The Moral Life of Epinephrine

Presented at the American Anthropological Association meeting, Washington, DC, December 2014

Abstract: Epinephrine auto-injectors are medication-delivering devices that allow a person to self-administer epinephrine in order to stop a severe allergic reaction. While this technology is commonplace, ongoing ethnographic field work in allergy clinics, patient support groups, and food allergy advocacy communities in the United States reveal that the moral significance of auto-injectors is a complicated matter. Access to epinephrine auto-injectors is now a rallying point for efforts to lobby for the interests of food allergic people, based on a risk calculus that equates access to these devices with safety, life, and health. Knowledge about the appropriate use of epinephrine auto-injectors and the willingness to use them when needed can signify the strength of a caretaker’s sense of obligation toward people with food allergies, especially food allergic children. In an effort to make them easier to use, a new auto-injector model literally speaks to users in a calm, robotic voice, underscoring the complicated moral status of this class of devices. Studying the varied uses and meanings of epinephrine auto-injectors offers a way to explore how medical devices can become thickly imbued with meaning within communities of users, and how such objects can subsequently anchor disease advocacy and support projects.