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et me get two things out of the way.
First, buy this book and/or request that your university and/or municipal libraries buy a copy.
Second, pay Sophie Lewis. Writing a book is neither cheap nor easy, and it would be a farce against the spirit of this book to obscure the underpaid work Lewis has performed, all without the security of a university appointment. So, pay her. You can do so at www.patreon.com/reproutopia. (To clarify, I did ask Lewis’s permission before publishing that.)
Now that we have that settled, I will say a few words about this remarkable text.
Full Surrogacy Now hit me like a bolt of lightning. I consumed the entire book in two days. Lewis’s critique is striking in its simplicity. Gestation is work and should be struggled against as such. Indeed, it already is. Gestators are already in revolt! Throughout Full Surrogacy Now, Lewis rides this line between present and future, between what is already happening and what we must struggle to build. Lewis develops a rich, careful analysis of gestational work here and now – in particular, work done by underpaid, low-caste, Indian surrogates hired on a global market. Yet, this work is neither recognized nor valorized. There is much work yet to be done, and Lewis has some ideas on how we might go about it.
Full Surrogacy Now is one part social-scientific analysis, one part manifesto. Through this mix of tone and style, Lewis offers a number of vital, sticky concepts and questions. Among these:
Racial capitalism and the wage are the only things separating pregnancy from surrogacy!
We are never just one or two!
Neither wages nor welfare management will ever be enough!
Under capitalism, we are all whores!
These are mere bumper sticker reductions—teasersI can offer to my friends as I peddle the book. Lewis’s larger arguments, however, are just as powerful and will stay with me for a long time.
I hope it is clear by now my general favor for this book. With that established, I now turn to offer further critiques and questions. These provocations are not for Lewis alone, however. As she so firmly reminds us, it does take a village. So, while I am eager to hear Lewis’s thoughts, these are questions for all of us to take up, to collectivize and share in the labor of thinking and doing things differently. Indeed, we must share this work because if we are to, as Lewis writes, “come knocking” on the doors of capitalist expropriators, then our practices of sabotage and solidarity will need to be situated in our own times and places, and thought from our particular locations and collectives.
So, with that in mind, I organize my thoughts around three themes.
1. Gestation is work
Lewis spiritedly and convincingly argues that surrogacy is and should be understood as work. The capitalist logic of the wage may try to hide this fact, feigning an ontological distinction between pregnancy and surrogacy. Yet, the former is simply unpaid gestation while the latter is waged. In betraying this fantasy, Lewis continues the Marxist feminist tradition of unveiling capitalism’s devalued conditions of possibility. Wages for Gestation Work! However, Lewis insists that recognizing surrogacy as work is not an end to itself but rather a means to an end: the end of work altogether. If we want to achieve a better world beyond capitalism, the wage, or the private, bio-nuclear family (more on this later), then surrogacy must be seen, validated, and struggled against as work.
My curiosity rests with the matter of how. How we might struggle for something –surrogacy worker autonomy – and still demand everything – full surrogacy now? On the one hand, gestational surrogacy workers need workplace autonomy, including the ability to collectively bargain, commit sabotage, and go on (admittedly bloody) strike. On the other hand, better wages and working conditions alone are not enough.Inspired by the Wages for Housework Campaign, Lewis insists that “‘[w]ages for all gestation-work’ is not a petition, and it does not describe an exciting destination…It describes a process of assault on wage society” (2019: 76). If our endgame is the dissolution of the epistemological and material divides between pregnancy and surrogacy, then what role does actual organizing among (under)paid surrogates play? Once we achieve the latter, what must we build to pre-figure and make possible the former?
This is a question of struggle and solidarity among paid workers. Lewis dedicates the majority of her empirical analysis to the conditions of low-paid, lower-caste gestational surrogates working for Dr. Nayna Patel’s Akanksha Infertility Clinic in Gujarat, India.For a few pages, however, she jumps from the subcontinent to US domestic military bases and the surrogacy work of military wives. In sharp contrast to the factory-style working conditions of Akanksha, these “boutique freelancers…make use of their high-end medical insurance packages to gestate” for pay while their husbands are away on active duty (p. 21). Lewis is clear that her goal in the book is to center the most marginalized gestational workers. This is a wise strategy for both theory and politics. Yet, I continue to wonder…what possibilities for struggle and solidarity exist across these industrial and post-industrial gestational economies? What contributions might US military wives and Indian gestational surrogates make to each other’s struggles for liberation? Any? None?
My question of worker autonomy and anti-work struggle is also a question of solidarity across the wage divide. Where do unpaid gestators and non-gestating surrogates (of all kinds) fit into this struggle? What coalitions might they build?Speaking as a non-gestating surrogate myself, how might I/we struggle in solidarity with paid gestators for their workplace autonomy while continuing to, as Lewis writes, demand everything (p. 76)? How might we demand not just market inclusion or labor organization but a complete reworking of the ways we get along together? I want to dwell on these questions. Questions about the practical tensions between worker unionization, autonomy, and collectivization and an anti-work political horizon. Questions about getting not just workers in the streets but getting parents of all genders, kids, and everyone else in the streets as well – all those whose ongoingness has not been and cannot be cared for by capitalism. At what intersection might a gestators’ strike meet a mothers’ strike, a caregivers’ strike, a kids’ strike, and so on?
2. The role of the state
While the first half of Full Surrogacy Now develops an anti-work analysis of surrogacy-as-work, the second half sets its sights on abolishing the family. This duality remains for me the most persistently vexing and exciting part of Lewis’s thinking. What exactly does surrogacy-as-work have to do with family abolition? When reading the book, it seems so obvious. The chapters flow intuitively from one to another. But upon reflection, I am not sure the affinities are obvious. One answer, according to Lewis, is their shared reliance on liberal ontologies of the proprietarian self. Paid surrogacy and the surrogate’s labor contract depend upon the baby’s abstract (non)fungibility. The baby both belongs to the hiring parent(s) and must be exchanged for a fee. Similarly, the bio-nuclear family depends upon naturalized notions of to whom we belong and for whom we are responsible. The liberal mother mothers out of love to raise a baby all her own.
In her case study on (under)paid Indian surrogacy workers, Lewis positions the marketplace as the hype man for this liberal proprietarian self. Though once under the purview of the state, the biopolitics of baby-making have been thoroughly privatized (e.g. by Dr. Patel) and “brought under the aegis of the firm” (p. 96). Yet, I think there is more to say about the state here. In particular, I am curious about the role states (as well as laws) play in (re)producing liberal ideologies of the proprietarian self, in India and elsewhere. I ask this because I want to understand whether and how states might provide venues for struggle. The market and the workplace are key sites where we learn to whom we do and do not belong. But so are divorce courts, death certificates, wills, immigration courts, child protective services, and so on.
In Washington state, where I live and research, the carceral state simultaneously perverts and (through its negation as punishment) reinforces the liberal logic of proprietarian individuality. In prison, you own your crime, but you do not own yourself. This same paradox plays out in the realms of baby-making, parenting, and care behind bars. In the Washington Corrections Center for Women — which incarcerates not only cis women but also trans men, a few trans women, and gender-variant folks— pregnant prisoners are eligible to give birth and parent their children in a dedicated Residential Parenting Program (RPP). But there are certain conditions: Gestators must be pregnant at the time of incarceration to be eligible. They must also have no so-called “violent” criminal convictions and have fewer than three years remaining on their sentence. The program has twenty spots for a prison of more than 900, so many incarcerated gestators and parents do not qualify. The program reinforces a proprietarian bio-nuclear family model. Incarcerated parents must have given birth to the baby they want to parent and (once they have consented to the program) all parenting responsibility lies with them. At the same time, the RPP and prison in general disrupt prisoners’ bio-nuclear families in uncountable ways. On the one hand, fellow prisoners work as unpaid childcare workers while parents attend their mandatory programming or prison jobs. On the other hand, RPP does not exist in any men’s prisons, ineligible prisoners are denied any chance to parent, and past participants have lost their children once labeled ‘bad mothers’ by sexist staff. Not to mention the millions of predominantly poor families and families of color that have been torn apart by mass incarceration. Your baby is your own until the state says otherwise.
The US carceral state thus reinforces liberal ideologies of proprietarian individuality and bio-nuclear family while simultaneously (dis)allowing its practice unevenly across categories of race, gender, class, nation, sexuality, criminality, and so on. (Adding insult to injury, the US carceral state also devalues prisoners’ care labor as incarcerated childcare workers are not paid.) So, what about in India? Or elsewhere? What roles do the (variegated, multi-scalar) state and law play in (re)producing our norms of baby-making? How do states and laws, as well as markets, affect our capacity to, as Haraway incites, “make kin, not babies” (2016: 102)?
And what about counter-examples? Cases in which people use the logics of proprietarian individuality strategically to build an anti-capitalist refuge or commons? Lewis argues that “[f]ighting in the name of an unnatural, radical ‘mamahood’ might well involve, on occasion, the strategic assertion of ‘property in the body.’ But its vision of property is at root a communing one” (p. 153). I am curious to see and hear more counter-examples like this. (That is not a charge for Sophie but for us all.) Moreover, I am curious to understand how strategic proprietarianism differs from other modes of being and resistance like sovereignty or autonomy.
(An aside: there seems to be an uptick in thinking on property lately, at least in the discipline of Geography. The 2019AAG annual meeting saw mini-conferences on “Geographies of Property” and“Racial Regimes of Property.” This work builds upon a deeper history of property scholarship [Blomley, 2005; Bonds, 2019]. How might these discussions about property and ownership - of land, of bodies, of selves, of lives, of kinship - intermingle and what might result?)
3. Abolish the (private, bio-nuclear, liberal, proprietarian) family
So, what exactly is family abolition? Lewis defines it as “the (necessarily post-capitalist) end of the double-edged coercion whereby the babies we gestate are ours and ours alone, to guard, invest in, and prioritize.” (p. 119) Thus, whenever Lewis or I speak about “family abolition,” we are really talking about abolishing all kinship models that are privatized, bio-nuclear, heteronormative, liberal, proprietarian, and/or coercive.Under the structures of capitalism, it is this family that is tasked with(re)producing capitalist workers (or surplus bodies) that are racialized, gendered, and otherwise subjectivated.
I have two questions for family abolition.First, what does it offer as a unique political program? What does family abolition offer that feminist-inflected socialism does not? Would not the transition to a society in which social reproduction has been thoroughly de-privatized also be one in which the family that we know and resist no longer exists? In a recent conversation on Shulamith Firestone’s anti-family critiques, a comrade suggested that family abolition is really not that far off. It just might not be named as such. As examples, she proffered contemporary revolts in the US against debilitating student debt or the movement for single-payer healthcare. Both reject, directly or indirectly, the neoliberal privatization of social reproduction, for which the bio-nuclear family has served as safety net.
Part of me was swayed by this argument.Perhaps family abolition is already part of a socialist program. And yet, I think Lewis is offering us something more. For me, Lewis’s call for family abolition remains vital for the ways it names the entangled oppressions of capitalism, gender, and coercive kinship. It is not hard for me to imagine, for instance, a socialism that preserves the bio-nuclear family. That presumes gestators to be parents. That provides children few or zero options to opt out of or into kinship. That continues to naturalize coercive gendered socialization through the family. That holds tight to “the distinction between mothers and non-mothers.” (p. 118) This socialism might hold onto the bio-nuclear family out of psychic attachment or its need for a political economic safety-valve. Regardless, Lewis is sharp not to allow the concerns of kinship to become secondary to those of work. Full Surrogacy Now is, for me, the commingling of Marxist feminist and queer theory that I have wanted without my even knowing it, like drinking a glass of water when I did not know I was thirsty.
My second question for family abolition:how do we get there? Given Lewis’s explicit commitment to utopian thinking, this feels a rather crude question for me to ask. Projects of abolition—be it the abolition of family, prison, slavery, or capitalism—are often accused by detractors of being unrealistic, abstract, and without concrete solutions. Prison abolitionist Liat Ben-Moshe (2018) argues, however, that these are abolitionism’s strengths.Abolition thinking rejects certainty, prescription, or a securitized future.How can we promise where we will end before we even begin? I think the same is true of Lewis’s project. Yet, “pragmatism and vision for the future … are not necessarily binary opposites.” (Ben-Moshe, 2018: 349) For example, when working on concrete changes to our carceral systems, prison abolitionists often distinguish between reformist reforms and abolitionist reforms. Whereas reformist reforms “are situated in the discursive formation of the system as is, so that any changes are made within or against this existing framework,” abolitionist reforms “imagine a different horizon…and are not limited by a discussion what is possible at present.” (Ben-Moshe, 2013: 87) Put differently, we might ask which reforms we will have to undo later. (I am quite sure, for example, that we will have to undo legalized same-sex marriage on our way to family abolition.)
I am curious to apply these same rubrics to the project of family abolition to see what they might offer, as well as how they might fail. In the case of family abolition, what might be some abolitionist reforms? Lewis offers several suggestions. Some are material: surrogacy worker organizing and autonomy, universal access to full spectrum doula care, and universal healthcare. Some are conceptual: recognizing surrogacy as work and “‘coming knocking’ on the closed doors of neoliberal feminist ontologies.” (p. 155) What else? What else might we demand? (Again, this is a question for all of us since this struggle and its demands will be situated in particular times and places.) There are inherent limits to this way of thinking, however, which may or may not square with Lewis’s aims. Neither reformist nor abolitionist reforms are revolutionary in any urgent sense.Neither is going to give us full surrogacy now.
I do not have any neat end to my commentary. I have raised more questions than answers. I think this is the sign of a great book. I am so grateful to Sophie for carrying these ideas to term. I hope that we can all provide the queer polymaternal kinship they need in order to grow and flourish.
Ben-Moshe L (2013) The tension between abolition and reform. In: Nagel ME and Nocella AJ II (eds) The end of prisons: Reflections from the decarceration movement. Amsterdam: Rodopi BV, pp. 83–92.
Ben-Moshe L (2018) Dis-epistemologies of Abolition. Critical Criminology 26(3): 341–355.
Blomley N (2005) Remember property? Progress in Human Geography 29(2): 125–127.
Bonds A (2019) Race and ethnicity I: Property, race, and the carceral state. Progress in Human Geography 43(3): 574–583.
Haraway DJ (2016) Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham: Duke University Press.