Governed Through Choice

In Jennifer M. Denbow’s book, Governed through Choice: Autonomy, Technology, and the Politics of Reproduction, she tackles the issue of reproductive choice and its paradoxical relationship with women’s autonomy and governmental interventions, specifically in the current day in the United States. She illuminates the contradiction between how women’s autonomy is defended by politicians and the steps that they take that serve to limit this autonomy, criticising this course of action and arguing against it. She explains that women in the United States are facing more and more severe scrutiny and restrictions on their reproductive rights and choices, citing the r
ecord breaking number of laws passed in recent years to restrict abortions.

Denbow splits her book into three main arguments that uncover some of these contradictions in the political discourse that surrounds choice and autonomy. The first is that autonomy in the realm of reproductive regulation is often understood as being “proper self-governance or self-management,” and how this perspective allows for the judgement of women’s reproductive choices and is used as justification for intervention when these choices are deemed improper or irrational. The “proper” choice is the one seen as more moral or appropriate given the woman’s situation, an idea and perspective that becomes overbearing and dominant. An example of this is the idea of a woman on welfare choosing to have another child or a woman with a good income choosing not to have any children andthe judgement that these women would face for this decision, as it would be seen as the irrational or less moral choice. There is also the added legal perspective in which the “proper choice” is pushed by law, such as women facing restrictions when trying to get an abortion. For instance, the Texas sonogram law requires women to undergo a sonogram at least twenty-four hours prior to having an abortion. This law, which proponents of argued increased women’s autonomy by allowing them to make a more informed choice, actually takes away autonomy by implying that the “proper choice” is not having an abortion and that going through with it is less moral or somehow deviant. This creates a situation in which, despite the pronounced respect for “choice”, only certain “choices” are considered “correct”. The second argument is that developments in reproductive technology, such as sterilization, sonograms, and better contraceptives, have changed how reproduction is perceived, and thus how it is governed. While these developments seem to increase women’s ability to manage their reproduction and therefore increase their ability to self-govern, these changes also increase the scrutiny of their decisions because there are now perceptions of choices that are “better” or “more rational”. In the third argument, Denbow explains that there are multiple understandings of autonomy. She outlines two main understandings of autonomy. There is the traditional understanding of autonomy critiqued by Denbow in the first argument that explains proper self-governance and autonomy to be synonymous. Lawmakers and politicians rhetorically elide the differences between self-governance and autonomy, which Denbow opposes. Instead, she seems to prefer the alternate understanding of autonomy in terms of being “critique and transformation,” based on the philosophies of Michel Foucault and Judith Butler. This view of autonomy “promote[s] resistance to discriminatory and oppressive norms,” and challenges existing understandings of the female body (p. 5). It emphasizes the impact of choice and the interaction between the power to select and government.

To contextualize her writing, it is important to note Denbow’s background. Denbow is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. She specializes in public law, political theory, reproductive law and politics, feminist studies, and science and technology studies. She received her law degree from the University of California, Berkeley, where she also earned her Ph.D. studying jurisprudence and social policy, emphasizing women, gender, and sexuality.

Her background in law and political science is evident in her writing. While she does not detail her methods in a specific section, Denbow’s methods entail very statistically and politically centered arguments, relying heavily on both personal and legal case studies. She brings this topic of reproductive choice and control out of the domain of health studies and women’s studies and into the lens of political science, citing many statistics to bolster her arguments. In her opening paragraph, she contextualizes her argument by stating: “In 2011, states enacted a an unprecedented 92 provisions restricting abortions, which overwhelmingly surpassed the previous record of 34 in 2005” (Denbow, p. 1). She goes on to explain that state politicians appeal to women’s autonomy as a way to justify these restrictive measures, but yet are actually serving to control women’s reproduction. A specific example of this is the extensive ultrasound mandates that have been passed in a multitude of states, such as Texas’s Woman’s Right to Know Act. These laws increase scrutiny of women and of their bodies while under the guise of providing them with more information about abortion and enabling a more complete form of consent. Lawmakers promote these laws as a way of informing women and providing them with autonomy, while in actually are simply restricting their rights and interfere with decision making.

Another way Denbow approaches her argument and bolsters her explanation of autonomy is by invoking philosophers and theorists like Kant, Foucault, and Rousseau. She frequently frames her ideas with the concepts of others, especially for her discussion of autonomy. Denbow explains that many people, by holding onto a traditional understanding of what autonomy is, apply a sort of circuitous logic to reproductive rights. There is a historical understanding that autonomy is “proper self-governance,” and thus is reflective of one’s ability to make rational decisions (Denbow, p. 2). There is a perception of a better way to conduct oneself and in order to be seen as autonomous and to be capable of autonomy, one must conduct themselves in this manner. This then translates to judgments of women’s choices, such as a woman choosing to have children if she is on welfare being deemed as irrational. Other examples Denbow gives include choosing to have an abortion and choosing to be sterilized, especially if you are a young, middle-class woman, which are choices that are frequently seen as being foolish or rash. Denbow critiques the logic that “intervention in a woman’s decision making can actually promote autonomy,” as people who follow this logic see themselves as preventing a woman from making an “irrational” decision (Denbow, p. 3). She points out that the laws passed to “promote autonomy” with added interventions, such as the aforementioned sonogram laws, actually reduce autonomy. Denbow’s preferred idea of autonomy as critique and transformation was founded on the philosophies of Foucault and Butler, whereas the historical view of autonomy as proper self-governance stems from Rousseau and Kant. Denbow argues that Rousseau’s and Kant’s interpretations of autonomy were foundational to Western beliefs and politics. She summarizes both of their definitions of autonomy to be “adherence to self-given law,” and explains that this idea is essential to modern Western political thinking (p. 19). Kant interpreted autonomy as “analytically separating oneself from one’s desires and impulses in order to legislate rationally for oneself,” and thus focused more on the moral aspects of autonomy, which has been incorporated into the political realm in that only those who are deemed rational have both the capacity and right to autonomy (p. 2). Denbow points out that from a historical perspective, certain groups of people (i.e. women, slaves, people of color, etc.) were not granted full rights as they were seen to lack the ability to govern themselves. In contrast, Foucault and Butler approach autonomy from a poststructuralist perspective, arguing that “construction of the subject rather than undermining any possibility for agency, actually serves as the condition of possibility for it” (p. 19). The mere possibility that there are multiple courses of action we could take creates the conditions for power, but this power presumes a free subject. This provides the basis for Denbow’s argument that government’s role in reproductive law works with the ideas of surveillance and autonomy. Denbow also expands her examination of Foucault to include his idea of governmentality, applying it to how the option to abort (among other choices women must make in regards to reproduction) provides the possibility for governance and restrictions, and that this thus changes how women’s actions are scrutinized. In fact, Foucault provides the title for her book, writing that we “can be governed through choice,” (p. 4). Because of the mere presence of an option, it opens the opportunity for one choice to be seen as more valid than another depending on the situation, and thus leads to a “moral evaluation” of women, playing into Denbow’s idea of autonomy as critique and transformation.

In addition to the historical perspective Denbow provided for Kant’s and Rousseau’s understanding of autonomy, she also provides fairly extensive historical context to better understand the current political situation on reproductive choice. She particularly focuses on the history of sterilization and abortion and how these concepts and the opinions surrounding them have changed over time. Denbow points out that “historically and continuing into the present, women who are deemed unfit [for motherhood] are in danger of involuntary sterilization while those who are deemed fit face barriers to accessing sterilization,” applying Foucault’s idea of moral evaluation and the scrutiny of choice (p. 22). In both the instances of voluntary and involuntary sterilizations, experts are regulating women’s choices as there is a perception that these women cannot govern themselves. While this idea of a “superior choice” is most often applied to women who choose to get abortions, Denbow explains that women who voluntarily undergo sterilizations face this critique as well. In both the cases of informed consent laws for abortions and for sterilization, Denbow argues that these laws “increase surveillance, violate liberty, and treat women as less-than in denying them the ability to make decisions for themselves,” (p. 185). Women are not seen as having the autonomy to make this decision themselves, particularly when the decision involves her rejecting motherhood. This idea ties into her bigger idea that technology acts as a destabilizing force in the realm of reproduction, particularly this act of voluntary sterilization in that it disrupts the connection between womanhood and motherhood. Women are seen as being “irrational” for choosing to undergo voluntary sterilization, and thus their autonomy is reduced as they are not seen as making the proper choice. Denbow incorporates Donna Haraway’s ideas to argue that a sterilized body might be interpreted as a “cyborg figure in which organism and machine are united and intertwined,” partially due to the relatively recentness of voluntary sterilizations (p. 22). While this seems to be a bit of a stretch, as a woman’s body remains as a living, non-mechanical vessel despite being sterilized, there is value in illuminating this inherent connection between womanhood and motherhood and how sterilization and other reproductive technologies disrupt this idea of woman as intrinsically maternal. The cyborg figure calls into question the “natural” and points to “alternative understandings of humanity, technology, nature, reproduction, and gender,” (p. 189). It challenges the assumptions we make about women’s bodies and their relation to the world. Alternately, some reproductive technologies, such as in-vitro fertilization and other technologies that Denbow refers to as “for natural reproduction”, actually serve to reinforce the female body as maternal as the non-reproductive female body is seen as deviant and dysfunctional.  These technologies, specifically IVF, may be scientifically unnatural ways of reproducing, but they still reinforce the centrality of woman as mother as they enable women to give birth and “fix” the “dysfunction” of not being able to bear children, and therefore work to sustain this association. Additionally, the reliability of birth control has changed how we perceive pregnancy in many ways. Pregnancy is now seen as much more of a choice and something that is intentional, which impacts the perception of women who are pregnant and the course of action they take from there.  Procreation is now seen as a voluntary act, a change in which technology has played a major role and now serves to create an idea of “responsible procreation”. Because procreation is now a choice, it is open to scrutiny.

Another method Denbow uses is referring to case studies to further her arguments. She uses a personal perspective to explain how sterilization is perceived in our modern society, giving the example of her friend who was voluntarily sterilized. This friend was seen as someone extremely fit for motherhood – a young, white, attorney – and thus her choice to not bear children and eliminate the possibility of ever bearing children troubled many people as it disrupted the assumption that all women are meant to be mothers, particularly those who are deemed “fit”. Denbow describes people’s confusion and astonishment at her choice, and their assertions that she would regret it. This friend also struggled to receive approval from doctors to undergo this procedure. However, Denbow also illuminates that women who are seen as “less fit”, such as minority women, particularly those who are incarcerated, do not face these same restrictions as their sterilization is not deemed irrational. In fact, these women are often involuntarily sterilized, something Denbow talked about somewhat briefly and could have expanded upon more. She does touch upon the intersectionality of race, class, and gender, and the impacts that that has upon these perceptions of women, and particularly how this affects minority women’s ability to be perceived as fit to be a mother.

In addition to these personal case studies, she also demonstrates her legal background with her use and analysis of a legal archive of case studies to bolster her arguments and explain the history of reproductive choice and how it is being governed now. For instance, she investigates the 2007 U.S. Supreme Court case Gonzales v. Carhart, in which the congressional Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act was upheld. She explains that politicians argued that this ban protected women, but in reality fit with her framework of autonomy as proper self-governance as it encourages women to make the “proper choice” to not have a late term abortion without actually advancing women’s autonomy and freedom to choose. The law depicts women as victims, where abortion is seen “merely as a necessary escape hatch,” rather than a valid choice (p. 20). She uses a variety of different court cases and analysis of laws to provide background and further the development of this connection between governmentality and autonomy.

This book, while it has many strengths, is lacking in some areas. Denbow makes an attempt to make her work more diverse and representative, even going so far as to critique other authors, such as Lee Edelman’s work on reproductive futurism, for their under-exploration of issues such as race and class. While Denbow does discuss the added complexity that these factors impact reproductive norms, it could have been more in depth. She discusses these factors more in the extremes, targeting incarcerated women of color and poor women specifically. Her work would have benefitted from discussing more minority women and the reproductive expectations they face, focusing not just on incarcerated black women but also the average woman of color and people of other ethnicities, and the intersectionality of the factors of race and class. There is also little discussion of queer women and how their identity as queer impacts these issues. She tends to touch upon these issues without truly going in depth. In addition, by not detailing her methods, it is difficult to precisely determine how she garners her information. While one can extrapolate from her work what her primary methods entail, details such as whether she analyzed legal case studies herself or worked off of someone else’s analysis are left unclear.

Denbow is able to articulate how paradoxical the current situation regarding reproductive choice in the United States is in terms of governmentality and autonomy, detailing how politicians purport to increase women’s autonomy while in actuality add more restrictive measures. Her three-pronged argument was able to paint a complete picture of this struggle for autonomy and the ways in which it has been restricted, and how technology has impacted this. Her use of other philosophers and a wide variety of sources provides a diverse perspective as well as historical background to better contextualize her arguments. This book was certainly illuminating and informative on many aspects of reproductive choice that are not often considered. A particularly interesting concept was Donna Haraway’s “cyborg theory” as it this idea of sterilized women as “other” and somewhat mechanical was not something I had previously considered. I believe that everyone could gain new insights and perspectives from this book, but that it would be particularly illuminating for politicians to read, specifically those lobbying for more restrictions on women’s reproductive choice. Though it may not alter their opinions, there is a chance that being able to better understand how their fight for women’s “autonomy” is actually serving as restrictive. Understanding how the notion of autonomy is being manipulated may help people to understand how these laws depict as incapable of governing themselves and restrict their ability to choose.