Reproductive Governance and Bodily Materiality

Cover of Reproductive Governance and Bodily Materiality

Flesh, Technologies, and Knowledge



Table of contents

(15 chapters)

Height, weight, fingerprints: the body is, as is well known, an important marker of identity. However, since the 1980s and 1990s, it has provided new services to the process of attesting individual identities.

During this period, the development of molecular biology created new means of identification thanks to DNA tests; in addition, certain children (adopted, born of artificial procreation) began to demand to be able to meet their biological parents ‘in the flesh’ to ease their ‘identity’ suffering; Finally, around birth and death, new practices have emerged that aim to reinforce – through breastfeeding, skin-to-skin contact, haptonomy, the exposure of corpses – the identities of father, mother and child… Are there common points to these different practices? If so, what might their cultural meanings be? And what lessons can we learn from them about the history of the certification of individual identities?

Through these new practices, a great collective narrative – a narrative in practice – is taking shape. It tells of the importance that the body, biology and nature are supposed to play today in fortifying identities and social ties. What emerges behind these new – or renewed – devices and discourses is a whole definition of the subject?

Part I Parents by Bodies


After their long deconstruction of the notion of culture, social sciences have set about deconstructing the idea of nature, considering it as a social representation with variations in time and in space. From this point of view, human reproduction is a particularly appropriate field of observation. Above and beyond the shared imaginary, in fact, nature does not (only) corresponds, at the empirical level, to biological data in human reproduction. As will we see in this chapter, what is thought to correspond to nature in relation to childbearing experience turns out to be something extremely sophisticated, with characteristics not unlike those of a cultural product. Based on the ethnographic research I carried out in one of the first maternity hospital in Italy to introduce natural childbirth, the chapter aims to add to the study of how nature is referred to in this model of birth, why is this category invoked and the extent to which its functions and contents have changed over time.


Since the 1990s, public health agencies as well as nutrition and child health experts have recognized breastfeeding as the most appropriate infant-feeding mode for optimal health and psycho-emotional development. Consequently, breastfeeding has become a standard of good mothering, internalized by mothers, who implement a demanding self-discipline to perform breastfeeding. This dedication reflects the delegation of biopolitics to individuals in modern neoliberal societies: authoritative experts inform new parents, who then bear the responsibility of their children's health risk management. They are expected to choose appropriate practices as part of a collective strategy of risk management and anticipation of the future by changing current behaviours, aiming at the emergence of a ‘healthy body and mind’ society. Among these practices, breastfeeding holds a central place due to medical consensus about its benefits. In my ethnography of postpartum consultations by independent midwives in Switzerland, I studied the breastfeeding practices and experiences of home birth parents as part of the ‘holistic care’ provided by these midwives. Shadowing midwives during their postpartum visits between 2014 and 2017, I witnessed parents committing to the body and emotional work required to carry out their ‘breastfeeding project’, designed in continuity with their out-of-hospital birth choice. During their follow-ups, midwives engage with parents in a shared construction of meanings around breastfeeding, anchoring parenting identities in the body. I explore in this chapter the issues raised by the production of lactating maternal bodies and how women engage in body and emotional work to achieve it.


Surrogacy is a practice that requires the participation of multiple social actors: sperm and/or egg donors, intended parents (IPs) and gestational carriers (GCs). The data were collected during a research on US surrogacy conducted in Southern California between September 2017 and January 2020. The study involved IPs, GCs and the clinical and hospital staffs of a fertility clinic and six hospitals. In this contribution, I will read surrogacy as a sophisticated interweaving of relationships (Berend, 2016a) that is activated thanks to the support of artificial reproductive technologies (ARTs). I will analyze the surrogacy pregnancy not exclusively as an organic process, but, following Elly Teman (2009) and Zsuzsa Berend (2016a) insights, I will read it as a choral project shaped by all the actors directly or indirectly involved in it. I will show which rituals are practiced during the surrogacy pathway, and in particular, I will pay attention to some specific aspects that are invested by particular meaning such as ultrasounds, rooming-in, breastfeeding and the ‘skin-to-skin’ practice.

Part II Body's Imaginaries and Ontologies


Starting from an event occurring in 2018, I consider burials of abortive remains as a battleground for reproductive governances. Public debate on pregnancy loss is often intertwined with the abortion debate. In Italy this association caused a considerable delay in implementing practices recommended by international guidelines on pregnancy loss. In this essay, I analyse burial regulations and the ways in which they are enforced asking what is at stake when the State, the regions, the Catholic Church, healthcare and cemetery professionals and women undergoing a termination or a pregnancy loss decide what to do with bodily remains. What is the meaning of these peculiar dead bodies? How are they publicly named? What are the effects of the actions performed on fetal remains over the lived experiences of women and couples with different reproductive histories? Who has the right to make decisions over these peculiar bodies and relationships?

Based on a long-term ethnography on abortion and pregnancy loss in Italy, I explore the inherent complexity of these questions, arguing that burial practices conflict with abortion rights when they signify the body unequivocally, separating it from social and intimate relationships, fixing its identity and determining the conditions for its recognition. Human flesh, sociologically understood (Memmi, 2014), is both material and symbolic: a fluctuating reality that takes on different meanings and affects over time within relationships.


This chapter explores the interaction between different kinds of knowledge and representations in the making of the ‘fleshed’ female reproductive body in an Indian city. In particular, it analyzes how women perceive contraception and how the reproductive governance helped to produce the female sterilization as the most widely used contraceptive method in India. The study is based on the case of the city of Bhuj, in the state of Gujarat (India), where three anthropological fieldworks (15 months) were conducted. Modern contraceptive methods are based on a biomedical representation of the body, drawn from Western categories of knowledge and experience, whereas women live the ‘fleshed’ reproductive body through local categories of substance and fluids. How is this knowledge mobilized and affected in relation to reproductive technologies and the government of reproduction? This question is addressed through the analysis of women's embodied experiences of contraception. The narratives collected show a resistance to biomedicine, considered to be a model that alters the female body and its reproductive capacity. Nevertheless, even when sterilization was considered to be a deliberate act of tampering with the functioning of their bodies, women displayed a pragmatic agency in choosing this method. The experiences of respondents reflected complex negotiations between bodily suffering, socio-economic structures and the microphysics of power surrounding them, rather than a unilateral submission to medical authority and reproductive governance.


This chapter is an ethnographic exploration of birthing and body politics in the United States and Uganda with the placenta as the catalyst for understanding reproductive regulation and gendered bodily epistemologies. Based on fieldwork spanning 2009–2017 with rural, traditional midwives in Southern Uganda, merged with recent, anecdotal observations from Los Angeles County and greater California and the United States generally, this work considers cultural terrains of placentas as well as corresponding worldviews and perspectives, ranging from life-generating organ imbued with vast spiritual and physiological significance, to preventative mental health food, to bio-waste that is incinerated or filled with toxic chemicals. The bio-ontologies of placentas are explored herein in terms of toxic contingencies and with regard to the relationship between health and industry.

Toxic entanglements and embodied politics of risk and exposure explored herein point to dehumanizing and ill-fitting regulations that stifle health autonomy and medical sovereignty. Such disempowering governance is compounded by gender and myriad cultural factors. With implications for national and international policies, this work examines my findings that illustrate ways in which flesh, technologies and knowledge intersect in bio-praxes that monitor and manage, rather than support, the reproductive body. This work suggests departure from colonial instability and dispossession by re-scripting medicine in such a way that achieves health justice through bodily knowledge, or enfleshed understandings. Decolonizing the flesh demands ungripping health encounters from praxes of control, in favour of choice and preference. This entails reclaiming physiologies as well as reimagining how medical systems inform core ethos.

Part III Reproductive and Bodily Disruptions


This paper analyzes how an infertile body is shaped by social discourses and reproductive technologies. Reproductive governances are articulated in this context by ideas and social values regarding family and motherhood, the binomial of infertility-TRA, legislation and norms and health professionals' practices. In addition, it shows how diverse infertile bodies experience (and withstand) these reproductive governances. Various sources have been consulted, including newspapers, biographical books, bibliographic sources from specialized literature and interviews carried out by the author.


Examining infertility through the prism of gender allows a more refined understanding of what infertility does to persons. Draw on the research conducted in a public centre for assisted reproduction in Italy, this chapter will show how the diagnosis of infertility fits into a medical description which is differentiated according to gender. By analyzing the way in which infertility is described and constructed in the course of consultations, we will see how infertility is understood both as a modality of relationship and action and as a property of persons.


The European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology (ESHRE) defines the act of travelling abroad to undergo reproductive medical treatments, including assisted reproduction technology (ART) treatments as cross-border reproductive care. The experiences of patients seeking affordable reproductive care abroad have been widely studied in the last decades (Bergman, 2011a, 2011b; Blyth, 2010; Bracewell-Milnes et al., 2016; Culley et al., 2011; Guerzoni, 2017; Hudson, 2017, 2020; Hudson & Culley, 2011; Kroløkke, 2014a, 2014b; Rodino, Goedeke, & Nowoweiski, 2014; Salama et al., 2018; Shenfield et al., 2010; Van Hoof, Pennings, & De Sutter, 2016; Whittaker, Inhorn, & Shenfield, 2019; Zanini, 2011). However, French women and couples pursuing ART treatments abroad have received little scholarly attention until now. In this chapter, we aim to address this gap in the literature with the results from an ethnographic study conducted with French women and couples who seek ART treatments in Barcelona (Spain) using data from participant observation and in-depth interviews. We begin by discussing the European reproscape, introducing French and Spanish ART legislation, to explain why a large number of citizens are excluded from the French system of reproductive governance and why they choose Spain as their destination. Then, we will discuss the obstacles faced during the reproductive journey, and the impacts of this journey on the embodiment of the treatments are explored, in order to show how French women and couples handle the physical, emotional and cultural displacements that their reproductive project entails.


Having a baby is a sensitive matter and the child's body occupies a relevant space within the imaginary and the concerns of the intentional, biomedicalized contemporary reproducers. Besides, the myth of ‘the perfect child’ claims specific moral injunctions about making bodies since the body conveys social recognition codes both through flesh or genetic matrix and embodied practices. So, having a child with an unexpected ‘defective’ body becomes a stressful challenge for the reproductive experience of the intentional parent(s). In any case, both parent(s) and biomedical professionals enact a hierarchization among the ‘damaged’ materials of the child's body based on the perceived and/or the classified degree of physical or mental abnormality, on its behavioural embodiments and on the possibility to re-order, fix and control the (biosocial) disorder of an abnormal unable and/or undisciplined body.

Based on recent investigations on reproduction and disability in two regions of Italy, this essay comparatively investigates the experiences of two associations of parents with asthmatic and ADHD children.

Specifically, I tried to explore how parents of children with misleading bodies emotionally, practically and morally face their unexpected reproduction, and if and how they are being entrapped in or resist the pressure of neuro-biomedical governance, schooling disciplining techniques and social blame. I tried to articulate some suggesting concepts, such as ‘delegate biopolitics’ and ‘discursive surveillance’ (Memmi, 2008), and ‘self-constraint behaviours’ (Elias, 1998), in order to analyze ethnographic material.

Cover of Reproductive Governance and Bodily Materiality
Publication date
Book series
Emerald Studies in Reproduction, Culture and Society
Series copyright holder
Emerald Publishing Limited