Reproductive Politics, Biopolitics and Auto-immunity: From Foucault to Esposito


The contingent cultural, epistemological and ontological status of biology is highlighted by changes in attitudes towards reproductive politics in the history of feminist movements. Consider, for example, the American, British, and numerous European instances of feminist sympathy for eugenics at the turn of the century. This amounted to a specific formation of the role, in late nineteenth and early twentieth century feminisms, of concepts of biological risk and defence, which were transformed into the justificatory language of rights claims. In this context, one can ask how reproductive politics are to be fitted into the paradoxical relationship between biopolitics and thanatopolitics discussed by Michel Foucault and more recently by Roberto Esposito. In this context, “reproductive life,” can be thought of arising at the intersection of thanapolitics and biopolitics as these relate to women’s bodies. Revisiting Foucault and Esposito in the light of reproductive politics also allows a reconsideration of the paradoxical feminist aims involved in defending individual rights by reference to overall biopolitical interest and futurity.

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  1. 1.

    See “The Anti-Feminists” in Evans 1976 (175–205), for more on early twentieth century anti-feminist arguments that feminism would have a negative impact on the population. He describes what he sees as the BDF’s response in setting up a “Commission on Population Policy” (Evans 1976, 186).

  2. 2.

    She argued that it offered a new, “corporeal” version of liberalism—for his discussion of this view in her 1914 essay, Gedanken zur Jugendbewegung II, see Repp (2000a).

  3. 3.

    (“What we consider ‘perverse,’ ‘inverted’ is the intervention of a third party or of the state in one’s private life.”) For a discussion of this issue see also Herlitzius (1995, 348).

  4. 4.

    As Allen comments, identifying the problematic reading she counters: “Despite their critical, even iconoclastic attitudes toward the mainstream feminist movement, these feminists have often been identified by modern historians of the women’s movement as outstanding representatives of a more general trend—the decline of German feminism and its capitulation to the reactionary political climate of the prewar and wartime years” (Allen 1988, 31).

  5. 5.

    In France during the Nazi occupation, abortion was punished with the death penalty; in Germany, the unauthorized abortionist could be so subject. In Britain one could receive the death penalty for participation in abortion from 1803–1861 under the Ellenborough Act.

  6. 6.

    See his reference to policies in China, “causing the abortion of a large number of those who would have become future women,” and his stress on a new extreme of sovereign power—Nazi regulation of reproduction—as the capacity “to nullify life in advance“ (Esposito 2008, 6, 145).


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Correspondence to Penelope Deutscher.

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Deutscher, P. Reproductive Politics, Biopolitics and Auto-immunity: From Foucault to Esposito. Bioethical Inquiry 7, 217–226 (2010).

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  • Feminist ethics
  • Reproductive ethics
  • Biopolitics
  • Foucault
  • Eugenics