Birth control and Foucault

Why do conservatives who have a moral objection to abortion seem so determined to also block access to birth control? Common feminist answers to this include “they hate women” and “they want to punish women for having sex.” While it’s a totally understandable response to these dillweeds, this has always seemed a bit under-powered to me; one can merely hate women (and/or sex) without engaging in this specific strategy. Today, when the latest iteration of this came up, I realized that Foucault’s ideas of governmentality and biopower help us think about a framework in which conservatives might be working.

Governmentality is the idea that modern regimes, and particularly neoliberal ones, outsource much of the governance of their subjects to the subjects themselves, through both state and non-state power structures and institutions (the school, the prison, the medical system) that teach and enable citizens to control and discipline themselves in ways that serve the regime.

To Foucault, population is a central interest of all modern states, and the development of ‘biopower’ – the power to manage populations and the processes of life – requires the administration, organization, regulation and optimization of these processes.

In the context of governmentality and biopower, it makes sense that states have an interest in getting women to control their fertility. Subjects who reproduce at the “right” time and in the “right” ways – for example, in stable marriages with the economic means to provide for all of the child’s needs that the regime has designated the responsibility of the family – produce new subjects who do not usually create special expense or trouble for the state and its institutions.

It seems to me that the positions of US liberals and conservatives on this are fairly similar; both take as given that fertility should be regulated by individuals (or couples) according to their preferences, which are shaped and constrained by society. The end goal is modern, rational, orderly and predictable production of new citizens. The key difference is that conservatives believe that fertility regulation can and should be enacted through abstinence from sex. In this framework, unwanted births become the means of discipline by which women learn to control their sexuality. Provision of free birth control only stops people from learning the discipline they need: to not have sex if they aren’t ready to have a baby. (That this burden falls solely on women does not concern them; it’s simply an artifact of the fact that women have the relevant biological capacity that needs to be brought under control.) To liberals, on the other hand, the free birth control is the tool for the discipline people need.*

In any case, the conservative argument here, though cheaper in the short run, is bad public policy and also wrong. I can only imagine a few things that are less “pro-life” than using babies as human punishments, and that’s only because my state just voted to speed up the death penalty. Also, obviously, people are bad at not having sex.

*I haven’t thought much about whether conservatives in general tend more toward explicit individual self-regulation and liberals to solutions that simplify self-governance as much as possible, but it sounds right.