Interview with Professor Anna Kirkland, University of Michigan

On Tuesday, May 2, 2017, the Rockefeller Center hosted a public talk by Dr. Kirkland, titled “Vaccine Courts: The Law and Politics of Injury.” Prior to this talk, Nikita Bakhru ’17 sat down with Anna Kirkland for an interview.

Anna Kirkland, J.D., Ph.D., is the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, Associate Professor of Women’s Studies and Political Science, and Associate Director of the Institute for Research on Women and Gender (IRWG) at the University of Michigan. She is the author of Fat Rights: Dilemmas of Difference and Personhood (New York University Press, 2008) and co-editor with Jonathan Metzl of Against Health: How Health Became the New Morality (New York University Press, 2010). In her new book, Vaccine Court: The Law and Politics of Injury (New York University Press, 2016), Kirkland explores how activists and government actors come to know, identify, and compensate for vaccine injuries, and what recent debates over vaccine safety reveal about democratic engagement with volatile scientific questions in the contemporary United States. Recent articles include also “Power and Persuasion in the Vaccine Debates: An Analysis of Political Efforts and Outcomes in the States, 1998-2012,” “Credibility Battles in the Autism Litigation,” “The Legitimacy of Vaccine Critics: What’s Left after Autism?” and “The Environmental Account of Obesity: A Case for Feminist Skepticism.”

Nikita Bakhru (NB): As you’ve described in your latest book, the vaccine court is a small special court in the Court of Federal Claims that handles controversial claims that a vaccine has harmed someone. Lawyers, activists, judges, doctors, and scientists come together, trying to figure out whether a vaccine really caused a person’s medical problem. What inspired your interest in the vaccine court?

Anna Kirkland (AK): I’m a sociolegal scholar with an interdisciplinary degree as well as a law degree because I’m interested in law’s social and cultural aspects. Lately, I’ve become really interested in the politics behind health and so when I was deciding on my next project, I knew I wanted something that would bring together law and health controversies. After that, vaccine was an obvious option. I started reading the decisions of the vaccine court in the autism cases, when they decided that autism was not a vaccine injury. Those decisions started to come out in 2009 and were hundreds of pages long, summarizing hours and hours of testimony in which you can see how the judges really tried to wrestle with scientific evidence. Seeing this really sparked my interest in how we, as a democratic society, come to figure out and settle these disputes. I couldn’t believe that no one else had written a book about it! There’s actually little scholarship on this topic.

NB: After you completed your work on the vaccine court, you more recently received a National Science Foundation grant to study the organizational handling of rights claims against sex discrimination in health care settings under the Affordable Care Act – could you elaborate on what your research entails?

AK: The grant is for me to study the implementation of Section 1557, which is the anti-discrimination clause in the Affordable Care Act. The thing that was new there was that it added sex discrimination for the first time. We had employment discrimination law, but this is healthcare patient-provider interactions, patient accessibility, and patient treatment… So this is an entirely different realm. Last summer, these regulations came down on any organization that had 15 employees or more and received federal funding. We know from past research already that implementation and compliance to new regulations varies widely and by ideology. My project looks at Catholic hospitals, Baptist hospitals, public hospitals, ambulatory surgical centers and community hospitals in progressive states – California and New York, specifically – with high levels of acceptance for ideas such as transgender rights and in more conservative states – Alabama and Michigan. In all of these scenarios, the big question is: what do they think sexual discrimination in the healthcare setting is?

NB: Based on your research thus far, how have you seen sexual discrimination manifest itself in the healthcare setting?

AK: I have pulled a lot of complaints already that have been made in these settings. One example is a man who went into a hospital with domestic violence injuries from his girlfriend and was made fun of by the nurses. They didn’t activate their domestic violence protocol and said things to him like “What is she? The Incredible Hulk?” In that case, violence wasn’t taken seriously because he was a man – clear discrimination. Some other complaints came from transgender people, one of who had a nurse grab her breasts and ask “are these real?”

NB: How do you see debates such as the ones we’ve discussed evolving in the future?

AK: It’s all political – from the top to bottom. One thing I’ve seen is that many people are no longer even willing to have these debates. When someone doesn’t acknowledge the evidence and instead continues to assert the same thing they’ve been saying, there is no debate. There is a philosopher I cite in my book who calls that “dialogic irrationality” – a refusal to acknowledge things that demand a response. But, this just makes institutions we have, such as the vaccine court, all the more important. These institutions force conversation and a response, which I think is the right direction for us to move in.

-Written by Niki Bakhru '17, Rockefeller Center Student Program Assistant for Communications

The views and opinions expressed and any materials presented during a public program are the speaker’s own and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of the Rockefeller Center or constitute an endorsement by the Center.