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What is biocitizenship?

The concept of “biological citizenship” or simply “biocitizenship”, called by some “a keyword in-the-making”, is not easy to define. The Oxford Bibliographies describes it as a form of “belonging, rights claims, and demands for access to resources and care that are made on a biological basis such as an injury, shared genetic status, or disease state”. As others have not only referred to biocitizenship as a reaction to the fear of a return of eugenics but also include non-humans in the definition of biocitizenship, the concept encapsulates many of the topics that have been touch on by FCI – ranging from eugenics and animal citizenship to the relation between disability and citizenship. The technological dimension of biocitizenship additionally links it to our previous discussion of biological and social engineering as well as technological citizenship. Nikolas Rose and Carlos Novas, in particular, focus on the link with biotechnology as they use biological citizenship to describe new connections between biology and self-identity and explain how the human body has increasingly become an exploitable consumer object that can be physically reshaped by “enhancement technologies”.

As these developments take place on a global marketplace that is more and more disconnected from national politics, these neoliberal and individualized aspects have also been criticized. Although biocitizenship frequently has a positive ring because of its potential, critics have argued that claims for rights and recognition that are increasingly made in biological terms may crowd out more traditional forms of citizenship that are based around national identity, labour organizing and party politics. Rose and Novas therefore see biocitizenship as a radical departure from nationally located ideas of citizenship that have existed over the last few decades.

The recent book Biocitizenship. The Politics of Bodies, Governance and Power gives more concrete insight into the meaning of biocitizenship. The editors begin by pointing out how biological citizenship is not necessarily a new idea. In the 19th century, for example, “monitoring migrants to the United States for signs of physical or mental disability— features inextricably tied to assumptions about the norms of race […] — was motivated by judgment about their capacity to work and also buttressed by eugenic visions of the present and future body of the nation”. Current actions such as compulsory vaccination, quarantines, and fitness programs for schoolchildren are given by the editors as examples of contemporary state biocitizenship practices designed to construct a normative national body.

In addition, the above mentioned link between biology and self-identity has become politicized because of the “potential threat to the country”. Giving the example of a statement by a British chief medical officer that obesity— and obesity in women in particular, given the relationship between maternal weight and pregnancy outcomes— is a threat to the British people as grave as terrorism or climate change, the editors show how the human body has been brought in the public sphere. The obligation for “self-care” also makes the biological citizen “in some aspects the quintessential neoliberal subject”. The other side of the coin is the neglect of anyone who deviates from the model biocitizen, who is considered rational, autonomous, healthy and able-bodied. The editors note: “Unless they are actively moving toward the goal of a fit, healthy, normative body, disabled and chronically ill people, particularly those who actively challenge medical models of embodiment, at best find themselves sidelined from the biocitizenship literature; at worst, they are seen as ‘pathological citizens’ who threaten the national body”.

This leads us back to the some of the questions underlying the work of FCI: what does it mean to be a citizen in the 21st century? What is the danger of states’ endeavours to look for and actively create the “perfect citizen”, either through legislation or different forms of engineering aimed at “enhancement”? As the idea of biocitizenship is probably here to stay, will it prove compatible with current notions of privacy as well as bodily and mental integrity?

Author: Dr. Olivier Vonk

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