Skip to main content

Historicizing Reproduction

Final Report Summary - REPRODUCTION (Historicizing Reproduction)

The aim of this project was to historizise the shifts and moves reproduction underwent from a pregiven capacity fixed in “life” and defining matter as “living“ to a capacity apprehended through technoscience and open to transformation and interventions. It focused on the 20th century as a central period when the technoscience turn in reproduction took place. To historicizise reproduction from a feminist science studies perspective as this project suggested, means to ask how genealogical and heteronormative arrangements of reproduction have been un-/done, re-/arranged, and even queered but also to investigate reproductive practices from a broad, interdisciplinary framework. This implied to explore the possibilities of new fields like comparative epistemology that could challenge the dominance of western epistemology in the understanding and exploitation of fertility. The project focused on different domains of the reproductive sciences, ranging from obstetrical research at the beginning of 20th century to the emergence of assisted reproductive technologies like in-vitro-fertilization at its end. The project also studied non-human reproduction as well as those fields that explore aggregate forms of life, such as public health and population and family planning.
Historicizing reproduction manifested in several projects that covered the whole twentieth century; all of them were investigated through a set of four categories with following results:

1. Physiological standardization
From a western, naturalist perspective reproduction is understood and investigated as fundamentally biological. Physiological studies of reproductive processes set standards for these biological procedures, such as the standard birth, standard menstrual cycle, norm fertility, and a standard development of a population. Deviation from these standards is understood as disease, as an abnormality that can be treated by technoscientific and biomedical means, such as surgery (c-sections, beginning of 20th century), hormones (the pill, mid 20th century), global population planning programs, and new reproductive technologies like IVF (late 20th century).

2. Experimentation and biomedicalization
In western cosmology life is a historical concept, emerging in the 18th century with reproduction understood as the mechanism defining matter as living. The emergence of biomedicine in the 2nd half of the 20th century and molecularization as its central research practice transformed life into biochemical processes, making knowledge flow across all species, turning all kinds of living matter (humans and non-human animals alike) into potential experimental subjects. Since then agriculture and livestock breeding have become crucial sites of experimentation in the reproductive sciences, a constant source of knowledge and technology transfer to human reproductive medicine. Mass experiments of newly produced biologicals (hormones for instance) have been tested in so-called under-regulated, under-developed countries (the pill in Puerto Rico, 1950s; contraceptives like Norplant in Brazil (1980s). Experimentality became a form of technoscientific, post/colonial governmentality (Murphy 2017).

3. Eugenics and economization
‘Historicizing reproduction’ elucidated that technoscientific interventions never came as pure technologies – as often suggested by historical actors, instead they were always part of biopolitical contexts. From imperial population policy during the German Empire, to Nazi biopolitics, post WW II global population planning programs, and the emergence of bio-economies in a neoliberal era technoscience contributed to (neo-) eugenic politics even to politics of extermination. After WW II – in a period of decolonization – newly founded international institutions contributed to large-scale national and transnational schemes to alter the fertility of entire national populations for the sake of economic reasons. Eugenics and the economization of life have been intricately intertwined in historical actualizations of 20th century biopolitics.

4. Sex/Gender, reproduction and feminisms
Historicizing reproduction investigated the relations between technoscientific interventions into reproduction and ambivalent female responses that ranged from consent and collaboration to forceful resistance. These conflicting attitudes were analyzed through the lens of intersectional feminism that takes the inequality among women seriously and highlights how racial, gender, and class oppression affect each other. Since technoscientific interventions are always situated in gender politics they have often replicated the gendered exclusion of reproduction – as theoretical concept as well as practice – from the economy. The exclusion of reproduction from production has a long-standing history – as long as the feminist resistance against it.

Historicizing Reproduction’ will lead to following main publications
"Birthing Machines"
At the turn to the 20th century obstetricians were eager to establish the new science of birth physiology. They intended to “unveil” its mechanical laws to establish a model for the standard physiological birth. Obstetricians firmly grounded reproductive processes on mechanical models. Female fertility and parturition were conceptualized according to mechanical machines and their productivity. This project explored reproductive practices and techniques in bodies, institutions and academic disciplines between 1900 and 1930 in order to understand how gender, living beings but also different ways of knowing are reproduced and merged. A monograph (in German) will be published in 2019 with Transcript-Verlag.

"Post-/ Colonial Population Planning"
This collaborative project aimed to explore how so called master planning practices have been called into question, modified, subverted, altered, or reified by resistance, counter-conduct, and critique. My contribution focused on the history of population planning after WW II
and the emergence of new reproductive technologies at the end of the 20th c. It studied the multiple forms of resistance against newly developed reproductive technologies and genetic engineering, with a focus on feminist responses from international organisations like FinRRage and radical feminists like Red Zora and their distinct politics of resistance against the internationalization and the technological developments in fertility control. I am co-editor of this collected volume that is currently under review from MIT Press.

"1+1=3 – Economies of Reproduction"
The project intervenes in scholarly debates about science and bio-economies by focusing on ‘reproductive economies’ as a topic of its own instead of considering reproduction as a case study of the bio-economy. It thus helps to elucidate the very nature and long history of entanglements between ‘life’, ‘reproduction’, and the ‘economy’. By focusing on care and time economies as well as plural ontologies of life, fertility and human non-human relationships the project explores economies of reproduction as processes in time that are always/already natural and cultural. The articles cover historically, culturally and geographically diverse terrain, ranging from economics in cell models in German biology, to fish farms in Norway, to menstrual calendars in Heinrich Himmler’s war machine, to fertility in clinics and gardens in Venezuelan Amazonia, to fertility experiments in Bangladesh and Jewish concern about both human and animal fertility in a European settlement project that immediately preceded the state of Israel. I am co-editing this special issue that is contracted with the Journal of Cultural Economy and will be published in 2019.