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  • Boundaries and Border Wars:DES, Technology, and Environmental Justice
  • Julie Sze (bio)

According to a recent study, newborn babies in the United States absorb an average of 200 industrial chemicals and pollutants into their bodies via their mothers' wombs. The umbilical cord blood contains pesticides, consumer product ingredients (Teflon, stain and oil repellants from fast food packaging, clothes, and textiles), and wastes from coal, gasoline, and garbage. 1 Even in a highly polluted society, the extent to which newborns come into the world with a "human body burden" comes as disturbing revelation for environmental activists and health researchers. From a cultural perspective, these findings raise questions about the impact of industrial production on the human body, especially in pregnancy. That newborns enter the world marked by pollution highlights the contradiction between the idealized notion that babies are innocent and pure and the reality that they are born in and of the toxic soup that comprises the post–World War II landscape of pesticides, chemicals, and plastics. In other words, polluted babies are troubling creatures because they collapse the boundaries of the bodily and the natural with the technological, the man-made, and the synthetic.

Arguably, the first well-known example of the problems of synthetic intervention during pregnancy and childbirth arose with the widespread use of diethylstilbestrol (DES), a man-made estrogen created in 1938 by Englishman Charles Dodds. It was "a novel and a daring product" that produced the same feminizing effects as estrogens derived from plants and animals but was three times more powerful. 2 DES was a man-made version of a "natural" hormone presumed, because it was derived "from nature," to be beneficial. In reality, DES was toxic for the main populations to whom it was given: women and livestock animals. Between 4 and 6 million women in the United States from 1948 to 1971 were prescribed DES to prevent miscarriages. 3 For women, it was promoted by pharmaceutical companies and prescribed by doctors as a "miracle drug," also used to treat menopause, to dry up breast milk in non-nursing [End Page 791] mothers, as a "morning after" contraceptive, to prevent girls from growing "too tall," and to aid male-to-female transsexuals before sex change operations. 4 It was also standard practice for farmers to give DES to chickens, cows, and other livestock because they grew fat, their meat became succulent, and males were chemically castrated. 5 Mothers given DES during pregnancy were later suspected of having higher risk of breast cancer, and DES-exposed children proved to have higher risks of various cancers and genital abnormalities, representing the first known human occurrence of transplacental carcinogenesis (cancer-causing effects) due to in utero exposure. 6

How do human and animal bodies interact with technology, and how do these interactions illuminate the contested terrain between technology and environmental studies? The traditional opposition of technology/machine or environment/nature is explicitly rejected by Donna Haraway in her influential account of the cyborg. 7 Building upon Haraway's articulation of the cyborg as a cybernetic hybrid of organism and machine, this essay argues for an American studies analysis of DES and a revision of the cyborg concept through the framework of "technologically polluted bodies." This analysis complicates hybridity, purity, and nature as cultural concepts in technological and environmental studies. 8 If, as Jacques Ellul argued in 1964 in his influential The Technological Society that technology is the "stake of the century," then the forms of the technologically polluted bodies (both women and animals) that I discuss are the stakes of this new century, and need serious cultural analysis from the perspectives of technology and environmental studies. 9

DES offers a unique prism to understand nature's social construction through technology and the human body, as opposed to the wilderness as the idealized site of "nature" in environmental studies. Environmental historians have questioned the centrality of the idea of "nature" as pristine green space absent of people, and the racial and gendered implications of this construction. 10 The emerging social movement and academic field of environmental justice offers another challenge to the "nature of nature" as a category unmarked by race or class. At the core of the...