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n Full Surrogacy Now, Sophie Lewis mounts a compelling challenge to existing ways of seeing commercial surrogacy. In thoroughgoing critiques, she dismantles two of the major contending positions with respect to this surrogacy: on the one hand, condemnations of surrogacy as exploitative, unnatural, and damaging to surrogates; on the other hand, exaltations of surrogacy as a practice that yields only benefits, especially for the pay-needy surrogates and the baby-needy surrogacy clients.
In contrast to these ways of seeing commercial surrogacy, Sophie argues that we must see surrogates as workers — that this view is both analytically correct and politically promising. Furthermore, she argues that we should allow the idea of surrogacy as technologically-mediated productive care labor, and the idea of all gestation as this type of care labor, to prod us to rethink what we thought we knew about work, love, and families.
In making this argument, Sophie draws on feminist, queer, and Marxist/communist political and scholarly writings. While the breadth of writings that inform her project is impressive, what is even more impressive — and what makes Sophie’s book a model for radical scholarship on any topic — is the manner in which she treats these works. Sophie is exacting in the standards to which she holds radical arguments, but she is no purist: she is willing to work with good ideas from texts that may ultimately fall short of her standards. She salvages what she can from these works; even as she critiques them. She also gives their authors credit for what they have contributed to her argument, and to the evolution of radical thought and praxis more generally. She does this without much fuss, moreover, seeming to take for granted that everyone’s eyes are trained, as hers seem to be, on the utopian project itself, rather than on the micro-dramas of intellectual argumentation.
This contrasts with so much academic writing that seems to struggle with balancing the airing of critiques with the acknowledging of debts. Sophie’s approach to the scholarship that has gone before her struck me as deeply “comradely,” to use a word that appears in Full Surrogacy Now several times. And it struck me as a way of making visible the idea, which also appears in the book several times, that all authorship isco-authorship (e.g. Lewis, 2019: 27; citing Biagioli, 2014).
It is as someone humbled by Sophie’s generosity as a scholar and impressed by the ambitiousness of her project thatI now discuss — in a spirit that I hope approaches hers in “comradeliness” — the two arguments that I was not entirely persuaded by in the book: the argument that all gestation is work and the argument that family abolition is necessary for any wholesale type of justice. I use the word “entirely” deliberately, because in both cases I was somewhat persuaded, just not entirely persuaded. I share the reasons for my hesitation in what follows, as well as some suggestions for how future work might verify and extend Sophie’s arguments en route to making sure that we are able to meet the challenge of radical extra-familial solidarity that she has laid before us.
Gestation as work
The book grounds its argument that commercial surrogates should be seen as workers in two main sources: in the empirical particulars of the Akanksha Infertility Clinic in Anand, India, and more theoretically in the argument that all gestation is work.
I am entirely sympathetic to Sophie’s purpose here. First, there exists the need to fend off those who would save people from their jobs (2019: 37) by making these types of work illegal (and thus unregulated). Second, there are those who would argue that these surrogates, because they are caregivers “by nature,” do not need or want to claim better working conditions, rights, benefits, or pay. I am persuaded that the Akanksha surrogates, and probably most other commercial surrogates, should be considered workers. But I think what makes them so is the fact that they alienate their labor for a wage and not the argument that all gestation is work. I found that argument ultimately superfluous to Sophie’s project, and — as I note above — not entirely persuasive. The disconnect between the argument that all gestation is work and the argument that commercial surrogates are workers stems from the fact that these two propositions seem to rely on different Marxist understandings of the word work, and the word worker.
Judging especially by what Sophie hopes her intervention will accomplish in terms of solidarity and praxis, it seems that she is mainly concerned with our seeing commercial surrogates as workers in the class-specific sense of the term:people who alienate their labor for a wage because they do not own any means of production, and people who socially reproduce the people who do this. (We owe, of course, a debt of gratitude to social reproduction scholars and other feminists for being able to see the importance of social reproduction to the existence and reproduction of the working class.) “Looking at surrogacy as productive care labor,” she writes (2019: 75), “opens up the realization that pregnancy workers can bargain, commit sabotage, and go on strike” — all strategies associated with working class labor struggles. Elsewhere she argues that we must “unlearn gestation-exceptionalism in our thinking about labor militancy” (2019: 16).
But this class-based understanding of work or workers is different from the more transhistorical and transcultural (and thus transclass) definition that often seems to be employed by those making the argument that all gestation is work. Kathryn Russell (1994: 296), for example, follows Marx in defining work as “the appropriation of the natural environment through conscious, purposive activity”—a definition that will be familiar to geographers with their long history of using this idea to discuss the social production of nature (Ekers and Loftus, 2013; Smith, 1990). Russell, joined by Sophie, emphasizes the fact that, rather than being simple vessels of biology, gestators can and do involve themselves in and affect the course of gestation: it is, like other things we consider work, a conscious and purposive appropriation of nature for particular ends.
It may be that all gestation is work in this transhistorical sense (although I will register my suspicions in a moment), but that fact does not make commercial surrogates workers in the class-specific sense of the word (they may be, but not because of an inherent relationship between the two propositions). We would not call Mark Zuckerberg a worker (a term that tends to imply the class-specific meaning of the word work)just because he occasionally fries himself an egg for dinner or changes his child’s diaper, even though these actions meet the criteria for the transhistorical Marxist definition of work. We would, of course, call a person employed to fry eggs or change diapers in the Zuckerberg-Chan household a worker, but it is their location within a nexus of social and class relations that makes them thus, rather than the characteristics of the acts themselves.
In addition to being superfluous to what seems to be Sophie’s main purpose in the book, I find the argument that all gestation is work in the transhistorical sense hard to accept unreservedly. In spite of Sophie’s and Russell’s insistence that gestators involve themselves in the process of gestation, I cannot shake the feeling that we might be bypassing too summarily what makes, let us call them, bodily-driven types of labor different from other kinds of labor. Sophie herself gets at what is distinct and remarkable about gestation as a kind of labor when she, for a different purpose, quotes the narrator of a short story who says:
“My body made eyeballs and I have no idea how. There’s nothing simple about eyeballs.” (Hunt, 2018; cited in Lewis, 2019: 128. See also Sophie’s discussion of our hemochorial placenta at the start of the book, e.g. 2019: 2).
As biologist Lewis Thomas wrote several decades ago (1974), in an essay contemplating, among other things, the responsibility that would be involved in having direct control over an internal organ:
“I’d sooner be told, forty thousand feet over Denver, that the 747 jet in which I had a coach seat was now mine to operate as I pleased.” “Nothing would save me and my liver,” he continued, “if I were in charge…I would not be able to think of the first thing to do.” (p. 66)
It is this sense of separateness from and ignorance of the internal activities of my own body, during my two tours as a gestator and at other times, that makes me reluctant to get on board with the argument that gestation is work in the transhistorical Marxist sense. Sophie anticipates my hesitation to an extent, noting that sometimes, even with ordinary labor, it “does us” rather our doing it (2019: 129, emphasis in original). One could also add that conscious acts sometimes become automatic, as with procedural memory, where a person who repeats a learned cognitive or motor task enough times can do it without conscious attention (e.g. riding a bike, typing these keys). I certainly do not want to overstate the difference between gestation and, say, bricklaying, or coding, or lullaby-singing, but I don’t want to disregard it either, at least not yet. Our bodies do a great many constructive, restorative, palliative, and destructive things, on their own and sometimes with some coaxing from us. Are we willing to say that we are doing work when all of those things are happening? Would we draw a line between bodily activities that we have consciously meddled in and those in which we hadn’t? Is it work, in other words, when my body produces antibodies in response to my having gotten myself a flu vaccine but not when it produces those antibodies because of an unintended encounter with the flu virus? Moreover, what might be the consequences of such an expansive way of thinking about what counts as work? Are there analytical or political reasons why we might need to maintain the distinction between these types of work? Even as I write these words, I am not certain that the conservative instinct on display in this paragraph should lead the way. But I include this confession of obstinance here as a placeholder for future conversations about the hows, whys and ifs of this way of seeing work.
Of course, if we do not have recourse to the argument that all gestation is work, we must argue that commercial surrogates are workers by establishing this on the basis of their location within class and social relations. Future scholarship inspired bySophie’s book can contribute to the project she has laid out by examining surrogates in other places.
Especially if we are interested in acting in solidarity with surrogates, future scholars should consider not only the location of surrogates within class relations, but also how surrogates’ lives and work are shaped by their legal and cultural contexts. Sophie does this in her treatment of the Akanksha clinic, and it struck me as more important than even she suggests. It is surrogates’ particular legal and cultural contexts that will shape the viability and the costliness of different activist strategies. By legal context, I mean simply how the work of surrogacy is classified according to the law in a particular place: are surrogates guaranteed the rights of other, more traditional workers, or are they legally disenfranchised of those rights by virtue of the legal category in which they have been put, as we see with contingent workers, or prisoners, for example? Are there struggles that have to be fought over legal categorization, prior toor alongside other kinds of struggles? (Are there cases, incidentally, where surrogates might have their interests best served by being legally classified as something other than a worker — property owners for example?) By cultural context, I mean primarily how surrogates see themselves and how they understand surrogacy (e.g. Pande, 2014; Ziff, 2017). What types of actions are attractive, are thinkable for surrogates? And what kinds of solidarity efforts will allow us to meet surrogates where they’re at with what they need?
Family abolition as necessary
Very briefly, I want to also address the case for family abolition that Sophie lays out at the end of the book. The case rests on the idea that families are inextricably bound up with the social structures that are causing the most harm to all of us. Building on the work of others, Sophie suggests that families are responsible for preparing working people for the “divisions and abuses of the workplace,” for producing“racially/ethnically marked identities,” and for meting out “the organized regulatory violence known as gender” (2019: 118; I have left out those Sophie cites in making these points). But Sophie also makes the point on a few occasions that families and care networks are already queerer than we have heretofore acknowledged. Moreover, it must also be added that in some cases, families are some of the only protections people have against the predations of things like capitalism and white supremacy, which relentlessly assault them (Coates, 2015; Dixon, 2017).
Before we can abolish anything, we must know for sure whether the family as a structure has necessary, internal relationships to structures like patriarchy, heteronormativity, white supremacy, and capitalism, or long-standing but nonetheless contingent relationships to these. Is it really the case that capitalism cannot survive without the family? I’m not so sure about that.
Put another way, we must know whether the family — already queered a bit — can be more fully queered, in all the necessary ways, or whether it is rotten all the way down. Does the family have to go too, when its noxious partners are dismissed or is it the case that, like children, families will be different in the future? And it is just a matter of getting there.
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Dixon TL (2017) A Dangerous Distortion of Our Families: Representations of Families, By Race. Report, Color of Change and Family Story, US, December.
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