“Easier to imagine the end of capitalism than the end of the family”: a review of Sophie Lewis’s Full Surrogacy Now

In this guest post, Susie Jolly (Institute of Development Studies Associate) reviews Sophie Lewis’s Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family (London: Verso, 2019).


Sophie Lewis will be speaking at Sussex this Tuesday at 12:00! 

The vision

Sophie Lewis’s Full Surrogacy Now is a book about the politics of surrogacy — but it’s not like anything you’ve read before. Lewis starts from a critique of the industry’s exploitation, yet ends by championing surrogacy’s potentially revolutionary agenda: that reproductive labour can be redistributed even from conception, and that people can connect and support each other in radical new ways. Lewis writes:

Surrogates’ struggle is a challenge to the logic of hierarchical ‘assistance’ and a premonition of genuine mutuality; it is an invading mode of life based on mutual aid



There is a simple but infrequently noted kind of beauty to the fact that the gestating body does not necessarily distinguish between an embryo containing some of its own DNA and an embryo containing none


This far-reaching vision implies the end of capitalism, the end of the family as we know it, and in their place a world of “queer polymaternalism” (p168) and — the words with which she ends her book — “the promise of the reproductive commune” (p168).

She declares her aim “is to use bourgeois reproduction today (stratified, commodified, cisnormative, neocolonial) to squint towards a horizon of gestational communism” (p.21), “what babymaking beyond blood, private coupledom and the gene fetish might one day be” (p.20). This invitation to envision is also a call to action: “Let us build a care commune based on comradeship, a world sustained by kith and kind more than by kin. Where pregnancy is concerned let every pregnancy be for everyone” (p.26).

The full surrogacy of the title is “not the ‘full surrogacy’ of the rich that sees wet nurses, nannies, ayahs and mammies serving upper-class children as full-time ‘second mothers’ while leaving their own children in the care of several already overburdened others” (p.150). Instead, Lewis explains the concept as follows:

We are the makers of one another. And we could learn collectively to act like it. It is those truths that I wish to call real surrogacy, full surrogacy.


If full surrogacy may seem like faraway dream, Lewis points out that it is already being practiced:

Despite capitalism’s worldwide hegemony many people on earth are putting something like ‘full surrogacy’ into practice every day, cultivating non-Oedipal kinship and sharing reciprocal mothering labors between many individuals and generations. In particular trans, black, sex-working, migrant, and queer communities have historically survived thanks to their skills in this sphere (sometimes called ‘kinning’).


Full surrogacy is an ecological concept as well as a social one. The book’s final chapter is entitled ‘Amniotechnics,’ which Lewis defines as “the art of holding and caring even while being ripped into, at the same time as being held. Amniotechnics is protecting water and protecting people from water in the spirit of full surrogacy” (p163). On a more concrete level she explains that “[r]eproductive justice and water justice are inseparable” (p164), not because of any essentialist ecofeminist connection, but because water safety, access to clean water, and prevention of water pollution, all impact on reproductive and child health.

The surrogacy industry and its opponents today

On the way to get to her vision, she spends some time analyzing and critiquing the surrogacy industry today, including a scathing and in-depth attack on the surrogacy empire of Dr. Nayna Patel, the self-proclaimed feminist who appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show in 2006 (“Women helping women!” declared Oprah, “I love it!”).

Lewis argues that a non-exploitative surrogacy business would be run by surrogates themselves, ensuring their rights as gestational workers, and a just distribution of the profits. Although this has nowhere been realized, Lewis points out that surrogates themselves are not calling for an end to the industry, and instead better conditions and more control may be an interim goal.

Lewis also declares herself “anti-anti-surrogacy” (p.51). She analyses opposition to the surrogacy industry, in particular by “surrogacy exclusionary radical feminists” or SERFs (p.81). Although there are a variety of currents, as Lewis’s coinage suggests, she finds significant overlap with “transgender exclusionary radical feminists” and “sex worker exclusionary radical feminists”. In practice, they are often the same people. And conceptually, they share a common “fixation with the insides of women’s bodies” (p.53), and an understanding of these primarily as sites of violation. “It is assumed that the ‘inside of a women’s body’ cannot work, it can only be defiled, exposed, and ceded” (p.82). Some try to rescue women from situations they never asked to be rescued from. Some fear that gender affirmative surgery, and violence around sex work and surrogacy, will lead to “the erasure of the female” (p.53). In these respects and others, their agendas sometimes converge with those of right-wing religious forces.

Compared to what?

Lewis charges anti-surrogacy advocates with failing to ask the crucial question, Compared to what? “Pregnancy is not something society as a whole tends to question. Surrogacy, on the other hand, is hotly contested.” Lewis finds surro and non-surro pregnancies have a great deal in common. Pregnancy is gestational labour regardless whether it’s surrogate or by an intended future parent: it’s all hard work, although only the surrogate is paid. Pregnancy may be alienated labour whether the child to be birthed is ‘one’s own’ or someone else’s. Both kinds of pregnancy may or may not result in a sense of alienation from one’s gestating body and from the baby, or an absence of bonds. Both kinds of pregnancy entail health impacts and risk of death. Gestators of any kind may have material motivations for birthing a child. A surrogate may be paid upon handing over that child. A non-surrogate may be paid in currencies such as family status or the hope that children will look after them in old age in the absence of pensions. In short, almost all of the arguments against surro-pregnancy — quite apart from their individual merits — also apply in some form to non-surro pregnancy.

And what about the children? Who should they belong to? Lewis argues that children should belong to themselves, and neither to their parents, nor the person who birthed them (whether these are the same or different). Furthermore, Lewis emphasises, people are never created only through pregnancy, but also through sociopolitical processes:

a ‘surro-baby’ is no more or less natural(ized) than any other. All babies are the effects of a ‘politically assisted procreation technology.’ This is because normative parenting, or normative kinship, according to a foundational intervention by Gayle Rubin, makes bodies not only (or not even primarily) through procreation but also through the process of gendering them male or female


Surrogacy is not new

This is not the first time people give birth to children which “belong” to other people. Black women under slavery could make no claim to the fruits of their gestational labours, and at some points unwed proletarians also had the babies they birthed taken away whether they wanted it or not.

Furthermore, Lewis argues, surrogacy is currently simply an extension of existing class-based divisions of reproductive labour. The elite no longer need wait until birth to give their child to a nanny to look after. The point at which labour can be contracted to look after the kids is now at conception.

What is commercial gestation surrogacy…? It is a means by which capitalism is harnessing pregnancy more effectively for private gain, using — yes — newly developed technical apparatuses, but also well worn ‘technologies’ of one-way emotional and fleshly service — well beaten channels of unequal trade



So surrogacy is not new, and it’s not so different from other kinds of pregnancy. In fact, commercial surrogacy addresses some of the problems of other kinds of pregnancy by making gestational labour visible and remunerated. Lewis shows how a struggle for a just surrogacy industry would take us some way towards her vision of the reproductive commune.

At some points in the book, especially the long critiques of Dr. Patel’s clinic, and of SERFs, I hankered for less focus on the problems, and more on the vision of what should come in its place. Later in the book, Lewis does outline her vision, but it remains a little abstract. I felt frustrated not to have more details about the reproductive commune and how to get there. But having said that, Lewis intended “a rhetorical disruption” (p.145), philosophy rather than road map, and this is exactly what she has given us. Lewis surmises, “[i]f it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, it is still perhaps easier to imagine the end of capitalism than the end of the family” (p.119); yet this book succeeds in taking the reader on a journey to an imagined place beyond capitalism and beyond the family as we know it. That’s already quite a feat — and maybe it’s too much to ask for this imagined place to come with all its structures already built in.


Two SF CfPs

Two science fictiony CfPs: a conference (which I am pretending to co-organise) and an edited collection (no special Lab connection, but looks interesting) — Jo

CfP: Productive Futures

Bloomsbury, London, 12-14 September 2019

Keynote speakers: Dr Caroline Edwards, Dr Joan Haran
Guests of honour: Aliette de Bodard, Zen Cho, Tade Thompson

The history of science fiction (SF) is a history of unreal economics: from asteroid mining to interstellar trade, from the sex-work of replicants to the domestic labour of the housewives of galactic suburbia, from the abolition of money and property to techno-capitalist tragedies of the near future. Read the full CfP.

LSFRC invites abstracts of 300 words, plus 50 word bios, addressing economic themes in SF, and/or exploring how SF can help to widen and evolve our sense of the economic. We encourage submissions from collaborators across disciplines and/or institutions. Please submit to lsfrcmail@gmail.com by 31st May 2019.

CfP: Technologies of Feminist Speculative Fiction

Edited by Sherryl Vint and Sümeyra Buran

In 1985, Donna Haraway’s massively influential “Cyborg Manifesto” reoriented feminist thought in her call for women to engage with science and technology, to recognize in them and the new worlds they might make new resources for female emancipation and feminist critique. Now, over thirty year later, technology has remade much of the social world, from communications to reproduction to work. Our anthology seeks to bring together cutting-edge scholarship on the contemporary status of feminism and technology, as reflected in speculative fiction. We invite papers for an edited collection on intersections between contemporary technology and both feminist and queer readings of speculative fiction.

We are interested in both works that imagine the future of sexuality and gender in which biological reproduction is policed or controlled as a technology of social reproduction, and those that imagine futures in which women’s bodies are changed or controlled via new biotechnologies. We are interested in articles that explore anxieties about changing demographics, changing gender roles, or the placidity of the body from feminist and queer points of view. Although the examples listed below emphasize print texts, we are open to papers addressing works from any medium. Similarly, our examples focus on recently published work, reflecting our view that this topic is of substantial interest to contemporary writers, but we are open to proposals that address similar themes in earlier texts.

Possible topics include but are not limited to:

  • Works about how fertility is imagined as a scarce resource in dystopian futures premised on massive sterility and the oppressive control of reproductive women, such as Hulu’s adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, Leni Zumas’s Red Clocks, Meg Ellison’s The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, Sarah Hall’s Daughters of the North or Carrie Vaughn’s Bannerless.
  • Explorations of dystopian texts which project futures of authoritarian policing of gender and sexuality, that is, compulsory heterosexuality imagined as a police state, such as Maggie Chen’s An Excess Male, Johanna Sinisalo’s The Core of the Sun, Jenna Glass’s The Women’s Waror Sarah Hall’s The Carhullan Army.
  • Speculations about the future of assisted reproductive technologies such as cloning, IVF, parthenogenic reproduction, inter-species reproduction, ectogenesis, or machine reproduction, such as Carola Dibbell’s The Only Ones, Mur Lafferty’sSix Wakes, Anne Charnock’s Dreams Before the Start of Time, Jane Roger’s The Testament of Jessie Lamb, Louise O’Neill’s Only Ever Yoursor Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice.
  • Works that explore how gender relations are manipulated and/or changed by a changing environment, whether this be new technologies used to control women, as in Christina Dalcher’s Vox, new developments in human morphology, as in Naomi Alderson’s The Power, or gendered experiences of artificial beings, as in Louisa Hall’s Speak.

Please send paper proposals of 500 words to Sümeyra Buran by June 15, 2019. Proposals will be reviewed and full papers invited by August 1, 2019.

Publishing Your Research Data

Everyone is talking about the season finale. Tomorrow at 3pm in the lab, Sharon Webb and Anna Maria Sichani will be giving the last in this run of Digital Methods Open Workshops, on the topic data modelling. All are welcome, and there are still places available.

Meanwhile, maybe it’s worth a quick catch-up? So here are few no-nonsense notes from Sharon Webb and Adam Harwood’s absolutely brimming SHL Open Workshop in April, on the topic of creating and publishing research data.

What is research data?

Sharon started us off. Who should think about publishing research data? Everybody! Yes, you humanities researcher. Data is not just numbers. Of course, what counts as research data varies considerably across different subjects, methodologies, topics, backgrounds, and habits. Some classic examples of research data-sets might be a set of measurements, or interview recordings and transcripts … but it’s also worth thinking more imaginatively and speculatively about what constitutes your research data.

One working definition of data might be all the relatively raw information you generate as a researcher in your processes of abstraction and categorization. Formally, that might include text documents (PDF, Word, RTF), spreadsheets, databases, posters, slide decks, sound recordings of field interviews, online lectures, recordings of engagement and knowledge exchange events, podcasts. That might include software, art, music. That might include metadata — data about data.

It got me thinking … do I have research data I don’t even know about?

Why publish it?

What do you encounter, and what processes do you follow, that might be useful to preserve and document for future research? Where might there be opportunities for citation, for citizen research, for collaboration, for audit and validation? What new research might it make possible? What new research might it inspire? Even, perhaps, what creative and artistic interventions? There is a slightly subversive and democratic aspect to all this: making the data public benefits independent researchers. This was one of the real revelations of the workshop for me: just how much fascinating information is already publicly available.

There is of course a slightly more straightforward and pragmatic aspect to all this: the UKRI funding bodies now ask for a data management plan. For example, an AHRC standard route grant will require a data management plan “for grants planning to generate data (3 A4 pages maximum).” The AHRC have recently done away with their technical plan requirement. Other funders (e.g. Marie Curie) ask for a technical plan, and there may be an assumption that any data management considerations will be included there. 

Funders don’t generally accept the sentence, “My data is available on request.” Of course, there may be legitimate reasons for not making data available. Researchers should be aware of GDPR and the Data Protection Act. “Personal data” means any information relating to an identified or identifiable living individual. DMP Online structures the process of writing a data management plan, drawing on the specific guidance of the chosen funding bodies.

And, fwiw, Sussex also has a policy — “research data should be made freely and openly available with as few restrictions as possible in a timely and responsible manner […] regardless of whether or not the research is externally funded.” That said, there isn’t an actual Research Data Management Police Force roaming campus, as far as we’re aware.

How should I publish it?

One thing to consider is when you will deposit your data. Around grant writing proposal stage, it’s good to build in some time to actually prepare and deposit it. It can be a big chunk of work to get research data ready to be ingested by repositories. It’s not all mindless/mindful gruntwork either: there can be thorny questions around how to curate your data to make it useful for others and for long-term preservation. I can imagine there might be some interesting cross-disciplinary issues arising, and questions about how the framing of data blurs into its analysis and interpretation.

And where to deposit data? “Figshare Sussex probably,” seems to be the short answer. More broadly, it depends who you are affiliated with, and what their policies are. The Research Data Management service (a work-in-progress) may also answer some questions. There are institutional repositories, big generalist repositories, and domain-specific repositories, and there are different governance and funding models (i.e. public vs. commercial). Here are some handy links:

  • UKDataArchive, funded by the ESRC, is “the UK’s largest collection of digital research data in the social sciences and humanities.”
  • re3data.org is a database of repositories (incomplete, but filled with good starting points).
  • FAIRsharing is another database of repositories, with more of a sciences and medicine emphasis.
  • The Journal of Open Humanities Data features peer-reviewed articles describing data and methodologies with high re-usability.
  • Zenodo is an open-access repository from CERN and the OpenAIRE program, with some similarities to Figshare. It runs on open source software (also called Zenodo).
  • Then there’s Figshare, of which Figshare Sussex is a part.

All Figshare content will be assigned a DOI; CC BY 4.0 is the default license. Figshare also allows you to create and share ‘Collections,’ bringing together relevant datasets (whether or not they’re yours). What you upload to Figshare Sussex will get sucked up to Figshare mothership, which is indexed by Google. 

You can also put on an embargo, a fact that for some reason gave me a lovely frisson of melodrama, “My data shall not be available … for ONE HUNDRED YEARS,” etc., and you can generate private links to share VIP access to embargoed data.

Your data will be backed up to Arkivum, which meets another common funding requirement, that the data will be preserved beyond the lifetime of the project. Arkivum keeps your data in three separate geographical locations. It doesn’t do file format shifts yet, but as part of The Perpetua Project (ominous energy), it eventually will do file format shifts as well.

Further background

The RCUK Concordat on Open Research Data explains precisely what open research data is, and what researchers can do to make their data open and freely accessible. It’s a long document, and Adam picked out a few key bits. The Concordat asserts the right of the creators of research data to reasonable first use. Support for development of appropriate data skills is recognised as a responsibility of all stakeholders — the university has a responsibility to provide useful services (which in our case is Figshare Sussex, as well as the emerging Research Data Management service).

Adam also touched on the FAIR Data Principles, originally intended for the sciences, but now with much wider adoption. Data should be Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, and Re-usable. These are criteria you can measure your data against toward the end of a research project.

We ended with a whirlwind tour of metadata from Sharon. ‘Metadata is a (love) letter to the future — it makes explicit how “things” can be used.’ Anne Gilliland: ‘In general, all information objects, regardless of physical or intellectual form they take, have three features — content, context, and structure — all of which should be reflected through metadata.’ We had a little look at the Dublin Core standard, on which Figshare is based (if you’re going to add fields of your own, it would be best practice to align them to Dublin Core) and a case study, the Re-animating Data Project (70+ interviews carried out in 1989).

I left with a grateful heart and and a brimming brain, forgetting to sign in again. And also a vague unease. I got to thinking about all the data exhaust I leave behind, in the course of my research and my “research,” all the behavioural surplus I scarcely control and could never deposit, and yet which is deposited somewhere in the marketplace of personal data.

And I was thinking about how data at scale tends to disclose more than ever intended. Data analytics discover patterns that can be used as knowledge, and whose status as knowledge is often undecidable in the contexts in which they are used. I was thinking of those robots and researchers who can gaze hungrily at the “About Me” section of your social media profile, seeing not your attempt at self-expression, but only trait correlation with lemma term-frequency–inverse document-frequency (or whatever). Tech giants have learned the art of growing tall and fat on data crumbs; what will they do with data feasts?