Dr Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park
Just because science makes something seem possible, does that mean we should do it? Of course not, as this astonishing video about post-war DDT use shows:
It certainly seemed plausible, and so governments invested in giant industrial complexes that churned out tons of chemicals for use in agriculture and city sanitation. US Public Health Department films show DDT being sprayed on happy children eating sandwiches in a public park, on others splashing in the municipal swimming pool, on mothers holding babies while watching community events.
The chemists were going to eradicate the insect pest. And, despite the fact that one of the insecticides used, tetraethylpyrophosphate (TEPP), was nothing but the refined essence of a German nerve gas compound, it apparently never occurred to them that these pesticides could harm other organisms too.
Another post-war civil use of chemistry was the augmentation of women’s breasts. Doctors had been trying it for decades, but our new chemical abilities changed the game. The creation of silicone led to injections of a newly-created chemical: liquid silicone to enhance breasts. The result was, in many cases, a need for mastectomy (this 1995 article in the Journal of Plastic Surgery shows the problem has persisted).
In 1962 the Dow Corning corporation began to offer breast implants with silicone shells (PDF). There are now many manufacturers of these prosthetics, and millions of women have had them implanted.
But let’s be clear, there are downsides. Here’s one disclaimer I found, on the website www.femaleplasticsurgeons.com:
If you are undergoing breast augmentation, be aware that breast implantation may not be a one time surgery. You are likely to need additional surgery and visits to your female plastic surgeon over the course of your life. Breast implants are not considered lifetime devices. You will likely under go implant removal with or without replacement over the course of your life. Many of the changes to your breast following implantation are irreversible (cannot be undone). If you later choose to have your implant(s) removed, you may experience unacceptable dimpling, puckering, wrinkling, or other cosmetic changes of the breast. Ask your female plastic surgeon about replacement issues. Breast implants may affect your ability to produce milk for breast feeding. Also, breast implants will not prevent your breast from sagging after pregnancy. With breast implants, routine screening mammography will be more difficult, and you will need to have additional views, which means more time and radiation. For patients who have undergone breast implantation either as a cosmetic or a reconstructive procedure, health insurance premiums may increase, coverage may be dropped, and/or future coverage may be denied. Treatment of complications may not be covered as well. You should check with your insurance company regarding these coverage issues.
It's admirably clear. What it doesn’t say is that, having risked all of the above, the surgery might not do the job you were hoping it would.
The medical literature (see here and here, for instance) says there is no evidence that breast augmentation surgery improves self-esteem. Women who have it are more satisfied with their breasts – but not with their general appearance.
Worse, as I wrote in the New Statesman this week (and I didn’t call for a ban, as the headline suggests), those seeking the surgery tend to be more vulnerable, with a range of psychological issues – issues that get worse, not better, after surgery. Add to that the fact that women who have had cosmetic breast surgery are around three times more likely to commit suicide than women who haven’t.
It seemed like a good idea to spray America with DDT in order to get rid of insects. Then we discovered that it was destroying the natural world. There was an outcry and the practice was halted.
There needs to be an outcry (not a ban) over breast augmentation surgery. Of course the issues run deep. We have a problem with the objectification of, and expectations placed upon, women by others, whether it be the mass media or porn-fed husbands and boyfriends. And, yes, there is a danger that any tightening of regulation would result in women getting surgery on the black market and coming to harm. But let’s be clear, harm is already being done.