Over the last few weeks I have been working on and off on an undergraduate lecture on biopolitics and genetics and have been on the lookout for some good examples to illustrate this. I came across one from the excellent podcast Reply All that is not a direct fit with genetics but quite nicely illustrates some of the key aspects of biopolitics as theorised by Michel Foucault and particularly by later thinkers such as Nikolas Rose, Paul Rabinow and Ian Hacking. This is the case of the trade in human breast milk.
The podcast recounts the struggles of an American couple with a young child who was born prematurely and would not take his mother’s milk or any of the formula milks which his parents could find. They were saved, however, by the discovery that he would take the milk of other women. This realisation saved the baby from starvation. The family soon found, however, that it was extremely difficult to get hold of breast milk and tried all sorts of sometimes legally dubious methods of attaining it (understandably so!).
This case led the journalist to investigate other means of attaining breast milk and found an entrepreneurial American businessman called Bronson Wood who set up a company which buys breast milk from Cambodian women which is then shipped back to USA to be sold families such as those previously mentioned.
As is discussed in the podcast it is not only such desperate families who are customers, there are others who use it to ease medical conditions, body builders to aid muscle growth and others for fetishistic purposes.
Wood, the founder of the company, Ambrosia, states in an interview that Cambodia is a perfect country because it is stable enough to have decent healthcare and services which can perform health checks on the women providing milk but poor enough so he can “make it worth their while” to sell their milk. In other words, in order to source a profitable commodity these women have to be just the right kind of poor. He continues:
“We don’t want to hurt them, we don’t want to hurt their children. We want to create an opportunity for them to create something of value and get paid for it. And also, we feel that just because someone is less wealthy than an American doesn’t mean that they can’t make good choices for their families”
The ethical argument he makes is that while we might feel squeamish about this he is just providing an opportunity for poor people in a developing country to be entrepreneurial. As the value of their labour is so low (many of the women working for him earn four or five times more than they did in their previous jobs as cleaners or rubbish collectors) who are we to oppose them selling their bodily products? It is this point which makes it necessary to understand this through the lens of biopolitics rather than just capitalist relations (although the two are intimately connected).
The concept of biopolitics is used by Michel Foucault to describe the change in the ways in which power is exercised in contemporary societies. He claimed that in the 18th century a change occurred when rulers started to become aware that they needed the physical bodies of their subjects in order to have a well functioning economy. So, they couldn’t continue to hang them whenever they felt like it or send too many of the off to die in wars. Political power, therefore, shifted from being principally defined in relation to the ability of the ruler to take away life to being concerned with extending and maximizing life.
Late in the twentieth century scholars such as Rose, Rabinow and Hacking extended Foucault’s analysis in response to changes they saw brought about by various technologies, scientific developments and medical practices. That is, the value of life changed from being understood on the level of the individual person to that of bodily materials.
Blood transfusions, organ transplants and artificial body parts have existed for quite a long time but they became much more sophisticated over the twentieth century and combined with other developments (most notably the discovery and eventual sequencing of human DNA) to change the way in which the human body is understood. Now we imagine our bodies not as individual entities but as made up of relatively interchangeable parts. This means that individual parts of our bodies are considered to have value in and of themselves.
Our biometric data and individual parts of our bodies have become political and ethical objects which are of value to ourselves and others for research and as commodities. The women selling their breast milk are forming a part of a biopolitical system which in this case has been mixed with an entrepreneurial ethic. It is perhaps a case which makes us uneasy because we have a particular ethical relationship to human milk and tend to think about it as outside of commercial and political relations.