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The operation of biopower and biopolitics in the implementation process of reproductive health policies in Peru

In present-day societies, human life is often an arena of debate within which claims of morality, knowledge, and truth are contested. The meaning of human life, as well as the right to exert control over the bodies that create this life, are constructed by various discourses. In this process, special attention is paid to human bodies with particular capacities and needs, such as women’s bodies. The reproductive capacity of women’s bodies has long been considered central to defining the meaning of being a woman in Western societies. This gender essentialism related to the maternal role guides some reproductive health policies, which are implemented within a complex architecture of discourses, institutionalized social stratification, biopower and biopolitics. The Peruvian case offers clear examples of this situation. In Peru, reproductive healthcare policy has been irregularly implemented throughout the last twenty years, mostly due to the strong influence that conservative Catholic groups have been able to exert on the Peruvian Government. The discourse articulated by these groups asserts that human life begins at the moment of conception and is a gift from God; therefore, no one should be permitted to interfere in the processes of human life from conception until death. This sacralisation of human life has been progressively constructed within Catholic doctrine, which today incorporates selective interpretations of scientific knowledge in support of its claims. This discourse about human life directly and adversely affects Peruvian women’s bodies and lives. Due to their reproductive capacity, the conservative Catholic discourse considers women as bearers of human life. However, their decision-making power about the creation of this life is not taken into account in this discourse, especially when this decision-making power is linked to the exertion of sexual and reproductive rights. The influence of conservative Catholic discourse on the implementation process of Peru’s reproductive health policy is thus the central focus of this thesis. The analysis offered in this thesis is informed by a feminist critical discourse analysis of Peruvian politics, policy and law relating to three key issues: coercive sterilisation of indigenous Peruvian women during the regime of Fujimori (1996-2000), the ongoing lack of access to safe and legal abortion, and the 2009 Constitutional Court ban on the distribution of free emergency contraception within the public health sector. My analysis reveals that the Catholic interest in, and influence on, reproductive health policy was largely stimulated by Fujimori’s policy of coercive sterilization, which was in turn prompted by a eugenic discourse that conservative Catholic groups, among others within Peruvian civil society, actively denounced. This opposition consolidated the influence of conservative Catholic discourse within the political domain. Further, I suggest that the actions of the State, increasingly influenced by Catholic interests, can best be understood in terms of Foucault’s concept of biopower, with reproductive health policy being the primary tool used to effect the State’s biopolitical agenda. As I illustrate, the influence of Catholic discourse on reproductive policy and practice is most clearly evident in the ongoing impediments placed in the way of women trying to access therapeutic abortions, and the prohibition of the free distribution of the emergency contraceptive pill via the public health system. Even in the face of local and international condemnation, the State persists in its non-compliance with the provisions of international human rights agreements, a failure which I suggest can only be understood by acknowledging the defining influence of Catholic discourse and interests within Peru’s political domain. The significance of this thesis thus lies in its analysis of the discourses and political machinations that restrict the exertion of Peruvian women’s sexual and reproductive rights. These constraints are achieved through the operation of biopower enacted through the implementation of various reproductive health policies. This situation, I suggest, confines women via a constructed “naturalness” that reproduces essentialist notions of gender. As the case studies presented in this thesis demonstrate, a vital component of this discursive essentialisation of the maternal role is the identification of women as reproductive bodies that can be regulated and managed in accordance with the interests and discursive affiliations of the State, as opposed to individual citizens with autonomous decision-making power over their bodies and their own lives.
Type of thesis
Jacay, S. (2012). The operation of biopower and biopolitics in the implementation process of reproductive health policies in Peru (Thesis, Master of Social Sciences (MSocSc)). University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10289/7037
University of Waikato
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