Bitter Medicine

Death in Small Dose, 1957

Using mercury poisoning treatments to "fix" autism punishes children for bearing the mark of an unhealthy society.

In liberal society, the vaunted right to bodily autonomy can be suspended by two forces: the right of the parent, and the right of the doctor, both in the name of preserving life. The two are not equal: Parents control the way children’s bodies metabolize the world, but conventional medicine requires that they relinquish a certain amount of their control. Since the rise of industrialized medicine in the West, people have often worked through their feelings of alienation from the medical establishment by asserting their right to practice alternative modes of care and healing precisely because of their rights as parents. Practitioners of alternative medicine assert their right to choose medical care for their children, despite the warnings of established healthcare institutions. In an effort to curb the constrictions that contemporary biomedicine has imposed on the autonomy of individuals, proponents of alternative medicine (like those in the anti-vaccination movement) insist on their right to uphold the biological integrity of their disabled offspring’s bodies, sometimes at the expense of their children’s own gastrointestinal or psychic well-being.

Everyday parental concerns regarding the substances that circulate in society reach an extreme level in the fad of chelation therapy for autism among so-called anti-vaxxers. “Chelation” describes the process by which ions and molecules bind to metal ions, deriving from the Latin chela, or “claw.” Chelation therapy is used to bind and remove poisonous heavy metals like mercury from the body. It has various legitimate medical applications, but has been taken up by those in the anti-vaccination movement as a “treatment” for autism, which they presume to result from chemical injuries inflicted by mercury additives found in vaccines. Anti-vaxxers fear that the bodies of children cannot safely metabolize the toxic chemical substances that abound within American society, and that parents must take matters into their own hands to repair the traumas that the modern world has inflicted upon their children. But instead of insisting on alternative treatments that might improve the livelihood of their children, these parents use their neurodivergent children to displace anxiety about their own disenfranchisement in the face of the medical establishment.

Implicit to these alt-medical discourses is the idea that it is better to pay for expensive therapies that expose children’s bodies to dangerous chemicals than it is to have a child grow into an autistic adult. This is, it should be said, a destructive concept for the neurodivergent people trying to survive in situations with limited employment, healthcare, and housing access. And yet the use of dangerous alternative treatments like chelation has been pervasive in the United States, and continues despite various warnings by the scientific community. A 2013 article featured by the journal Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders reports that as of 2008, up to 7% of children with autism have been poisoned by dangerous chelation treatments. Despite an upsurge in attention toward autism, the fear that mercury in vaccines causes debility and mental illness is hardly a novel phenomenon.

The fear that mercury in vaccines might cause autism starts with the so-called thiomersal controversy at the turn of the millennium. According to this theory, autism is caused by mercury poisoning that results from exposure to a preservative, thiomersal, found in many vaccines. Perhaps the most widely-cited proponent of this theory is the physician Mark Geier, who has testified in over 90 cases regarding allegations of injury caused by vaccines. In an article within the (non-peer reviewed) journal Medical Hypotheses, Geier claimed that testosterone binds mercury to the central nervous system. According to his so-called Lupron Protocol, “testosterone mercury” along with low levels of glutathione leads to “hyperandrogenicity,” which in his view is a cause of autism.

According to Geier, the “autism epidemic” is an iatrogenic result of routine vaccination, an illness that has been “brought forth by the healer.” To repair such supposed toxic trauma, Geir advocates that a physician should administer chelating agents as well as Leuprodite (also known by the brand-name Lupron), a hormone-blocker with various clinical applications, such as delaying puberty, treating steroid abuse, or chemical castration. That is, Geier proposes that dangerous chelation treatments are an appropriate treatment for autistic children, cleansing and excising the chemical traumas that he thinks cause their neurological difference. According to Geier and his adherents, the root of “neurodevelopmental illness” is modern medicine itself, and it requires the use of noxious medical interventions to reverse.

Much like the first anti-vaccination movement in the 19th century, contemporary “anti-vaxxers” figure modern society as a toxic monstrosity with an appetite for mercury and a penchant for poisoning children. But it’s not just figurative: the medical language that anti-vaxxers like Geier use is just a contemporary reformulation of 19th century homeopathy, whose followers argued similarly that the use of mercury by mainstream medicine causes neurological debility.

Despite being institutionally discredited, the use of chelation therapy as an autism treatment continues. Parental attachments to theories regarding the entanglements of mercury toxicity, metabolic vitality, and cognitive difference are the remnants of unresolved conflicts over how responsible parents are supposed to situate the bodies under their control in an impersonal system which they can't. At the dawn of industrial agriculture and medicine, this contradiction produced the pseudoscience of homeopathic chemistry as a way of reasserting sovereignty over the body at a moment when direct control over health and food production was newly alienated and replaced with impersonal systems.

In 1810, Samuel Hahnemann published the Organon der Rationellen Heilkunde, which laid out the ideas of what he termed “homeopathy,” a technique of medical care premised upon Paracelsus’s notion that "what makes a man ill also cures him." Hahnemann argued that chemicals used in early 19th century medicine, like mercury, were causing physical, mental, and spiritual weakness in the bodies of Westerners. “Diseases correspond to man's affections,” argues Hahnemann in his Lesser Writings, “and the diseases upon the human race today are but the outward expression of man's interiors.” The proud ignorance of his contemporaries, Hahnemann supposed, was making them sick by unleashing the miasms—which were essentially a sort of spiritual pathogen, a Christianized term for disease that anticipates the modern notion of “xenobiotics” (a term for foreign chemical substances found within an organism that is not typically produced or expected to be present within that organism).

Hahnemann argued that all disease was caused by miasm, and that modern society (especially modern medical practice) has accelerated the spread of miasm, debilitating mass populations with physical and moral weakness. In his Lectures, Hahnemann writes: “the human race today walking the face of the earth, is but little better than a moral leper. Such is the state of the human mind at the present day. To put it another way everyone is Psoric.”

For Hahnemann, the Psora miasm (whose name derives from the Hebrew tsorat, meaning a groove or stigma) caused most diseases to the nervous system (that is, those that were not caused by syphilis or other STIs). “Psora,” Hahnemann says, “is a state of susceptibility to disease from willing evils” and that “is the beginning of all physical sickness, the underlying cause and is the primitive or primary disorder of the human race.” Like a clinical retelling of original sin, Hahnemann’s speculations regard Psora as an originary susceptibility to illness as a result of humankind’s inherent moral corruption. “Psora is the evolution of the state of man's will, the ultimates of sin.” According to him, medicine accelerates the extinction of humanity by causing poison to build up within the body over generations:

A new contagion comes with every child. As Psora piles up generation after generation, century after century the susceptibility to it increases. This is true of every miasm and true of all drugs. We find in the drugged world that those who have been mercurized become more susceptible to Mercury and are more easily poisoned by it.

In other words, Hahnemann believed that scientists and medical practitioners were complicit in the moral and biological degeneration of humankind. Mercury found in drugs supposedly corrupted the bodies of children with contagion and caused widespread mental, physical and spiritual illness.

Hahnemann would prescribe sulfur or mercury tinctures (a practice that begins with American founding father Benjamin Rush) to treat the neurological problems associated with Psoratic illness — which he supposed to be a more pragmatic form of medical treatment than the norm. Hahnemann castigates Western medicine for privileging the study of physiology while vainly ignoring the “practical” art of healing; in his Organon der Rationellen Heilkunde, Hahnemann writes:

Physicians no longer tried to see diseases as they were; what they saw did not satisfy them, but they wished by a priori reasoning to find out an undiscoverable source of disease in regions of speculation which are not to be penetrated by terrestrial mortals. Our system-builders delighted in these metaphysical heights, where it was so easy to win territory; for in the boundless region of speculation everyone becomes a ruler who can most effectually elevate himself beyond the domain of the senses. The superhuman aspect they derived from the erection of these stupendous castles in the air concealed their poverty in the art of healing.

For Hahnemann, modern medical practitioners have stepped beyond a metaphysical boundary drawn in the proverbial sand by the divine, a hubristic infraction into the heavenly order of nature that both offends god and perpetuates disease. This anticipates arguments like those of anti-vaxx advocate Byron J. Richards, who writes that “unelected bureaucrats and scientists in our government agencies, tied financially to the profits of the drug industry and linked to the military, have been playing God for many decades. They know full well there will be deaths and injuries from vaccinations; collateral damage that is justified by prevented disease (a convenient and fear-driven argument).” Both Hahnemann and Richards believe that their contemporaries were complicit in widespread moral corruption by hubristically “playing god.” Writers like Richards capitalize on the widespread alienation from the machinery of conventional medicine, and alternative medicine subcultures (like the homeopathic and anti-vax movements) market themselves as having a kind of moral high ground over the pretensions of mainstream clinical practice.

Like Hahnemann’s homeopathic mercury tinctures, there is no evidence that chelation therapies are effective as a “treatment” for autism — they are simply a proposed response to a hypothetical source of the “disorder.” But unlike the highly diluted balms and potions used in homeopathy, the chelation and Lupron treatments that anti-vaxxers have access to are demonstrably toxic. Leuprodite (essentially a chemical castration treatment) and chelation treatments can inflict chemical injuries upon patients. Health authorities agree that chelation therapy can be harmful even in cases when it is necessary.

According to the American College of Medical Toxicology and the American Academy of Clinical Toxicology, unnecessary chelation therapy can have serious side effects, including blood pressure changes, allergies, chemical sensitivity, liver and kidney damage, and, in some cases, the death of the patient. In a 2011 article published by the Annals of Pharmacotherapy, Dennis K. Flaherty states that “the alleged autism-vaccine connection is, perhaps, the most damaging medical hoax of the last 100 years.” Various autism rights organizations, such as Aspies for Freedom, denounce the use of chelation therapy as unethical, abusive and dangerous. And yet the use of chelation therapies to treat autistic children continues.

Why do these parents elect to poison their children? In order to justify such treatments, autism must be considered the result of humanity’s immoral medical practices — a corrupting injury to the body that has to be be repaired before autistic children develop into autistic adults. Anti-vaxxer and chelation advocate Jenny McCarthy stated on Fox News that “us moms aren’t treating autism, we are treating a vaccine injury. And when you treat the vaccine injury, the autism goes away, minimizes or disappears.” For McCarthy, autism is not a benign neurological difference, but a result of chemical trauma.

Some articulate McCarthy’s sentiment that chelation “cures” autism in even more violent language. Anti-vaccination advocate Karyn Seroussi writes in her Unraveling the Mystery of Autism that “Autism is still a treacherous beast, terrible and mysterious. Killing a few of the monsters had not killed the species, only exposed its vulnerability.” Seroussi renders autism as a sort of multi-headed hydra, a chemical mistake that traumatizes children with neural debility. Like the mysterious Psora miasm described by Hahnemann, anti-vaccination discourses render autism not as a mode of human existence among many, but as a monstrous reminder of human pride that should be slain by alternative approaches to medicine and healing. These discourses are themselves harmful to autistic individuals, stigmatizing them as incomplete people, or worse, criminal outcomes unleashed by mainstream medicine’s infractions against the moral order of things.

Anti-vaxxers suppose that autistics are corrupted by the horrors of modern medicine, and that poisons are the only cure that can recover the childhood innocence that had been presumably tarnished by the machinations of industrialized medicine. Alt-biomed advocates like McCarthy arrive at a critique of the medical industrial complex only through a highly stigmatizing and violent analysis that renders the autistic as a xenobiotic, a toxic substance that is out of place within the social body, and which can only be removed by equally toxic measures.

Arguments like McCarthy’s, Seroussi’s, and Hahnemann’s empower a fantasy for parents to regain control of the means by which their children metabolize the world, challenging the exclusive power of mainstream medicine to inoculate the American public from disease. Anti-vaxxers perpetuate the notion that autism is itself a toxic trauma unleashed by the contingencies of biotechnical hubris. This notion displaces alienation that many Americans may rightly feel from industrialized medicine onto the bodies of the disabled, re-imagining disabled children as the carriers of the miasms released by the (supposed) moral crimes of modern medicine. And such conversations divert attention from infrastructural problems that marginalize disabled people and their families.

The anti-vaxx movement performs a sleight-of-hand that distracts from other criticism that might emerge from widespread alienation from industrialized medicine — that it reproduces social stigmas; forecloses access to affordable care for low-income people, immigrants, and people of color; that it is often ill-equipped to understand or treat issues faced by those with cognitive disabilities. By drawing upon a rich archive of alternative medical discourses that includes homeopathic chemistry, anti-vaxx advocates cast “autism,” a term that describes one possible form of neural embodiment, as a miasmic incursion into the moral order of things.

These arguments disparage neurodivergent life by reminding neurotypical parents of the horrifying possibility that human neural embodiment might be more various than regularly presumed. Autism comes to signify the mystery of human health and the threat posed by our incomplete control over it. The anti-vaxx movement renders autistics as moral outsiders, as mutant anomalies to the natural order of things. But their eagerness to poison their own children must be seen for what it is: not simply a tragedy the benighted inflict on their children, but a limit of the toxic liberal concept of the human itself.