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It is an immense pleasure to introduce this commentary on Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism against Family by Sophie Lewis. At its simplest level, Full Surrogacy Now examines the political discourse surrounding the surrogacy industry, primarily in India, the US, and the UK. As Lewis describes it, surrogacy, the industry whereby workers gestate a human life “for another” is a “techno-fix” to a variety of structural reproductive issues in contemporary capitalism (p. 7). While its processes are primarily biological, its practice and the subsequent exchange of newborn human life take place on a heavily contested legal and affective terrain. As Lewis writes, “few people consciously want babies to be commodities.” (p. 10) Accordingly, surrogate gestation is heavily regulated. Nepal and Thailand, for example, have recently instituted surrogacy bans. Elsewhere, as in India and the US, surrogacy is subject to stringent limitations that would prevent the buying and selling of infant life. Lewis, however, argues that the commodification of infants is not unique to the surrogacy industry and, hence, a distraction from more precise analysis of this industry. Surrogacy, Lewis argues, is certainly about the exchange of babies; but, more fundamentally, it is about the exchange of the labor of gestation. Focusing on the gestation — and bracketing its products (babies) for the purposes of her inquiry — Lewis leads readers to consider the consequences of recognizing surrogates as workers and, consequently, all gestation as work. Lewis’s analysis of the work of gestation invites a revolutionary proposition: to undo the unjust aspects of the surrogate industry requires not simple opposition to its technologies, but rather an abolition of the hetero-patriarchal private capitalist form in which surrogacy is embedded. That is, it requires the abolition of the family.
Lewis is an erstwhile geographer, independent scholar, and self-defined “overworked, underemployed para-academic” or “writer in exile from academia” — but as a compellingly-written trade publication, Full Surrogacy Now goes well beyond academic debate to engage more directly in contemporary feminist political discourse. Lewis’s text thinks gestation and surrogacy to radically posit a communist horizon that is free of work and capitalist value. In doing so, biological reproduction and the bodies of gestators — rather than production — serve as the starting-point for building such an imaginary. The construction of this utopian horizon is no simple task. After all, gestation itself is far from a utopian process: as Lewis writes, quoting evolutionary biologist Suzanne Sadedin, it is a process that involves biological “manipulation, blackmail, and violence.” (quoted in Lewis, p. 114)
The industry of surrogacy, like almost every other, is spatially uneven, stratified, and shot through with dynamic normative hierarchies of race, class, caste, and sexuality. Surrogacy has thus become a site of critique for a certain strand of feminists, for whom the act of surrogacy itself is understood as a perversion of the sacred being of motherhood and the intensification of commodification at the site of the body. Rather than side with these all-too-easy critiques, Lewis demonstrates how the assumptions of “surrogacy-exclusionary radfems” (SERFs) are in fact wrapped up in a kind of biological essentialism. This is significant and pernicious for a number of reasons. For one, the “natural” motherhood they defend as universal is tacitly of the white, western, nuclear variety. But equally, the discourse of “nature” at stake for SERFs, Lewis shows, easily blends with those arguments that would also seek to exclude sex workers and trans people from the project of feminism. Furthermore, anti-surrogacy discourse is actively harmful to surrogates themselves, as it renders struggles for collective organization illegitimate. For these reasons, Lewis’s work has been heavily critiqued by SERFs and accused of promoting a “handmaid’s tale” dystopia (belying the fact that they haven’t read Lewis’ excellent critique of that particular work of fiction, which is to be found on pages 10-15).
Lewis does not merely negatively critique such biological or natural essentialism. Instead, what is at stake in what Lewis deems “full surrogacy,” “gestational communism, ”and “amniotechnics,” is the need to take seriously the entanglement of bodies, technologies, and social worlds. Lewis is more careful than most when noting that such entanglements are neither innocent nor without pain. By expanding the concept of gestation beyond the womb (as well as beyond the fraught categories of “woman” and “mother”), Lewis seeks to deprivatize the possessive individualism that inheres in the nuclear family structure. As Lewis demonstrates, the nuclear family structure is a form that quite literally and harmfully deems unborn fetuses (as well as children) the property of their “biofam” — those who have bestowed their genetic material. An undoing of the nuclear family cannot simply reverse the alienation of that property relation into some supposedly “more natural” form. Full surrogacy, much like full communism, requires transforming kinship relations altogether.
As Paul Jackson highlights in his commentary, this is a startlingly optimistic text. Amplifying the multi-layered violences and joys of gestation and reproductive relations, Lewis’s full surrogacy imagines reproductive relations built of joy rather than the discourses of fear that continue to reinforce the role of the nuclear family today. In her proposition to abolish the family, Lewis invites us to imagine radically different familial relations; to imagine queer life-worlds that might be “savvier, safer, and more conducive to flourishing.” (p. 118)
The respondents we have gathered together in this forum first presented these perspectives on Full Surrogacy Now in the context of an Author-Meets-Critics panel at the Annual Meeting of the AmericanAssociation of Geographers, in April 2019, in Washington, DC. This occasion also pre-empted the book’s official publication date, thereby effectively launching Lewis’s “Full Surrogacy Now” book-tour itinerary, which has so far taken her from Berlin to Toronto, from Ljubljana to New York. Over the course of the year, the book has become pivotal to discussions in diverse scholarly fields, appearing on curricula (and grounding reading-groups) in politics and political theory, ethnic and cultural studies, English literature, sociology, history, and gender studies. We are pleased, however, to be able to anchor the proceedings from this inaugural public discussion of the text in the discipline of geography, Lewis’s erstwhile (and perhaps future) home.
In the first of the responses that follow, Maria Fannin takes up Full Surrogacy Now’s central insights around the relationship between reproductive labor and work, placing the work in conversation with scholars who have thought through the fraught and contradictory terrain between life and commerce in relation to organ donation(Lawrence Cohen), tissue donation (Julie Kent) and clinical labor (Melinda Cooper and Catherine Waldby). Drawing on the work of Catherine Malibou, Fannin asks whether the processes of gestation are better thought of as an example of “dangerous plasticity” rather than of extractive violence.
Our second respondent, Paul Jackson, offers his commentary as a “‘placental meal’ that readers can share.” Acting as “doula” to Lewis’s book, he examines Full Surrogacy Now’s adjacency to critical health geographies, particularly where human bodies intersect with wider political ecologies. Jackson further queries how the anxiety, and outright fear about family abolition and gestation more generally, draw on a legacy of reactionary thinking.
Thirdly, Will McKeithen enthusiastically engages the arguments, presented in Full Surrogacy Now, that all gestating under capitalism is work, and that “family abolition” promises a pathway out of the exploitative tendencies of both surrogacy and the private capitalist “nuclear” household. In their response, McKeithen pushes further the question of how the state might be implicated in managing, not just the surrogacy industries, but gestational labor more generally.
In a comradely and critical mode, the fourth respondent in this forum, Reecia Orzeck, further interrogates Lewis’ arguments that all gestating is work, reflecting about how what is deemed “work” is determined by one’s social role in a web of relations. Orzeck then goes on to question the precise way in which “the family” is structurally endemic to — or necessary for — capitalism.Responding to Lewis’s suggestion that abolishing the family might quicken the end of capitalism, Orzeck proposes the possibility that capitalism might — indeed, does — thrive without the family. In conclusion, she asks whether the family-form might be queered further rather than abolished altogether.
Finally, Alex Loftus links Full Surrogacy Now with Diane Elson’s “value theory of labor,” but also with a conversation with his mother about Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk-Circle. Here, Loftus candidly evokes the profound emotional pull ofLewis’s presaging of “new forms of living based on love, care, and comradeship. ”Exploring Lewis’ playful use of language, and her engagement with theories of relationality and value, Loftus attests to how these performatively open up new worlds of possibility for (gestational, and, simply, human) communism.
Taken together, we think these reviews provide a new register of “disclosure and vulnerability” or of “odd kinning and comradeliness”, as Sophie Lewis puts it in a reply to these critics (or shall we say comrades?). Together, this dialogue works, Sophie writes, “to signal our desire for the post-whiteness, post-work, post-oedipal, fully communized mode of social reproduction we deserve."