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Reproducing Autonomy

  • Author(s): Denbow, Jennifer Marie
  • Advisor(s): Kutz, Christopher
  • Song, Sarah
  • et al.
Abstract

This dissertation explores the notion of reproductive autonomy through examination of the legal and medical regulation of abortion and sterilization in the United States. Despite numerous critiques of autonomy from feminists and post-structuralists (including feminist post-structuralists), I argue that the concept should not be abandoned but should be resignified or reproduced in a way that heeds these critiques. Not abandoning autonomy is especially crucial in the context of reproduction because it can help combat the ongoing control of women's reproductive capacities. Specifically, I argue that although the self of autonomy theory has often been understood as self-constituting, it need not be so. While autonomy may presuppose the existence of selves, those selves can be understood as produced by social and regulatory forces. Understanding autonomy in this way requires attention, then, to how these selves are produced.

At the core of the dissertation is an account of re-produced autonomy. According to this account, autonomy involves the ability to act on preferences within a relatively unconstrained field of possibility. This formulation suggests that re-produced autonomy combines respect for individual preference with an interrogation into the social forces of production. Moreover, on this account transgressive acts can open up more possibilities and can also prompt situated reflection and conversation that conduce to self-knowledge. If we understand self-knowledge as necessary to self-governance, this situated reflection is important to autonomy.

Re-produced autonomy is further explored in the context of the practices of abortion and sterilization. The dissertation examines the legal and medical literature concerning abortion and sterilization with a two-fold purpose. First, I am interested in what these expert discourses reveal about the production of women and reproductive desire. How do law and medicine understand women, maternal desire, the female body, and reproductive capacity? On my reproduced account of autonomy, legal and medical productions of women-mothers constrain autonomy. Second, I explore to what extent legal and policy changes can open up greater room for disruptions of the identity of women with maternity. How might legal and medical approaches be transformed to increase autonomy?

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