Discipline and regulation of women’s bodies: a foucauldian perspective on the american fight against
In theory, abortion has been legal in the United States since 1973. In practice, more and more states are trying to ‘reverse Roe,’ as highlighted by the legislation currently being discussed in Ohio that threatens women and doctors who perform abortions with a life sentence or the death penalty.
“I am pro-life, and I have always been pro-life” repeated Donald Trump all over his presidential campaign and during the first half of his mandate. This declaration had numerous consequences: the defunding of Planned Parenthood, the expansion of the religious and conscience exemption to the Health and Human Services Department, and state measures to restrict access to abortion.
Anti-abortion groups like to call themselves ‘pro-life’. They believe that the government has a duty to protect all forms of human life, regardless of viability or quality of life. Is there a connection between this language and the shift, presented by Michel Foucault in his History of Sexuality (1976), from the power of death, characteristic of the sovereign power, to the “calculated management of life” of the modern era?
According to Foucault, the nineteenth century saw the development of techniques used to subjugate bodies and control the population. “Knowledge-power” became an “agent of transformation of human life”. It was the advent of bio-power, characterized by the rising importance of norms and the fact that law functions increasingly as a norm. A norm is oriented to the execution of a particular action, it carries an ‘ought-to’ message. Norms, hence, provide constant regulatory and corrective processes in order to manage life.
Since 2010, thirty-eight states have passed more than 300 abortion restrictions. And, today, six states have only one abortion clinic: Kentucky, West Virginia, Wyoming, South Dakota, North Dakota and Mississippi. Making it difficult to access abortion providers, those laws and the closure of hospitals do not directly say that abortion is not something desirable but aim to discipline and regulate the American people by managing what they can actually do.
Despite Donald Trump’s pro-life orientation, the fight against abortion is not equally virulent in all states. Each state has different ways of letting access to abortion (varying time limits, whether women must consult a second physician, undergo a mandatory waiting period or have a mandatory ultrasound etc.).
I am therefore left to imagine that women who have the physical and economic capacities to travel will do so, in order to get an abortion, if it is too complicated to get this service in their state of origin. Thus, the bio-power targeting abortion mainly limits access for women with fewer resources. This does not mean that they are going to carry their pregnancies to term. Homemade methods and illegal drugs are still used to abort anyways, sometimes at the expense of the woman’s health or even life.
Given that women’ right to control their bodies was constitutionally secured by the Supreme Court forty-five years ago, some women and feminists organizations are willing to fight to conserve this hard-won right.
The actions pursued by the pro-life movement in the US are, then, not efficient in terms of bio-power. Foucault tells us that bio-power aims at making “people” and a “population”. It ideally results in docile bodies and a “well-managed population”. Yet, the impact of laws and judicial cases willing to act as a bio-power to restrict access to abortion, is too unequal on the American population, and it creates dissension and protests, which is the exact opposite of what is a “well-managed population”.
Further, I believe that the pro-life movement’s goal is not to protect life. The main argument of the group is that life starts at conception, thus having an abortion is murder. However, the term ‘protection’, in its essence, means to defend someone against a danger or a risk, to preserve someone. An unwanted pregnancy has, most of the time, a detrimental impact on a woman’s mental and/or physical health. During the first trimester – when most abortions take place – the fetus is attached by the placenta and umbilical cord to the mother, and it cannot be regarded as an independent entity, as its health entirely depends on the mother’s. Therefore, prohibiting abortion is merely an attack on the life of a woman because it endangers her health.
When it comes to life-management, the pro-life organizations do no better. The absence of viable alternatives to abortion will, indeed, result in the creation of another life. That life will not be very useful to society in its early years, whereas the woman who gave birth is. A woman carrying an unwanted pregnancy suffers from it. Thus, it might impact negatively her productivity or contribution to the community. This does not appear to be very rational for a “calculated management of life”.
My wish for the debate around abortion in the US is, then, that protagonists do not get fooled by words. The pro-life movement is not at all in favor of life; it is, rather, anti-choice. New laws, public protests, and the closure of medical facilities work against women’s emancipation. Forcing a woman to continue a pregnancy is also a step on a path towards a greater domination of female bodies by the government: what about forced sterilization or forced contraception? Is it something really desirable for the American future?