were included on the Australian Health Ethics Committee. And it was not just Andrews who had concerns about the new field of bioethics.

Doctors and scientists were wary of external meddling in their practice and research while Catholic theologians and ethicists were troubled by the devaluing of embryonic life, which they considered sacred. Feminists were suspicious of male-dominated committees deciding what could or could not be done to women’s bodies and the technological control of reproduction, and secular bioethicists were concerned by the real or apparent influence of the Church. Politicians, meanwhile, were worried that committees they had created were now undermining their role in creating legislation.

These concerns over bioethics and the direction of biomedical research were intimately tied to fears and hopes about future society. Were we heading towards a utopia or dystopia?

Unforeseen or ignored developments?

Although its physical and psychological burdens are not widely discussed, IVF has become standard procedure. In 2014, 12,875 babies were born via IVF in Australia. While the procedure is relatively common and largely accepted as an ethically acceptable form of reproduction, questions from the earliest debates remain.

Catholic and radical feminist commentators were the most vocal critics of the new reproductive technologies. At times these seemingly divergent perspectives overlapped, particularly in regard to concerns relating to technological and corporate control of reproduction.

Catholic leaders were primarily concerned with the moral status of embryos, whether IVF contravened “laws of nature” and the separation of the sexual act from reproduction. These concerns did not gain much traction among policymakers or laity – polls in the early 1980s revealed 67% of Catholics surveyed approved of the practice and that a proportionate number of Catholics were on waiting lists to access IVF.

The feminist critique of reproductive medicine drew attention to areas largely ignored by the majority of ethicists, scientists and politicians. Robyn Rowland and Renate Klein from Deakin University were leading voices in calling attention to the influence of commercial values on the motives and ethics of clinicians. In the early-1980s, Robyn Rowland argued that IVF physicians look “less altruistic as their efforts to generate profits intensify” and queried the secrecy over a new commercial enterprise developed by the early Melbourne-based researchers and Monash University.

Rowland argued that “a collaboration between research and commercial interests uses women in essentially experimental programs and asks the participants and the public to underwrite the expense so that the researchers can enter into commercial contracts for profit.”

In 2014, Monash IVF floated on the stock market for over $300 million dollars. In writing a history of IVF in Australia, John Leeton, who was part of Carl Wood’s team at Monash IVF, characterized Rowland’s criticisms as “extreme and misguided”. Yet in light of the enormous profits enjoyed by fertility clinics, as well as the distorting effect of commercial interests, Rowland’s critique remains relevant today.

The listing of companies such as Monash IVF and Virtus IVF on the stock exchange not only means that they operate at a profit for shareholders, but also have an obligation to continually seek profits and new markets.

In recent years, social egg freezing (SEF) has been regarded by commercial IVF companies as opening up new lucrative markets. While IVF primarily focuses on women and couples with infertility problems, SEF is the practice of freezing unfertilized eggs so women may use them when they have found the right partner or achieved certain career or educational goals. The practice is marketed as an “insurance policy” that allows women to put off concerns about their “biological clock”.

There is an ongoing debate about the efficacy and ethics of this practice. But one thing that’s clear is all women between puberty and menopause are now seen as potential customers. There is limited data available about who is using these services and when. Fertility clinics suggest that it is ideal for women to freeze their eggs in their 20s and early-30s. However, data from the UK Government’s independent regulator reveals that 68% of women using SEF are over 35.

The expansion of fertility clinics into SEF raises questions about the changing reality of biomedical practice – is it simply a commercial relationship where the logics of “buyer beware” operate? Or is a medical relationship where professionals have an ethical obligation to their patients?

Neither utopia nor dystopia

The commercial dimension of biomedicine rarely featured in the bioethical debates of the 1980s. But biotechnology is now a lucrative industry that’s attractive for investors.

Commercial influences on the development of IVF – and its expansion into questionable markets – should not diminish the amazing achievements 40 years ago. We have not entered the dystopia that many feared; but nor have we reached utopia.

It’s this space in-between that bioethicists continue to work in, questioning developments of biomedicine and new technologies, such as CRISPR, commercial surrogacy, personalised medicine and artificial intelligence.

 

[This was first published 7 August 2018 in Deakin University “Research News“, with editorial assistance from Reema Rattan]

Agri-Food XXV – CFP

For full details regarding special sessions, keynotes, deadlines, etc click here Agri-FoodXXV Call for Abstracts

I am organising the following session:

Towards a postcolonial conception and practice of food sovereignty

The history of agriculture is deeply enmeshed with the history, and continuing legacy, of violence and dispossession inAustralia and most of other settler-colonial societies. While mining only lasts as long as minerals remain to be extracted, agriculture has a permanence that enables the establishment and reproduction of a population, which expands at the expense of Indigenous lands and livelihoods. This dynamic forced Indigenous peoples to either enter the new economy, usually in the form of unfree labour, or raid farms for food, which was often used as grounds for official and unofficial death squads. Consideringthe role of agriculture in denying Indigenous sovereignty, this session asks whether food sovereignty is an appropriate or useful concept to be used in Australia and other settler-colonial societies.

Food sovereignty is commonly defined as the right of people to control their own food and agricultural systems. The concept originated with peasant movements in South and Central America during their political struggles for land reform. In recent years it has been adopted by proponents of alternative food practices in settler-colonial societies such as Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. In these contexts, it serves as an organizing idea in the struggle for a more democratic, sustainable, and just food system. However, the vast majority of these advocates are neither Indigenous to the lands they occupy or landless peasants. It is therefore important to ask if food sovereignty is an appropriate concept in settler-colonial societies? Can food justice be established without acknowledging and addressing the injustices done to Indigenous peoples wrought by agriculture? This session will explore these and other questions in order to determine whether a postcolonial conception and practice of food sovereignty is possible.

Christopher Mayes (Deakin University) cmayes@deakin.edu.au

If you have any questions about being part of this session please send me an email.

Public health communication & the blurry line from anti-obesity to pro-ana

Public health communication is not easy. Various industries, special interest groups and lobbyists are only too willing to skew messages about health. As such, public health researchers and advocates tend to be sensitive to the different ways a health message can be appropriated.

However, public health advocates, particularly in the area of nutrition, are inconsistent in their concern that people will misuse health-related messages. If a piece of research suggests that something traditionally thought to be “sinful” – alcohol, chocolate, or fat – is not as bad as first thought, then anxious caveats will urge restraint. Yet, if a piece of research over-sells the benefits of something traditionally thought to be “saintly” – exercise or dieting – then there is silence.

Two examples illustrate the first response.

Example 1 – Health benefits of alcohol

Every so often a mainstream media source will pick up on some research that suggests that alcohol – usually red wine – can have some health benefits. Without fail a public health spokesperson or researcher will be very quick to either discredit the research or explain to the public that the research does not provide a license for unrestrained consumption.

For instance, public health nutritionist, Marion Nestle, laments in her book Food Politics that clear guidance is complicated by ‘the inconvenient finding that moderate drinking provides health benefits – alcohol protects against coronary heart disease.’ Whether this research still holds is beside the point, Nestle’s lament that alcohol could have health-benefits reflects a distrust of the public’s ability to negotiate complex or uncertain nutrition messages.

Researchers like Nestle in the US and Mike Daube in Australia are at pains to ensure the public does not misuse or misinterpret claims about the health-benefits of alcohol.

Example 2 – Relationship between weight and health is not as clear as first thought

In 2013, the Journal of the American Medical Association published an epidemiological study from Katherine Flegal and colleagues that found people who are obese grade 1 (BMI of 30-<35) had no increased risk of dying prematurely and overweight (BMI of 25-30) people may actually have greater life expectancy.

Stacy Carter and Helen Walls documented the fall-out of this res2014-12-01 16.22.32-1earch among public health researchers.

Walter Willett of Harvard School of Public Health was indignant. He described the research on NPR as ‘really a pile of rubbish’ and that ‘no one should waste their time reading it’. A UK National Obesity Forum representative told the BBC, ‘It’s a horrific message to put out at this particular time. We shouldn’t take it for granted that we can cancel the gym, that we can eat ourselves to death with black forest gateaux’.

Like the responses to research suggesting the health-benefits of alcohol, these responses to Flegal et al’s research highlight a deep anxiety that the public will misuse public health messages in a manner that undermines their health.

Anti-obesity or Pro-ana? So long as we’re skinny…right?

Despite knee-jerk concern that alcohol or weight-related research will be misused by publics, there is very little (if any) concern that anti-obesity campaigns will lead people to eat too little, exercise too much or that such messages will reinforce and legitimise disordered eating practices such as anorexia or bulimia.

Almost every time I lecture on critical obesity discourses someone will question why there is such a overwhelming focus on obesity and little focus on anorexia or bulimia. Someone will also point out that a lot of the anti-obesity messages can be construed to reinforce idealised expectations about body image.

Compare the use of computer-generated imagery in these two public service announcements (PSAs).

  1. Measure Up – anti obesity

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9dL4lN6GKi4&w=560&h=315

2. The Mirror – anorexia

The parameters for the non-pathologised and non-medicalised body is very narrow, especially for young women. In addition to people questioning the differing responses to obesity and anorexia or bulimia, I have had two students tell me that they used weight-focused public health messages to mask damaging practices such as under-eating and over-exercising.

Last year, Dr Richard Newton from the Butterfly Foundation noted that an increase of children and young people with disordered eating and dieting behaviours coincides with ‘a society that is putting an increasing emphasis on avoiding obesity, controlling weight and shape through dieting’.

Psychiatrist Dr Peter O’Keefe also said that anti-obesity messages contribute to the ideal that ‘if you’re thin you’re good, if you’re not, you’re bad’.

These are serious concerns with real consequences for the lives of young people. Yet the zeal for preventing obesity and perceived urgency of the problem, gives public health advocates little time or reason to pause and consider the ways anti-obesity messages can be interpreted.

Sadly, if a piece of research suggests that it’s ok to eat a piece of cake, warnings and caveats are screamed from the rooftops. But if the research says exercise more, eat less, and lose weight, then there is only nodding agreement. After all, why give an inch when we are at war with our bodies – mine and yours.