Laura Potts



The first world conference on breast cancer, held in Kingston, Ontario, in July 1997, provided a unique opportunity for activists, concerned about the possible links between breast cancer and the environment, to share their concerns in an international forum, with oncologists, radiologists, epidemiologists, survivors and alternative therapists. It also clearly exposed the fracture lines between competing discourses of risk and responsibility, between groups charged with a duty to protect and to care - health professionals, epidemiologists, statutory bodies, and those taking on those duties - generally activists, from environmental, feminist and survivor groups. These lines were even more clearly drawn at the second world conference in summer 1999 in Ottawa, particularly by the popular and medical media, which chose to stress the ‘radical’ (i.e. ‘dubious’) claims of many of the papers which considered breast cancer risks from the environment. The fundamental question that concerns me here is an explicitly ethical one: if we must act to prevent harm (and presuming for the moment the not uncontroversial assumption that disease is a harm), that is to say, if we are to act morally, then what counts as necessary and sufficient evidence to act? This, I think, is the ethical dimension to activism neglected or hidden in other formulations; Cuomo, for instance, defines activism as “conscious, purposeful, political activity” (1996:43), which seems to ignore the sense of moral duty and responsibility that characterises confrontational activity from the margins and which I want to consider here.

Note on the Author

Laura Potts, Senior Tutor for Women’s Studies College of Ripon and York, York, U.K.