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Even in the frozen center of Massachusetts winter, my college campus was ripe for the blood harvest. Red Cross banners were everywhere, always. I felt compelled to volunteer myself in part because it seemed such a blameless cause that I could think of no reason not to, and easy charity is de rigeuer for the college kid. But the first time I tried to sign up for an appointment, I was turned away. Somebody I vaguely knew — a student liaison for the Red Cross — looked up at me from behind a table in our echoing humid dining hall and told me, without asking my weight, that I wasn’t heavy enough to give blood. My winter coat dwarfed me, but she was still right: The Red Cross asks that donors be 110lbs, and I weighed only 100.

What bullshit, I thought, trudging back to my dorm in the snow.  What they take isn’t going to kill me.

After a couple of days of ruminating on the matter, I signed up online to give blood, where the filters were less exacting.

It was snowing the day I showed up for my appointment, bundled in a couple of sweaters and my thickest coat. Immediately I scanned the function hall serving as the donation center for any sign of a scale. There weren’t any, so far as I could tell, and I figured they couldn’t strip me out of enough combined winter gear to tip them off to the truth, especially with the haphazard slapping-tapping way rushed nurses tend to manipulate those balance beam scales.

They asked me questions behind a little cardboard cubicle. Where had I traveled to recently? When was I born? Within the past year, had I had sex with anyone in exchange for money? How much did I weigh? I was scrupulously honest up until that last question; I lied by eleven pounds. The nurse looked me over and asked me when I had last weighed myself. Last week, I said. She dutifully documented it, and led me to a table, where I laid down on my back.

As my blood blackened a clear thin tube dangling from my elbow, a promotional tape played on a pull-down screen at the far end of the function hall. A woman narrator said that my blood — my blood — could save up to three lives. An image appeared of those clean chrome and plastic rooms in maternity wards where they store all the identical wrinkled newborns in clear bins like new products in an Apple Store. Pink caps, blue caps. Every foot with a sock. I thought: my blood, three lives.

I was aware that it was no longer mine as it passed through the tight threshold of the needle embedded in my elbow. I began to think that perhaps the excess never had been. Top 40 hits played softly on some stereo, and I remembered John the Baptist’s elegant response to that wildly repercussive question: What then should we do? Be content with enough and share excess, John said. Don’t hoard more than what sustains you. I was nonetheless troubled by the fact that I had lied.

My vision grew hazy, and a middle-aged nurse in pale blue scrubs smiled down at me, then bent at the waist to check that my blood wasn’t coagulating. She asked me something in a soothing tone; I answered. After a moment she pressed some gauze to my elbow and withdrew the needle, and as I watched her bandage my arm I flushed a little with shame at having misrepresented myself. I hadn’t lied to her personally, but close enough.

The blood, now destined for some other vein, was pinched off in a dull little bag and capped. After a few moments I sat up on the table and lowered myself to the floor, and then went back out into the snow.

*  *  *

It was a long winter thick with white storms. At the time I was employed by my university three times over: as a tutor for English language learners, a teaching assistant, and a research assistant. For the former two positions I was awarded a tiny office in the bowels of the library, though I used it mostly to carry out duties in the latter capacity. The day after my voluntary bloodletting, I twisted my key in the frozen lock of my office and settled down to edit a paper written by a professor of mine about a second century Christian text that didn’t make the Biblical cut. Like many non-canonical books, The Acts of Andrew has been the subject of much scholarship, and like many fringe works of the Christian tradition, it’s bizarre.

The story, or a version of it, goes like this: A Roman noblewoman named Maximilla wants to follow the pro-celibacy teachings of the Christian preacher Andrew, but her lascivious pagan husband Aigeates will have none of it. To escape her conjugal duties, Maximilla teaches her slave Euklia to masquerade as her in the bedroom, in return for gifts and the promise of freedom. For roughly eight months, things go as planned: Maximilla has her purity, Aigeates has his sex, and Euklia has her perks. But things go awry, secrets are leaked, alliances are disrupted, and in the end, Euklia is executed brutally for her insubordination. Aigeates kills himself, Andrew is martyred, and Maximilla lives out her honored days Christian and celibate.

I recall thinking it was grim even for early Christian fare, and at the time I was steeped thoroughly in the stuff. My own academic projects centered on Saint Augustine, and when I wasn’t sifting through his letters, I was manually checking every reference in the sprawling bibliography of my professor’s paper on Andrew. I did all of this in the library, usually late at night or on weekends, when the staff was scarce and the lights in the early Christianity section, which I suppose relied on faulty motion detectors, were usually switched off. I read the spines of ancient texts with the light of my phone, and eventually brought in a small flashlight that I looped under my bra strap so I could tug volumes down with both hands.

In the cold quiet of my office my mind wandered. I began to compare my illicit blood donation with Maximilla and Euklia respectively: Was I disengaging from the lowly realm of the body, like Maximilla, or was I suffering a little sin to ensure the salvation of another, like Euklia? Which was really laudable, speaking strictly in the frame of Christian ethics? When I carried the heavy stacks of books back to my office, I felt the little puncture wound pull and ache. I resolved to give again, and when the opportunity came, I did: I lied all over again, donated all over again, and took up the ethical question again, without resolution.

Winter thawed. I finished my work on the paper on Andrew, but my preoccupation with the ethics of the body remained. I shelved it to graduate, and I did not return to it again until late summer in Texas, in the midst of a measles outbreak.

*  *  *

North Texas is broad and flat with low-lying shrubs and a few wizened, dry trees that grow silvery in the summertime. I was born here, and left for college with the intention of ducking out permanently. I returned for the summer only to gather up the remnants of my life that remain here before moving to the United Kingdom for graduate school. My intention was to lay low and work through the oppressive heat, but on August 16th, the Texas Department of Health issued a measles outbreak alert, returning my attention to The Acts of Andrew by way of plague.

August in Texas is a wicked month in general, suffocating in its hot intensity, often humid, and incredibly long. But this one has been especially cruel: as of the 24th, there have been twenty-five confirmed cases of measles in the Dallas area alone, with fifteen of them linked to a mega-church run by the daughter of anti-vaccination televangelist Kenneth Copeland.

Those listening closely during the 2012 Republican presidential primaries could easily have detected the scent of this particular brand of pestilence. Christian anti-vaccination sentiment simmered under Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum’s criticism of Texas governor Rick Perry’s 2007 attempt to mandate the HPV vaccination for all sixth-grade girls. Perry was excoriated for it on the home front as well, and the act was summarily overturned. He later apologized, and since then various religious authorities, including some Canadian Catholic bishops, have banned the HPV vaccine in their localities. Most Christians who fought the HPV vaccine mandate feared that it would encourage sexual promiscuity, hearkening back to medieval visions of disease as divine retribution. Others objected to “government injections” into otherwise pure little girls.

More general critiques of vaccination dominate evangelical ministries like the one linked to the measles outbreak still ongoing in North Texas. Kim Medlin, the chapter director of Arizona’s branch of the Vaccination Liberation group, published a very long scriptural screed against vaccines on the organization’s website in 2011. In her essay, Medlin covers the breadth of evangelical objections to vaccines:

What is lovely about having animal DNA, aborted human fetal tissue and foreign animal viruses, suspended in a cocktail of the most toxic substances known to man, injected into the body so it can find its way into the bloodstream?

Science makes few appearances in Christian anti-vaccine rhetoric, and when it does, it’s only as a cloak over principled religious concerns. Bachmann, Santorum, Medlin and their ilk call upon the specter of toxicity, the incursion of government, and the temptation of sexual promiscuity to evoke a recurring Christian terror of bodily impurity, the sort that The Act of Andrew’s Maximilla must have experienced, if she lived. Faced with the decision between impurity or holiness, Maximilla chose holy celibacy, but not at her own expense: Euklia endured the sexual advances of lewd Aigeates on her behalf. There was no net reduction of impurity; Maximilla merely passed the buck.

And so it goes with vaccines, it seems. For some of us to live on in purity, untainted by the evils of government or illicit materials organic or inorganic, others must suffer those impurities themselves or, worse, the ravages of disease. Herd immunity conferred by vaccination generally protects the unvaccinated, but outbreaks do happen. While the healthy unvaccinated children of wealthy parents may well survive the mumps, measles, or rubella, their infant siblings, elderly grandparents, immunocompromised relatives and pregnant neighbors may not be so lucky. It is never for the young and vigorous that we sit still for the needle; it’s for the mother who works too many hours for too little pay to shuttle her child to doctor’s visits for booster shots, or for the gentleman sharing the subway handrail with us who happens to have a weakened immune system.

It’s for that same reason that I lied, and continue to lie, even to the kind nurses who draw my blood, though I imagine sometimes that I do not lie directly to them, but to an impersonal online database. Excess clothes and food and money are promised to the needy not for their own merit, but because of what they confer: warmth, health, sustenance, another day of life. Blood at the cost of a lie and immunity at the cost of purity follow in that same vein, and constitute a nobler sacrifice, in my mind, than any faith lived at another person’s expense.

Slowly, dimly, some evangelicals seem to be following that line of thought. Kenneth Copeland wrote to his daughter’s congregation as recently as August 21st to urge emergency measles vaccinations, declaring them “sanctified” in the eyes of God. Dozens were vaccinated on the occasion of Copeland’s letter, though notably for their own imminent benefit. In a more perfect world one would make the decision to protect the lives of others without their own life held at needlepoint, but a charitable onlooker can chalk up good behavior under dire circumstances to a change of heart rather than strategy. It is precisely that sort of charity that has always protected the exceedingly pure, and it’s my suspicion that it will continue to, through bleeding liars and nighttime wives, and those who get the dirty shots.

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Elizabeth Stoker ELIZABETH STOKER is a Marshall Scholar studying Christian ethics at the University of Cambridge. Her work on inequality, gender, and Christianity has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Atlantic, and Salon. You can follow her on twitter.

4 Responses to “The Dirty Shot”

  1. JJ Keith says:

    I have been scouring the internet for different takes on the increasing rabidity of the anti-vax movement and was so happy to find this right under my nose at TNB. This was so lovely and measured. I love writing that takes something complicated and distills it down into the smallest but broadest truths. Well done.

    • Thanks so much for reading, JJ, and for your kind words. I’m very glad you found something of value to you here. The anti-vax movement is such a complex (and as you point out, mounting) movement, but I did worry the topic was a little, well, dry — so I’m glad to know it was helpful to you.

  2. Bruce Bromley says:

    Such a superb and superbly shaped piece–thank you.

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