Dimensions of national reproduction

Costica Dumbrava | Published in: Reproducing the nation: reproduction, citizenship and ethno-demographic survival in post-communist Romania. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies

Controlling populations has become central to the political rationality of the modern state [1]. Post-war demographic interventionism has been largely disconnected from its earlier eugenicist goal of ‘improving the inborn qualities of a race’ [2] and steered towards the provision of positive, non-coercive welfare incentives [3]. Certain ‘crypto-eugenic’ features persisted, however, particularly in the global crusade to promote family planning as a means to counteract global overpopulation [4]. While remaining diverse and driven by different goals, such as legitimising political power, attesting ideological superiority (communist/capitalist), and promoting social modernisation, post-war population policies were generally conceived of as ‘a driver of economic development and nation-building’ [5].

Population scholars have been keener than migration scholars to point at the intertwining between reproduction, mobility, and membership. Connelly’s studies the global ‘politics of population’ by analysing the regulation of public health, reproduction and migration. Teitelbaum and Winter [6] show that fertility and migration often touch upon highly sensitive issues of national identity. King [7] argues that there is hardly any population policy that is immune to ‘ideas about the future national character or national identity’. Although recent works on migration and citizenship tackle a number of relevant crosscutting issues, such as the integration of second-generation immigrants, family migration, and birthright citizenship, the more complex interactions between the territorial dimension of citizenship (border-crossing and social integration) and its intergenerational dimension (birth-crossing and cultural reproduction) have remained largely uncharted. In order to address this gap I propose to define and study national reproduction as a broad mix of policies and ideologies that aim to influence and shape the fertility, mobility, and identity of people in line with predefined ‘ideas about the valid and favored characteristics of citizenship’ (Solinger and Nakachi).

Human reproduction is at the centre of projects of individual and collective survival. In order to ensure continuity over time, societies establish complex norms to regulate the ‘production’ of new members (e.g. rules on sexuality, marriage, and childbirth) and the reproduction of membership (e.g. rules on tribal membership and citizenship). According to Anderson [8], the great appeal of the national idea in the nineteenth century was due to its promise to offer an alternative (secular) way of transforming fatality (individual death) into continuity (collective survival). In order to ensure the continuity over time states have to continuously ‘make’ new people. They can do so through encouraging people to make children and through bringing in more people, either physically (immigration) or formally (citizenship). These demographic strategies inevitably raise concerns about the cultural reproduction of the nation.

I define national reproduction as the set of strategies and interventions at the biological, formal, and ethno-cultural levels of membership through which states seek to ensure the physical and cultural reproduction of the nation. By conceptualising national reproduction as the (partial) overlap between three types of reproduction, we can better delineate and understand the continuities and contradictions between various national approaches to collective reproduction. In an ideal nationalist scenario, the three types of reproduction overlap perfectly, meaning that children born in a territorial community become automatically formal members of the political community and are recognised unconditionally as full members of the ethno-national community. In the real world, however, the transitions between these three memberships are by no means natural or complete. We can identify three reproductive transitions through which populations are continuously re-constituted physically, legally, and culturally: (a) from parents to children; (b) from children/residents to citizens; (c) from persons/citizens to ethno-nationals (see Figure 1). Not all parents are encouraged to have children, not all children or residents are allowed to become citizens and not all persons or citizens are recognised as ethno-nationals.

Figure 1. Dimensions of national reproduction

Nationalist ideologies about the nation often shape discourses and policies on reproduction, family, and citizenship. They typically portray women as biological and cultural reproducers of the nation and seek to instrumentalise their bodies and reproductive capacities for the sake of ensuring the intergenerational continuity of the nation. Ginsburg and Rapp [9] developed the concept of stratified reproduction to define ‘the power relations by which some categories of people are empowered to nurture and reproduce, while others are disempowered’. Strategies of stratified reproduction are used in order to encourage the reproduction of certain groups of the population while discouraging the reproduction of others, such as immigrants, ethnic, racial, or sexual minorities. There are plenty of examples of stratified reproduction at the intersection between biological, formal, and ethno-cultural reproduction. The recent backlash against pregnant immigrant women in the US – the ‘Latino threat’ phenomenon [10] – has been triggered by mounting fears about national (ethno-racial) survival. In Ireland the practice of exempting immigrant women from anti-abortion restrictions has been regarded as a nationalist attempt to deny ‘alien’ babies access to the Irish nation  [11]. In another Irish case (the ‘C case’), a woman belonging to the Irish traveller minority was granted exceptional access to abortion in the context in which the mainstream public discourse depicted the reproductive practices of this ethnic minority as a threat to the Irish nation [12].

Like policies on biological reproduction, citizenship laws function as instruments of collective reproduction because they help to reproduce the formal body of the national community. The overwhelming majority of contemporary states subscribe to the principle of ius sanguinis citizenship – through which parents transmit citizenship to their children at birth. However, there are a number of countries that impose conditions to ius sanguinis, such as in the cases of children born out of wedlock or of children born through assisted reproduction technologies (ART). Such differentiated treatment of children of citizens can be seen as a legal-normative strategy aimed at ensuring the ‘correct’ reproduction of the national population. Concerns about national reproduction also affect policies and ideologies about ius soli citizenship –acquisition of citizenship in virtue of birth in the territory. For example, in 2004 Ireland abandoned the policy of unconditional ius in response to worries about the high numbers of births by immigrant women [13]. Recent attacks on ius soli citizenship in the US have also been driven by fears about, what Senator Lindsey Graham called, an ‘invasion by birth canal’  [14].

Many countries in the past used migration and citizenship policies in order to include or exclude groups of people on the basis of ethnicity or race [15] [16]. Whereas such policies have survived in attenuated forms in many European countries [17], they proved to be particularly resilient in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. After the fall of the communist regimes, many countries in the region acted as ‘nationalizing states’ [18] by claiming to embody and serve a core ethnic nation. Citizenship laws played a key role in ensuring the ethno-demographic revival of the nation. For example, the exclusion of Russian-speaking (long-term) immigrants from the citizenship of the newly independent Estonia and Latvia was a direct response to fears about ethno-demographic extinction. Whereas in the 1930s Russian speakers constituted about 1/10 of the populations of Estonia and Latvia, by the end of 1980s their share increased to more than 1/3 of populations [19].

Lastly, being born in a country or possessing the formal status of citizenship of a state does not always bring full recognition of membership into the national community, especially in countries where the national community is imagined as based on highly particularistic ethnic, cultural, or racial traits. This is apparent in the way in which forms of marginalisation and second-class citizenship among ethnic minorities persists despite access to formal citizenship. Moreover, the recognition of ethno-cultural membership is sometimes bestowed on people who do not possess the formal status of citizenship. This is the case, for example, of the co-ethnic laws adopted by many countries of Central and Eastern Europe that grant symbolic recognition and a series of quasi-citizenship benefits to co-ethics, regardless of their citizenship status [20].


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