A review of Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family by Sophie Lewis, Verso, 224 pages (May 2019)
Why is it that when we grab for heaven—socialist or capitalist or even religious—we so often produce hell? I’m not sure, but it is so. Maybe it’s the lumpiness of human beings. What do you do with people who somehow just don’t or won’t fit into your grand scheme?
So writes Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale, the most influential vision of a misogynist dystopia ever created. But Sophie Lewis, author of Full Surrogacy Now, has little time for Atwood. She is suspicious of the “‘universal’ (trans-erasive) feminist solidarity” that seems to be promised by the novel. In the fictional country of Gilead, women are valued for their reproductive capacities alone, while their social status is stripped away. This foregrounding of bodies, and what those bodies can do—or not do—seems to make Lewis uncomfortable, and she is not alone in that view. In 2018, Michael Biggs, Professor of Sociology at the University of Oxford and Quillette contributor, was condemned as transphobic in a student newspaper for tweeting an image of several handmaids, captioned with the line: “But I told them I am non-binary.” The reality of sexual dimorphism apparent in The Handmaid’s Tale does not sit easily within contemporary feminist politics.
Lewis finds herself in a difficult situation. She has set out to write a book about pregnancy, but is determined not to refer directly to the class of people who can become pregnant. She pointedly avoids words like “women” and “mothers” and instead writes of “people who can gestate,” with only occasional lapses. “There can be no utopian thought on reproduction that does not involve uncoupling gestation from the gender binary” Lewis says in her introduction. It does not make for a promising start.
Full Surrogacy Now makes a feminist argument for, as the author puts it, “abolishing the family” by no longer attaching any importance to biological relationships between people. In such a world, all of us—all of us in the category of “people who gestate,” that is—act as surrogates to one another. No one “owns” the children they give birth to or provide genetic material for. None of us would be paid to act as surrogates, because no one in Lewis’s utopia would be paid for anything. As a Marxist feminist, she seeks to abolish not just the family, but capitalism too: “What if we reimagined pregnancy, and not just its prescribed aftermath, as work under capitalism—this is, as something to be struggled in and against toward a utopian horizon free of work and free of value?”
Lewis attributes to the family a host of ills including “discomfort, coercion, molestation, abuse, humiliation, depression, battery, murder, mutilation, loneliness, blackmail, exhaustion, psychosis, gender-straitjacketing, racial programming, and embourgeoisement.” To free us from these burdens (yes, even “embourgeoisement”) we need to call a halt to the “gene fetish” which privileges biological kin. We should instead be encouraged to form more radical family networks, with no special meaning attached to our biological connections with one another.
Lewis uses the contemporary surrogacy industry as a sort of telescope through which we can glimpse this bright future. “The aim is to use the bourgeois reproduction of today (stratified, commodified, cis-normative, neocolonial) to squint through a horizon of gestational communism.” She is, however, sensitive to the fact that the surrogacy industry does not currently look especially utopian. In fact, it looks an awful lot like poor women, many of them from the Third World, selling babies to First World buyers, and often suffering horrendous physical and emotional harm as a result. But Lewis wants to argue that the problem with the surrogacy industry is not the “surrogacy” part per se, but rather the “industry” aspect of it. She argues that surrogacy is work—“womb work”—in which surrogates are workers, babies are products, and abortion is a form of wildcat strike. According to this analysis, surrogacy in its current form is just as undesirable as any other kind of risky job, and substantially more desirable than many other jobs under capitalism.
Lewis is by no means the first writer to apply a Marxist model to reproduction. The Dialectic of Sex, a 1970 book by the American feminist Shulamith Firestone, is perhaps the most famous example. Firestone argued against a romantic view of childbearing, insisting instead that it was a gruelling, burdensome form of labour performed by women (workers) who were legally subordinate to their husbands (the owners of the means of production). The only way that women could hope to be freed from this biological oppression was, argued Firestone, through the development of artificial wombs.
The Dialectic of Sex is a deeply flawed book, but an interesting one nevertheless. Full Surrogacy Now is an attempt at an update, 50 years on: recycling many of the same ideas, but supposedly removing the racism, transphobia, and other moral lapses that Lewis identifies in the original.
The attempt is not a success. The freshness and clarity of Firestone’s wildest ideas is lost amid the noise generated by Lewis’ 21st century obsessions. Her refusal to even use the word “women” is symptomatic of a muddled ideology, only partially concealed behind a prose style that is often impenetrable. For all of the supposed sins of the Second Wave, most of its authors did at least write clearly and without pretension. Whereas Lewis betrays her academic background in Critical Theory by writing of “the collective, co-imbricative, transcorporeal creativity of social reproduction,” Firestone memorably referred to childbirth as like “shitting a pumpkin.”
Lewis has inherited a flaw that was already evident, albeit to a lesser degree, in some of these early texts she draws upon. Instead of excising the flaw, she embeds it. Desperate to get away from a sentimental view of childbearing, Lewis instead goes to the opposite extreme, refusing to recognise that there is some emotional element to reproduction that separates it from other forms of labour—that working in a call centre is not at all the same as making babies in exchange for cash. She fails to acknowledge—in fact, she insists on denying—a fact that should be painfully obvious: women love their children. Adrienne Rich, a contemporary of Firestone’s, referred to the relationship between mother and child as “the great original source and experience of love.” Lewis prefers to use the sterile word “comradeship,” portraying the process of human reproduction in starkly economic terms.
Lewis quotes with approval the anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, who asks “if women instinctively love their babies, why have so many women across cultures and through history directly or indirectly contributed to their deaths?” By the same logic, we could well argue that since some people die by suicide, humans therefore have no will to live. And yet Lewis runs with this idea, arguing not only that the mother-child bond is not natural, but that it should be undermined: “there is plenty of exciting scope for embracing a left feminist ethics in which mother-child bonds can more easily be discontinued, handed over, and multiplied.”
Lewis is not the first to propose a radical overhaul of the family, as Nicholas Christakis writes:
The idea of collective child-rearing was not unique to kibbutzim. It has been periodically attempted as a desired social disruption since antiquity. Plato believed that raising children communally would result in children treating all men as their fathers and thus more respectfully. Communist societies have also been associated with collective child-rearing; the family is seen as a threat to state ideology because it fosters a sense of belonging to a family unit, and totalitarian ideology requires that family allegiance be subordinated to allegiance to the party or state.
But as Christakis goes on to show “attempts to fundamentally restructure or minimize the bond between parent and child have very rarely, if ever, endured.” The reasons for this are obvious to anyone not steeped in blank slate dogma. Humans are animals, descended from individuals whose offspring survived to adulthood. Natural selection favours attentive parents. This is particularly true for mothers, who must not only protect vulnerable infants from harm, but also breastfeed them, at considerable cost to themselves.
For all of her radicalism, Firestone was still able to recognise the reality of this, writing that:
[S]ince the relationship ‘mother/child’ remains intact, it is no wonder that when the commune breaks up, all the ‘godparents’ disappear, as well as the genetic father himself, leaving the mother stuck—without even the protection of an ordinary marriage.
When social structures fall away, the result is generally that the person left literally holding the baby is the person whose natural instincts make her most devoted to it. It is quite possible that, if Lewis’s directive to undo the “gene fetish” were ever attempted, the result would be that mothers and children were frequently abandoned in just this way. In other words, it is quite possible that feminist efforts to abolish that family could make women’s lives worse, perhaps much worse. Utopianism always carries with it this risk.
But then it feels throughout the book as though Lewis is more interested in riling conservatives than in seriously proposing anything constructive. She has attracted a lot of negative attention from right-wing media and sections of her book seem designed to induce such a response. As if the central theme were not provocative enough, Lewis also several times compares the foetus to a cancer or parasite, expresses a nihilistic wish for “this world’s destruction,” and insists that raising children in proximity to crime, prostitution, and homelessness is little cause for concern, since “we have no problem cackling along and celebrating monumentally ungracious treatment of newborns among non-human species featured on Planet Earth.” Do we?
All of these efforts to court controversy seem rather childish, particularly given that, at the end of all of this bluster, Lewis outlines only two concrete proposals, neither especially radical. Her first recommendation is that surrogates should unionise. Her second is that children benefit from having a larger number of maternal figures in their lives, who may or may not be genetically related to them. You don’t have to be a Marxist to agree with these proposals. Plenty of conservatives would voice no objection.
In fact, on this latter proposal, David Brooks, that doyen of the conservative establishment, has recently put forward some similar suggestions. In a widely read Atlantic article, Brooks argues that the idealised image of the nuclear family—consisting of mum, dad, and 2.5 kids, cocooned in suburban isolation—was a phenomenon unique to the post-war era. This was “a freakish historical moment when all of society conspired, wittingly and not, to obscure the essential fragility of the nuclear family.” These nuclear units have collapsed in the decades since, and they will not be coming back.
But family is good—it makes people happier, more secure, and less vulnerable to hardship. Across the West, the degradation of family networks has caused harm to many people, particularly the poor. In response, Brooks argues that it is not the nuclear family, but rather the extended family, that policy makers should favour. These large networks of people tend to be stifling for the sort of skilled individualists who are rewarded by the market for their willingness to uproot at a moment’s notice. But they offer security and company for those who are routinely dependent on others: children, mothers, the elderly, and the disabled. And although extended families are generally based around genetic relations—an inevitable result of our evolutionary history—there is some room for manoeuvre, with “fictive kin” often absorbed into the mix.
Do bad things happen within extended family networks, including all of the horrors identified by Lewis, from murder to “embourgeoisement”? Of course. There is no perfect solution to the problem of how human beings are supposed to get along with one another, and Lewis’s utopian scheme, never fully fleshed out, does not provide a workable option.
Aside from the apparently “trans-erasive” politics of The Handmaid’s Tale, there is a deeper rift between Lewis and Atwood. Lewis describes herself as a proud revolutionary, hubristic enough to attempt to reorder society with a blueprint drawn on the back of an envelope. Whereas Atwood, all too familiar with the “lumpiness of human beings,” warns us in the gravest terms where that kind of utopianism can lead.
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