The New Biopolitics: Autonomy, Demography, and Nationhood

Jedediah Purdy, Duke Law School

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In India and China, a population gap has opened between young men and women. There are now about 100 million more men than women in those countries and a few of their neighbors. Many of the "missing women" either were never born because of sex-selective abortion or died in childhood because families devote more medical and other resources to boys. "Missing women" mean men who will never marry. Socially unintegrated young men are associated with a variety of social pathologies; most importantly, they are the prime recruitment targets of nationalist and fundamentalist political groups. Conservative and reactionaries have always argued that society and the state have an interest in individual reproductive decisions; liberals have answered that reproduction belongs to a zone of personal autonomy. These crises demonstrate that individual choices do have systemic consequences in which society has to take an interest. This formulation leads to the normative question of the paper: how to address the demographic crises while protecting reproductive autonomy? In India, girls' survival rates improve only with indicators of women's empowerment: female literacy and workforce participation. In Europe, social policies that reduce the cost of tradeoffs between childbearing and career enable families to choose both, and induce higher birthrates. Increases in the set of options that women and families control, that is, their substantive freedom, seem to reduce the tension between personal choice and social well-being. In this case, at least, where autonomy produces crises, the answer is more and deeper autonomy.