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!
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.