Reciprocal babymaking is the future: a review of Full Surrogacy Now

Katie Stone reviews Sophie Lewis’s Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family (Verso, 2019).

Sophie Lewis’s Full Surrogacy Now is, like all good science fiction, “a book about an impossibility.”[1] But it is also a book that clearly demonstrates how the boundaries of possibility not only can, but must be contested. Lewis moves from a consideration of the impossible, yet actually existing, working conditions of professional surrogates to the similarly impossible premise under which all gestational labour is undertaken. In Lewis’ reading, the fact that “bearing an infant “for someone else” is always a fantasy, a shaky construction,” is not attributable to the uniquely fantastic conditions of commercial surrogacy, but rather to the fact that “infants don’t belong to anyone, ever” (19). In this way she articulates clearly that “surrogacy politics aren’t just a concern for an infinitesimal, niche sliver of the proletariat,” (56) any more than the anarchism of Anarres, or the lesbian feminism of Whileaway is ‘just’ a concern for the inhabitants of those imagined regions.[2]

This is a text which includes astute readings of prominent science-fictional texts, but it is also a striking example of the power of science-fictional thought. Here the strangeness of cyborgs and surrogates is explored, not to establish surrogacy as an embattled, economically-compromised alternative to ‘normal’ pregnancy, but rather as a way of reflecting on the compromising, violent realities of gestation as such. By asking over and over again—“why accept Nature as natural[?]” (7, emphasis in original)—Full Surrogacy Now proves itself the “disloyal, monstrous, chimerical daughter” (27) of Donna Haraway’s ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’ (1985), and the tradition of feminist science fiction from which that seminal text was—and continues to be—partially, laboriously and reciprocally birthed.

The bulk of Lewis’ writing takes the form of an analysis of the material conditions of those gestational workers who are currently labouring within the commercial surrogacy industry. Lewis draws upon a long history of socialist feminist thought—Silvia Federici’s ‘Wages Against Housework’ (1974) is a particular influence—in order to reframe the discourse around pregnancy. Rather than positioning gestational work as an inviolable sphere determined by a naturalised biology, Lewis asks: “What if we really felt the politics of uterine work to be comparable to other labors[?]” (129). In this way her book makes a significant contribution to the pressing political project of advocating for the rights of those workers whose labour is so often delegitimised, exploited and criminalised. Full Surrogacy Now joins such texts as Juno Mac and Molly Smith’s Revolting Prostitutes (2018) in combating the white, liberal, trans-exclusionary, whorephobic, ‘feminist’ discourse which is currently dominating conversations around sex work and gestational labour. Lewis argues for the recognition of surrogacy as work, while simultaneously taking up a fundamentally anti-work position in which gestational labour’s “articulation as work in the first instance will be key to abolishing [it] (as work) in the long run” (42, emphasis in original).

The study which Lewis provides of the Akanksha Hospital, and in particular of the charismatic representative of neoliberalism Dr. Nayana Patel, is detailed, wide ranging and politically and theoretically rigorous. Lewis notes that

[…] most prominent white feminists, no matter how queer they are at home, no matter how critical of the family as the primary site of patriarchal and queerphobic abuse, are remarkably prone to forgetting this antipathy when it comes to legislating lives in sufficiently “other” (proletarian) neighborhoods. (41)

In contrast, her approach—where the lives of gestational workers from the Global South are centered—provides a welcome alternative to this ideologically driven amnesia. Even for those for whom commercial surrogacy is not (yet) a particular area of interest, Lewis’ determined focus on the material conditions of these particular labourers—in what might otherwise be a theory-dominated intervention into contemporary feminist discourse—should be noted. The emphasis which she places on the working conditions of surrogates themselves is of particular relevance to those SF critics who study so-called “pregnancy dystopias” (10), given that, as Lewis argues, “in order to paint the neat picture of surrogacy-as-dystopia that First World feminists so often seem to want to paint, actually existing gestational workers have to be ignored almost by definition” (16). By reintroducing the voices of those who are actively seeking out these supposedly-dystopic pregnancies into the conversation around dystopian pregnancy narratives, Lewis demonstrates that a queer, feminist, anti-capitalist critique of an industry in which “living humans have become the sexless “technology” component of the euphemism Assisted Reproductive Technology,” (24) need not take a Eurocentric perspective which erases the agency and desires of those same “living humans.”

The prime example of a pregnancy dystopia in which surrogacy is, traumatically, centered is Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). Lewis joins scholars such as Kate Meakin in critiquing “Atwood’s sterility apocalypse” (11) for its deification of white motherhood, its race-blindness and the “stylized pleasure” it takes in its “chastity cos-play” (13): something which has become increasingly prominent in the recent HBO adaptation of Atwood’s writing. As Lewis argues: “the pleasures of an extremist misogyny defined as womb-farming, risks concealing from us what are simply slower and less photogenic forms of violence, such as race, class, and binary gender itself” (14, emphasis in original). Lewis is not dismissive of those for whom, as she puts it, “a personal encounter with this particular text has been the moment of feminist coming-to-consciousness,” but nor is she willing to accept that the popularity of The Handmaid’s Tale in feminist circles ought to absolve it of all its many failings. In this she provides a model for those feminist SF critics who are hesitant about demanding a rigorously intersectional, trans-inclusive feminism from texts which are often hailed as feminist masterpieces simply because they champion the rights of (cis, straight, white) women.

Lewis also offers readings of Octavia Butler’s ‘Bloodchild’ (1984) and Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976) as texts which engage in surrogacy as terrifying and alien (Butler) or a utopian alternative to the ‘problem’ of human gestation (Piercy). By returning frequently to these texts within, and as part of, her wider theorisation of surrogacy, Lewis joins the great tradition of feminist writers such as Haraway, Susan Stryker and adrienne maree brown who weave science fiction into their theoretical analyses—once again challenging the boundaries of possibility. However, as Lewis’ coverage of these texts is relatively brief, and her focus on surrogacy is specific, I feel that there is more room here for SF scholars to explore the implications of what Lewis calls “full surrogacy” (19, emphasis in original) within feminist SF: a field which is deeply invested in the ethical manipulation of reproductive technology, and thus in the fact that, as Lewis puts it, “we are the makers of one another” (19). In Piercy’s lactating fathers and Butler’s multi-generational, multi-species communities where, as in the contemporary commercial surrogacy industry, gestational labour is coercively but consensually entered into, I see more than the oscillation between “the alienated misery of the status quo [and] the silver absolutism of their techno-fix” (28). I see a gesture towards the “horizon of gestational communism,” (21) that Lewis locates in the science-fictional sculptures of artist Patricia Piccinini, to whose work I am very grateful to have been introduced. Lewis argues that the question to be gleaned from Piccinini’s sculptures is “not whether surrogates will intimately produce us one day,” but “rather, how we should respond to them and hold them—since they’re already here” (158, emphasis in original).

Patricia Piccinini, ‘Surrogate’

It is this utopian turn in her writing which, I argue, transforms Lewis’ work from insightful critique to transformative critical apparatus. This is not a book which is merely about impossibility; rather, it demands impossibility.[3] Moreover, this is not an impossibility which lies in a distant future, beyond the utopian horizon. As Lewis rightly notes: “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” (147). Reciprocal baby making is the stuff of impossibility. It is also happening right now. We can only hope that, as Sun Ra might put it, “when you’ve achieved one impossible the others/ Come together to be with their brother,” or, in this case, with their multiply-parented, surro-sibling.[4]

Katie Stone is a PhD student at Birkbeck, University of London. Her thesis explores childhood and utopianism as imagined in science fiction. Katie is co-director of the London Science Fiction Research Community and co-founder of the research network ‘Utopian Acts’. She recently co-edited a special issue of Studies in Arts and Humanities Journal and she has written for Foundation, Fantastika and SFRA Review. She is on Twitter @cyborg_feminist.








[1] Sophie Lewis, Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family (New York, NY: Verson, 2019) p. 19. All subsequent references are to this edition and are given within the text.

[2] See Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed (London: Gollancz, 2002; first published 1974) and Joanna Russ, The Female Man (London: Gollancz, 2010; first published 1975).

[3] See Tom Moylan, Demand the Impossible: Science Fiction and the Utopian Imagination (York: Methuen, 1986)

[4] Sun Ra, ‘Reality has touched against myth’, Esquire (July, 1969) 53-141.