Human Rights and Biopolitics

Course Description: 

Throughout history many attempts have been made to control the size and composition of populations. From the sterilization of the mentally ill to the strong social welfare benefits offered to support childrearing, these were based on different ideologies from eugenic thinking through maintaining ethnic or gender balance to economic nationalism. These topics of biopolitics lie at the intersection of political science, international relations, 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 provide an innovative approach to this course and offer 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 Foucault, Agamben, Rose, Esposito, Rothschield, Duster and Habermas will serve as the theoretical bases 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 or 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.

Learning Outcomes: 

The main goals of this course are:

  • to examine various forms of biopolitics as challenges to human rights; as well as in the related concepts of human rights and constitutional law;
  • to encourage critical analytical thinking about the role of human rights in shaping and restricting old and new forms of biopolitics; and
  • to analyze various examples and case studies of biopolitics and their impact on human rights.

Learning outcomes by the course

  • 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 the international politics.

Students are required to participate in the discussion of the social and legal issues implicated in the cases and in the literature. Reading assignments and the schedule of the course are enclosed in the detailed syllabus. Course requirements include attendance at lectures and seminars.

Evaluation: active participation in seminar discussion, based on the required readings and seminar presentations (25% of the final grade), and a final essay – a 13 to 15-page research paper on a topic to be chosen after consultation with the instructor (75% of the grade). The paper is due on December 17, 2016. The topic of the final essay should relate to the themes and concepts of the course and the title should be approved on the basis of a written proposal to be submitted at midterm. 


Basic materials for this course:

Rose, Nikolas (2007) The Politics of Life Itself: Biomedicine, Power, and Subjectivity in the Twenty-First Century. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Francesco Francioni (2007) Biotechnologies and International Human Rights. Oxford: Hart Publishing.

Brooke A. Ackerly (2008) Universal Human Rights in a World of Difference Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Sheila Jasanoff (2011) Reframing Rights Bioconstitutionalism in the Genetic Age Cambridge, MA: MIT