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'The proof is in my chromosomes': Translating radiation exposure into legal liability and state culpability.

Fri, August 31, 9:00 to 10:30am, ICC, E3.3


This paper engages with the question of proof in medical, bureaucratic and legal settings. Ethnographically it explores the quest for governmental compensation and health care made by UK and New Zealand military veterans of the British nuclear testing programme. In 2005 a cytogenetic study showed that New Zealand test veterans had a significantly higher rate of chromosomal abnormality (translocations) compared with a control sample. The study’s authors and test veterans argued that this provided conclusive proof of the veterans’ radiation exposure and the continued risk this posed to their health. I begin by exploring how the study shifted the ways in which test veterans conceived of themselves as individuals and as a collective through the lens of molecular personhood, which in turn transformed how they understood and approached illness, the law and the state. I then utilise the concept of translation to follow the study’s reception and evaluation in courts of law, governmental expert committees, and in policy settings. I argue that the study findings failed to translate into effective proof for the veterans because of distinct and competing conceptions of state liability, individual rights and personal responsibilities, un/acceptable risk and even the very concept of illness itself.