Biopolitics, Intersectionality and Reproductive Justice
Submitted By phila
Reading Response #2–Biopolitics: Population, Intersectionality and Reproductive Justice
In 1996, the Personal Responsibility Act “reformed welfare” when it created the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (Mink 196). The most significant aspect of these reforms was the fact that welfare was now designed not only to help impoverished families, specifically children, but also to “promote marriage, reduce out-of-wedlock births, and to ‘encourage the formation and maintenance of two-parent families’”(196). The Adoption Promotion Act, passed in the same year, called for “the removal of barriers to interethnic adoption,” which Ana Teresa Ortiz and Laura Briggs argue was meant to “put the children of welfare mothers . . . into white adoptive homes” (203). These two changes in welfare policy marked a significant increase in the amount of biopower wielded by the state. The importance of the health and development of children within a society had been recognized early in the 20th century when particular emphasis began to be placed on “the value of a healthy and numerous population as a national resource”(Davin 161). However, the changes in welfare policy that were enacted in the 90’s went a step beyond mere protection of children, but in order to understand this significance it is necessary to look at it within the context of American biopolitics as a whole. The term “biopolitics”–which evolved from 18th century discourses about the idea that the construction of a nation’s population does not simply reside in realm of nature but rather is something that can and should be regulated–refers to political discussions concerned with the use of “biopower,” or governing actions which control things like health, reproduction, or sanitation that directly affect the population of the state. Many uses of biopower may seem to be morally driven–welfare, social security and unemployment benefits which assist the less fortunate members of society–yet by examining the intersectionality of biopolitics, liberalism and capitalism, the reality of how biopower is used in America seems to be quite different from the rhetoric surrounding it. If we take from liberalism the concept of meritocracy and combine it with the capitalist principle that individuals have private ownership of their own labor, and therefore, control of a significant aspect of the means of production, the importance of biopolitics becomes clear: regulation of a nation’s population is important as a means to regulate the quality of and exert control over the labor force. Michel Foucault describes American neoliberalism as seeking to “extend the rationality of the market. . . to areas that are not exclusively or not primarily economic,” such as “the family and birth policy, or delinquency and penal policy” (178). When viewing governance from the perspective of people in positions of power, therefore, it would make sense to regulate the population not in order to benefit the society as a whole, but rather to maximize the benefit received by the owners of capital by controlling the labor force in such a way as to maximize profits. If you consider this way of thinking when looking at the biopolitical effects of welfare reform in the 90’s, it begins to seem like the problems caused for recipients of welfare do not, in fact, indicate failures of these policies, because the intended beneficiary of these reforms was never the families it claimed to be trying to help. If welfare policy is intended to help families in need, why is there such a promotion of marriage and two-parent families? It could be argued that this would provide a more stable family life for children which would help them to be both physically and psychologically more healthy. But if this were true, why then are there work programs, such as the one we saw in class, where recipients of welfare are sent off to work multiple low-paying jobs in suburban communities and never see their kids? Even more curious is the construction of the racialized and gendered symbol of the “crack baby.” In 1989, the news media was flooded with stories about the dangers of women who used crack cocaine during pregnancy and the terrible effects that this drug abuse had on their children. However, “the bitter irony is that none of [this] was true” and there was “virtually no evidence that cocaine during pregnancy had any negative effects on offspring” (206). Ortiz and Briggs go on to show how this crack baby epidemic produced a huge increase in the number of children taken away from black mothers, because the government urged hospitals to introduce routine cocaine screening in delivery rooms and “mothers who tested positive lost their newborns on the spot” (209). If you consider that there was little scientific reasoning for such overwhelming concern about the health of these babies, then for what reason were these policies implemented? Furthermore, why would the government aim to make it easier for white families to adopt the children of poor minorities, especially when you consider that there were already significant financial incentives for white families to adopt these babies, such as the 1980 federal Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act which gave more money to adoptive families than was provided for under the existing welfare program? This is where the intersection of biopolitics, liberalism and capitalism described earlier sheds new light on the situation as a whole. If the goal of the welfare and adoption reforms of the 1990’s was not to help families, but rather to maximize the profits of people in positions of power, it seems alarmingly more successful. Michelle Alexander describes how the war on drugs effectively created a lower caste of workers in addition to significantly increasing the number if inmates held in the prison system, and industry that has become increasingly privatized and run for profit (245). The crack baby epidemic allowed for black mothers to be imprisoned while simultaneously taking away their children and ensuring that they be raised by families who represent the status quo. Those mothers who were not drug users are further encouraged by welfare reforms to either conform to the heteronormative values of society, or to become a source of cheap labor for suburban communities. It is clear that these reforms, more than any benefit they might provide to families, benefit people in positions of power by attempting to homogenize and control minority children so that they can be incorporated into the economic system, while simultaneously providing a cheap labor source and growing a private prison industry which does little to help society, but a lot in terms of increasing the profits of interested parties.