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 (Verso, 2019) is, like all good science fiction, “a book about an impossibility.”[1] In this provocative and carefully-argued work, Lewis clearly demonstrates that 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 — those who carry and give birth to ‘someone else’s’ infant — to the similarly impossible premise under which all gestational labour is undertaken. In Lewis’ analysis, the reason that “bearing an infant ‘for someone else’ is always a fantasy, a shaky construction” is not because of the uniquely fantastic conditions of commercial surrogacy. Rather, it is attributable to the fact that “infants don’t belong to anyone, ever” (19).

Full Surrogacy Now includes astute readings of prominent science-fictional texts, such as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), Octavia Butler’s ‘Bloodchild’ (1984) and Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976). However, Lewis’ work also provides a striking example of the power of science-fictional thought in its own right. 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. Full Surrogacy Now extends us a science-fictional invitation to understand deeply familiar words — nature, work, mother, create — in radically new and unfamiliar ways. By asking over and over again—“why accept Nature as natural[?]” (7)—Full Surrogacy Now proves itself the “disloyal, monstrous, chimerical daughter” (27) of Donna Haraway’s classic ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’ (1985), and of the tradition of feminist science fiction from which that seminal text was—and continues to be—partially, laboriously, and reciprocally birthed.

To begin with, we must remember that pregnancy is work, and it is often difficult and dangerous work. It is also often work in which the body is “working very, very hard at having the appearance of not working at all” (59). However, Lewis reminds us that the working conditions of gestational labourers vary hugely:

Pregnancy has long been substantially techno-fixed already, when it comes to those whose lives really ‘matter.’ Under capitalism and imperialism, safer (or, at least, medically supported) gestation has typically been the privilege of the upper classes. And the high-end care historically afforded to the rich when they gestate their own young has lately been supplemented by a ‘technology’ that absorbs 100 percent of the damage from the consumer’s point of view: the human labor of a ‘gestational surrogate.’

(3)

Since its publication, Full Surrogacy Now has drawn fierce attacks from ‘readers’ who — having read the title, but not the book itself — assume that Lewis is arguing that such commercial gestational surrogacy is utterly unproblematic, and that we should welcome the expansion of the commercial surrogacy industry. This, of course, is to entirely miss the point. Lewis carefully outlines the exploitative realities of commercial gestational surrogacy, a booming business that is rife with wage theft, deception, brutally inadequate health-care, a lack of informed consent, and extreme power imbalances. She also carefully picks apart the neoliberal, faux-feminist rhetoric used to justify such practices. Instead, Lewis places the lives and voices of actual surrogates, particularly those from the Global South, at the heart of her analysis.

Nevertheless, within commercial gestational surrogacy, Lewis also discovers the traces of a wider revolutionary agenda. Thinking about the experience of gestational workers becomes a way of thinking more generally about pregnancy, child-care, the organisation of our society, and the labour we undertake to reproduce society from one day to the next. Lewis writes, “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” (19-20). Ultimately, for Lewis, “surrogacy politics aren’t just a concern for an infinitesimal, niche sliver of the proletariat” (56), any more than the anarchism of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Anarres, or the lesbian feminism of Joanna Russ’ Whileaway is ‘just’ a concern for the inhabitants of those imagined regions.[2]

Lewis draws upon a long history of socialist feminist thought—Silvia Federici’s ‘Wages Against Housework’ (1974) is a particular influence—to reframe the discourse around pregnancy. By using surrogacy as her lens, she can reveal the inconsistencies in what passes for ‘common sense’ about pregnancy. “Pregnancy is not something society as a whole tends to question. Surrogacy, on the other hand, is hotly contested. Yet we can readily perceive that all that really separates the two is the possibility of a wage” (44). Refusing to position gestational work as a sacred maternal sphere, determined by a naturalised biology, Lewis instead asks: “What if we really felt the politics of uterine work to be comparable to other labors[?]” (129).

In this way, Full Surrogacy Now is part of a larger, pressing, political project. This is the project that challenges the white, liberal, trans-exclusionary, whorephobic, ‘feminist’ discourse which is currently dominating conversations around sex work and gestational labour. Just as infants do not belong to their parents as property, workers do not belong to their clients or employers. In advocating for the rights of workers whose labour is so often delegitimised, exploited, and criminalised, Full Surrogacy Now joins texts as Juno Mac and Molly Smith’s Revolting Prostitutes (2018). Here, Lewis argues for the recognition of surrogacy as work, while simultaneously taking up a fundamentally anti-work position. For Lewis, gestational labour’s “articulation as work in the first instance will be key to abolishing [it] (as work) in the long run” (42).

Although Full Surrogacy Now always keeps these wider goals in sight, a substantial part of Lewis’ writing takes the form of an analysis of the material conditions of gestational workers currently labouring within the commercial surrogacy industry. 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, Lewis’s approach 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’s determined focus on the material conditions of these particular labourers should be noted.

The emphasis on the working conditions of surrogates is also 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). Lewis reintroduces the voices of those workers who are actively seeking out these supposedly-dystopic surrogate pregnancies into the conversation around dystopian pregnancy narratives. In this way, she 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.”

One prime example of a ‘pregnancy dystopia’ 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.

Borrowing the historical experience of forced surrogacy from the American plantation, Atwood had […] clearly adapted its emotiveness for the purposes of a color-blind — white — feminism. […] At least the original novel had referred to Gilead’s eugenic purging of the tacitly African ‘Children of Ham,’ thereby demonstrating some recognition of the racial character of reproductive stratification as elaborated through the Middle Passage [slave ships crossing from Africa to the Americas]. In 2017, Hulu series director Bruce Miller took blithe erasure of black women’s historic connection with surrogacy to the next level. Announcing that he had ‘simplified’ the story, Miller presented an image of a society with no race, class, or history: a society in which ‘fertility trumps all.’

Lewis further 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). She is certainly 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” (14). But nor does she 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 Butler’s and Piercy’s writing: framing their surrogate-focused works as texts which either engage in surrogacy as terrifying and alien (Butler) or as a utopian alternative to the ‘problem’ of human gestation (Piercy). By returning frequently to these texts 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. From a SF studies perspective, it’s worth pointing out that Lewis’ coverage of these texts is relatively brief, and highly focused. I feel that there is more room here for SF scholars to explore the implications of what Lewis calls “full surrogacy” (20) within feminist SF. Feminist SF is a field which is deeply invested in the ethics 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 — just 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. 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).

It is this utopian turn in her writing which, I argue, transforms Lewis’ work from insightful critique into transformative critical apparatus. This is not a book which is merely about impossibility; rather, it demands impossibility.[3] The fact that we cannot necessarily explain every detail of what Lewis calls the “gestational commune” (29) must not prevent us from desiring it, nor from creating it. 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]

Patricia Piccinini, ‘Surrogate’

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.

N.B. This review was slightly updated in September 2019.