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Programming the body, planning reproduction, governing life: the ‘(ir-) rationality’ of family planning and the embodiment of social inequalities in Salvador da Bahia (Brazil)

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This paper examines family planning in Brazil as biopolitics and explores how the democratization of the State and of reproductive health services after two decades of military dictatorship (1964–1984) has influenced health professionals’ and family planning users’ discourses and practices. Do health professionals envisage family planning as a ‘right’ or do they conceive it, following the old neo-Malthusian rationale, as a ‘moral duty’ of poor people, whose ‘irrational’ reproduction jeopardizes the family's and the nation's well being? And how do their patients conceptualize and embody family planning? To answer these questions, this paper draws on 13 months of multi-sited ethnographic research undertaken between 2003 and 2005 in two public family planning services in Salvador da Bahia, where participant observation was undertaken and unstructured interviews were conducted with 11 health professionals and 70 family planning users, mostly low income black women. The paper examines how different bio-political rationalities operate in these services and argues that the old neo-Malthusian rationale and the current, dominant discourse on reproductive rights, gender equality and citizenship coexist. The coalescence of different biopolitical rationalities leads to the double stigmatization of family planning users as ‘victims’ of social and gender inequalities and as ‘irrational’ patients, ‘irresponsible’ mothers and ‘bad’ citizens if they do not embody the neo-Malthusian and biomedical rationales shaping medical practice. However, these women do not behave as ‘docile bodies’: they tactically use medical and non-medical contraceptives not only to be good mothers and citizens, but also to enhance themselves and to attain their own goals.
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Keywords: biopolitics; contraception; gender; rationality; reproduction; social inequalities

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Department of Anthropology,Goldsmiths College, University of London, UK

Publication date: 2012-08-01

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