Human Rights and Biopolitics

Course Description: 

This course addresses several historical and contemporary biopolitical episodes, including the most recent covid pandemic, from human rights perspectives.  Throughout history many attempts have been made to control the size and composition of populations. From the sterilization of the mentally ill to the generous and targeted social welfare benefits offered to support child rearing, and to shaping gender balance, these goals were based on different ideologies from eugenic thinking, through neoliberalism to populism and to the anti-gender measures introduced by illiberal democracies.

The selected topics of biopolitics lie at the intersection of political science, gender,  philosophy, and human rights. Contemporary mechanisms of promoting human rights have managed to reflect on and regulate some of them, since the prohibition of discrimination, as well as enforcing women’s rights and the right to privacy can rule out at least the most drastic population control measures. The interplay between demographic control and human rights provides an innovative approach to this course and offers to the students the possibility to study human rights in this special context, as well as to analyze population politics and biopolitics by developing critical reflections based on the human rights perspectives.

The course offers a unique cross-disciplinary approach by introducing the human rights framework into the analysis of classic and contemporary forms of biopolitics. Works by authors such as Agamben, Foucault, Rose, Jasanoff, Nussbaum, Esposito, Duster, and Habermas will serve as the theoretical basis for the discussions and seminars that will aim to analyze different types of biopolitical endeavors from all parts of the world. Students will be encouraged to bring examples and cases from their own countries and to present on and analyze a selected field within biopolitics. In addition to the seminar discussions of texts and cases, there will be also film screenings to stimulate debates on various thought-provoking issues of biopolitics, such as abortion policies, genetic testing and screening, therapy and enhancement.

Can various forms of biopolitics be assessed by using the theories and methods of human rights? The connection between biopolitics and human rights has been often neglected: not only at the time of classical eugenics but even today. This neglect is even more striking considering that human rights of our present times are increasingly implicated by important norms of biopolitics, such as policy issues related to reproductive and end-of-life decisions; biodiversity and environmental protection; genetictesting, biobanks, and storage of genetic data, among others.

This course deals with the status of, and current challenges to, human rights in this context. By analyzing relevant texts and landmark cases, new generations of human rights will be explored. Is it possible to interpret human rights norms on the level of the human cells? Should access to transplantation, tissues in biobanks, umbilical cord blood, or the results of stem cell research be based on the principle of solidarity? Or do we have to acknowledge that we are inevitably drifting towards a more commercial paradigm? The course will focus on recently emerged thematic issues within the domain of human rights, such as right to privacy, international, national and personal security and DNA testing. The main methodology of this course is qualitative analysis of normative texts and cases that contain elements from both the human rights and biopolitical discourses.

Uses and effects of biotechnological advances by now have become the subject of intense debates in society. Yet, the policy impacts of life sciences have remained so far understudied or at least not adequately elaborated – even though issues such as reproduction and gender; the new and emergent forms of discrimination; intellectual property and benefit sharing; and the protection of vulnerable groups, would provide a broad scope of study in this area. During the course the students will analyze normative texts and cases that contain elements from both the human rights and biopolitical discourses. The Reader and the attached bibliography shall provide the basic literature for further studies.

Learning Outcomes: 
  • Skills to analyze and to understand human rights problems raised by new challenges of technological advances;
  • Ability to understand and to critically analyze old and new forms of biopolitics and eugenics.
  • Capability to find, to analyze and to interpret cases, including their relevance in the political context; and
  • Familiarity with basic human rights and to understand their role in international politics.
  • Active participation in the seminar discussions (10% of the final grade)
  • Seminar presentations, based on the required readings (30% of the final grade)
  • Final essay – a 10 to 12-page research paper (60% of the grade).

The topic of the final paper shall be chosen upon consultation with the instructor, and it should relate to the themes and concepts of the course. The title of the final paper should be approved on the basis of a written proposal to be submitted at midterm. The paper is due on December 14, 2022.