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Defending Abortion Without “Rights”

A Review of Penelope Deutscher, Foucault’s Futures: A Critique of Reproductive Reason

In Foucault’s Futures, Penelope Deutscher stages critical discussions between Foucault and his critics and intellectual descendants, bringing reproduction into focus as an issue of biopolitics. The “future” of Foucault is contained in two questions: first, in what sense is reproduction present in Foucault’s work and how has it eluded or shaped secondary literature on Foucault? Second, how does biopolitics produce reproduction, and what future does reproduction guarantee or endanger? Deutscher commits from the start to a Foucaultian interpretation of biopolitics as a mode of power which seeks to manage and promote life through depoliticized methods (like “health”), placing the responsibility for well-being on the individual (as opposed to state institutions). This initial definition guides her methodological project of bringing out the “suspended reserves” or even failures of Foucault, as negative spaces for constructive theorization. Deutscher develops the stakes of reproduction as itself biopolitical in the latter half of the book, building a critique of the feminist paradigm of reproductive rights. Foucault’s two futures “interpenetrate”, moving in and out of focus in a way that parallels Deutscher’s interpretation of Foucault’s genealogy. These intersecting energies underscore the possibilities for new avenues of feminist, Foucaultian, and biopolitical research and critique.

The first two chapters establish Deutscher’s methodology and lay the groundwork for the heart of her argument in her third chapter. Emerging from her rereading of The History of Sexuality vol. 1, she argues that reproduction is more than the production of life, more than a resource harnessed to serve the ends of “nationalism, race hierarchy, colonialism, slavery, and genocide” (65). Rather, “it also produces female subjects understood as having the capacity to propagate death (to futures, races, peoples, and nations) through reproductive transmission, a possibility presupposing the legibility of procreation both as a conduct and also as the conduct of a conduct Foucault called governmentality.” That is, reproduction produces the subjects of procreation — women — and isolates them as uniquely responsible for “futures, races, peoples, and nations.” This illustrates a biopolitical sense of reproduction, which figures procreation as simultaneously the apparent free conduct of the individual (“choice”), and a mode by which the life of peoples and populations can be managed and manipulated.

Deutscher uses the History of Sexuality to distinguish, provisionally, between sexuality and procreation. She reconstructs Foucault’s critique of the repressive hypothesis as the “procreative hypothesis” to show that “the making of perverse sexualities is also a making of hysterical, absent, or failed, irresponsible, harmful, or deadly mothers” (71). She argues that procreation is highly present in History of Sexuality, as the logic underlying the creation of perversions — perversion is perverse because it impedes procreation.

Deutscher builds from her interpretation of the “procreative hypothesis” to elaborate the conditions which produce procreation as moral, agential conduct that is the special responsibility of women. Foucault’s famous elision of sexual difference is brought to the fore, as Deutscher engages with his genealogical analysis of the creation of perversion as a problem for families and parents in his lectures (mainly in Abnormal and Psychiatric Power). She develops a complex account of the different forms of power at play in creating perversion, but also the family as a social formation that functions to produce normalized children. We see sovereign, disciplinary, and biopolitical modes of power convene in a way that both elevates and subjugates “the mother” as “among other things, a multiplicity of techniques, operations, individualizations, statistics, trends, risk factors, forms of human capital” (90).

This is a crystallization of Deutscher’s project and a sign of her fidelity to a genealogical interpretation of Foucault: she remains true to her complex interpretation of Foucault’s modalities of power as interpenetrating and overlapping, resisting any impulse to neatly categorize motherhood or reproduction as just disciplinary, or just biopolitical. This ambiguity about the mother is elevated to a threat under biopolitical regimes. This evokes the necessary underside of biopolitics: the thanatopolitical, the threat of death concurrent with procreation and life. In light of this duality of the mother, Deutscher insists that we do not yet know what “procreation” is — it is enmeshed with other figures, relations, and distinctions that prevent “procreation” from being understood as uniquely graspable on a biological level, or as uniquely associated with “life.” This chapter is a key contribution to Foucault studies and feminism. Her recuperation of the mother, procreation, and sexual difference essentially changes Foucault’s feminist legacy and opens up the possibility for additional work by Foucaultians and feminists alike. Her Foucaultian rejection of natural, biological “procreation” challenges the foundation of a breadth of feminist literature on pregnancy, maternity, and reproductive rights.

The rest of Foucault’s Futures develops the implications of reproduction as the work of death. In chapter four, Deutscher turns to Agamben to expand her definition of the biopolitical. She argues for a “specific factoring of (bio)politicized reproduction as a depoliticization, and one that accompanies the political history of women’s entry into the history of rights bearing” (138). Agamben is notably critical of Foucaultian biopolitics, and his own work is in many ways deeply opposed to a Foucaultian-genealogical analysis. In Homo Sacer he develops a distinct language of sovereignty, bare life, and the relation of exceptionality between them, as the fundamental features of the biopolitical. Deutscher goes beyond current feminist debates on Agamben — is the womb like the camp? Is fetal life bare life, or is maternal life bare life? —  and reveals the instability at the base of liberal defenses of reproductive rights. Instead, Deutscher builds a novel reading, with and beyond Agamben, honing in on the specificity of woman’s precarious political status on the basis of their juridical rights.

In her concluding chapter, Deutscher makes an apparent “ethical turn” to develop the concept of “ontological tact.” She uses Judith Butler’s later work on precarity and grievability to explore the intersections of ethical discourses and the availability of medical services in constructing some women as “moral” subjects who make difficult personal decisions whether to get an abortion. She challenges the construction of abortion as a moral decision: “[t]he language of reproductive choice also produces categories of those whose reproduction is assumed to be coerced, unenlightened, those for whom choice is assumed to be unavailable or irrelevant or whose agency might not be legible as choice” (187). However, a contradictory, perhaps feminist, construction of abortion as entirely medical evades its complex and contingent social meaning, and therefore its ramifications for individual women. “Ontological tact” is a way of constructing, on a case-by-case basis, an account of the “life” or personhood of a fetus, or of the fetus as “medical waste,” depending on the needs of individual women and without committing to any moral narrative (even that of choice) as superior.

Deutscher makes an important and difficult point: feminist debate on abortion and choice either falls in line with the moralizing paradigm set out by pro-life positions, or relies on the depoliticized language of medicine and health. Both arguments are overdetermined by our biopolitical context, and, without reflection on the changing stakes of the abortion debate, both are reductive and reactionary. However, “ontological tact” is more like a best-practice for feminist abortion providers, or an intellectualized self-rationalization, than a useful concept for feminist philosophy. A constructive way to read “ontological tact” would be as an example of the difficulties that lie ahead for feminist defenses of abortion and new theories of reproductive freedom. Crucially, the concept evokes the following question: what kind of reproductive politics can resist the depoliticized logic of biopolitics?

Without comment or definition, Deutscher uses a variation of “dehiscence” five times throughout the book. As a technical scientific term, it means to “gape or burst open.” A wound dehisces, as well as a seed pod. The former sounds unpleasant and messy, perhaps dangerous, and the latter is fecund. This polysemy allows her to avoid committing to an obvious metaphor of birth, parentage, or linear generation. Dehiscence is at first a strikingly unusual term, but Deutscher justifies it through her analysis. It is emblematic of the Foucault she describes and channels, evident in how she reveals “reproduction” as a latent concern throughout his writing on sexuality and biopolitics. It shows that once we begin to pay philosophical attention to reproduction as biopolitical, its critical significance expands and multiplies almost instantly.

As a feminist scholar, Deutscher is unique in demonstrating the specific importance of sexual difference in Foucault’s own account. I was reticent at first about her focus on reproductive rights, and abortion. This is well-worn feminist ground already shown to present a narrow perspective on reproductive freedom. However, she develops a novel critique of the paradigm of reproductive rights under biopolitics. She models a feminist genealogical analysis that can critically confront the unprecedented ethical quandaries of new practices like gestational surrogacy and egg donation, without losing their historical and political connection to the familiar territory of legal abortion and the “mother.”

Juniper Alcorn is a PhD candidate in Philosophy at the New School for Social Research.

Juniper Alcorn

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