Bookforum talks with Sophie Lewis

Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family BY Sophie Lewis. Brooklyn, NY: Verso. 224 pages. $27.
Cover of Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family

When the topic of surrogacy is given media space, stories usually revolve around the struggles of women with fertility problems who turn to surrogate gestators to relieve the pain of childlessness. Or they expose the commercial surrogacy industry’s exploitative practices, lingering on the perceived body horror of commercializing someone’s else womb.” Surrogacy is presented as either a glorious gift or the worst sort of exploitation. Sophie Lewis’s book Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family, takes a scalpel to both these accounts. Indeed, it explodes the very concept of surrogacy, and therefore proprietary parenting, altogether.

Lewis offers a searing critique of the surrogacy industry under philanthro-capitalism and the nauseating myths that surround it. In this sense, Full Surrogacy Now is a pragmatic call for worker solidarity. But the book’s intervention is in pairing this demand with a utopian challenge to put “full surrogacy” into practice and to wage an attack on the system of kinship-as-property—to consider how, as Maggie Nelson put it, “labor does you,” and to rethink how we might all become surrogates, with and for each other.

Why do you think it is important to rethink surrogacy as a concept?

The dominant—both “pro” and “anti”—framings of what’s at stake in surrogacy are almost as bad as each other: ahistorical, paternalistically moral, analytically truncated. On one side, there’s neoliberal boosterism and philanthro-business (“women helping women!”). On the other are blind calls to ban and criminalize surrogacy out of existence (“Stop Surrogacy Now”), which only render workers more vulnerable. The former? Shamelessly cloaked in the flags of gay rights and Lean In feminism. The latter is powered by a heady brew of bioconservative moral outrage, repro-normative sentimentality about mothers and babies, queerphobia, and misogyny masquerading as radical feminism. In both camps you find a top-down humanitarianism uninterested in the agency and opinions of actual surrogacy workers.

I call this whole conversation ahistorical for a reason. When the practice we currently think of as “surrogacy” kicked off in the 1980s under the heading “new reproductive technologies,” some Black radicals, notably Angela Davis, made the crucial but nowadays oft-forgotten intervention that, actually, the labor relations involved were nothing new. Throughout the world there have long been classes (or, in India, castes) of laborers intimately producing and reproducing the progeny of capitalism’s elites. So, there is a need to apprehend “surrogacy” in this sense, as a synonym for dynamics of racialized, feminized, classed appropriation—what the scholar Kalindi Vora calls “life support.” My book also seeks to reveal surrogacy to be a contradictory and impossible concept. If we were all “standing in” for one another, after all, there would no longer be any natural original bond from which to depart. “Full surrogacy now” refers simultaneously to the present reality that “we are the makers of one another” and to the revolutionary possibility that we might collectively “learn to act like it.” Another surrogacy is possible.

Building on the premise that all gestation is labor (most of it unpaid), you invite readers to consider how we might expand the idea of surrogacy in such a way that would radically challenge heterotypical, bourgeois family structures. Your subtitle is “feminism against family.” As you put it, “By surrogates I mean all those comradely gestators, midwives, and other sundry interveners in the more slippery moments of social reproduction.” Why does a more expansive idea of surrogacy challenge traditional notions of family and property?

What I’m getting at is the basic insight that all reproduction is assisted. In other words, I am proposing we take “it takes a village”—the common idiom about raising a child—seriously and literally. A human being is not an algorithmic unfolding of “life itself”; she is not the result of an egg-haver and a sperm-haver simply adding together their genes. No, a human being is the result of the labor of many, many mothers of many genders. This labor (including but not limited to literal gestational labor) and nature (genome, epigenome, microbiome, and so on) can only alchemize the world together by transforming one another. But the expansive idea of “uterine labor” I posit also isn’t the exclusive purview of those of equipped with literal, viable uteruses: It encompasses the many trans- and intra-generational forms of holding and letting go—nursing, incubating, doula-ing, and hatching one another—that weave the web of the social. There is no guarantee that these forms of care are “good.” Care can be (and often is) abusive. But I believe we can do better than the austere oedipal model—and, indeed, if we want to reduce abuse to a minimum, we must. I believe we can replace the propertarian family with something more polymorphous, distributed, and abundant.

It’s a leap, and a bold one, to combine a call for solidarity with workers who are predominantly poor women in the global South, with an argument for re-making kinship relations. Do you see a danger here in trying to impose utopian imaginings on workers who may not share them?

Leftists have frequently looked at the dystopian realities of market socialization and made an analogous “leap,” squinting to see their latent potential for utopian coordination. The shop-floor of commercial surrogacy is powered by people who don’t necessarily share my politics (though probably some of them do) but who have a unique perspective on how the sausage of natural kinship is made. And where surrogates have organized politically, they have demanded working conditions that render them less temporary, less disposable, less erasable—in short, less “surrogate.” They might or might not want to co-parent the infants they hand over, but they frequently (and rightly so!) expect to be cared for in return by the commissioning parents in an ongoing capacity—as equals, not au pairs or subordinates.

Since clinics recruit only those with prior gestational experience, in almost all cases, workers have gestated and raised their “own” children prior to experiencing what it’s like to gestate “somebody else’s.” So while they may not explicitly believe, as the Sisterhood of Black Single Mothers did, that children belong to everyone and no one, their struggle as laborers poses an immanent threat to the system of reproductive stratification on which the naturalness of the bourgeois bio-family rests.

The term “family abolition” is understandably upsetting to a lot of people who cherish their families. At a time when mass incarceration and violent border separations rip families apart, the idea of a “feminism against family” may seem inappropriate or insensitive. But I understand “family abolition” in the sense you use it to be about building more, not fewer, kinship ties. Theorist Jules Joanne Gleeson suggested on a recent panel that we might talk about abolishing the private household. Is that what you mean by “family abolition”?

Yes, by “abolish” I mean “build.” Build better infrastructures of care. I don’t mean remove ties between so-called biological kin. Gleeson defines her goal of family abolition as “an end to the coercion currently implicit to all parenting” and the “establishment of new universal conditions assuring each child an upbringing which matches their fundamental needs.” So in some contexts, it’s appropriate to talk about the “nuclear,” marriage-based private property form as the problem. But I also don’t want to shy away from the scarier term. As Gleeson has written, “The slogan ‘abolish the family’ tends to provoke surprise, alarm, and disbelief,” even though it comes directly from Marx and used to be a well-known revolutionary-socialist, radical-feminist, and (especially) gay-liberationist demand. The family-abolitionism I’m talking about flows from these traditions. It puts particular emphasis on Black-feminist theories and practices of polymaternalism.

It might, you’re absolutely right, strike some as insensitive to attack the the family at a time when the Resistance is busy asserting “families belong together” in response to racist violence the (supposedly family-values-oriented!) state is meting out to people traveling together over the border. But I’d suggest it’s the reverse. Of course, there are strategic decisions we must make when we are up against the border regime. As a would-be immigrant to the USA myself, I know this. But, given that respectability discourse and “families” advocacy always throw a certain quantum of (legally speaking) family-less people under the bus, I’d propose we take a more aggressive approach. Adults and children equally don’t belong in cages! People who want to be together belong together!

Because doesn’t this fascist spectacle in Tijuana—not dissimilarly to the daily white-supremacist horror of the Child Protective Services, adoption, and foster-care systems—expose the classed, racial exclusion on which this universal image of the natural nuclear family has always been built? Many within LGBTQ movements have argued regarding marriage that being dispossessed from the benefits of an institution doesn’t mean we necessarily have to buy into that institution ideologically. Instead of worrying about what ditching the family would take away, we might focus on the ways the family, as a mode of care provision, is currently (albeit to different degrees) emotionally stunting and materially failing us all.

Your final chapter is about water, and how we are all, in a sense, watery. What does our “wateriness” have to do with rethinking surrogacy and family?

Contemplating our wateriness helps, I think, illuminate our often unwelcome mutual implicatedness—the ways we are at stake in one another. It exposes the nonsense that is the dictum “blood is thicker than water.” Humans are also first manufactured underwater, leaving bits of their DNA behind, floating around inside one another. Moreover, vagrant genes and molecules from myriad other species make up this soup that is our bodies. As Donna Haraway says, being a human is itself a multispecies relationship. We leak, we are contaminated, and crucially, we would not be ourselves in the absence of these perfusions. But equally, while everything is connected to something, “nothing is connected to everything.” In other words, seepage, leakage, oceanic connectedness, and so on, should not be romanticized. I write in FSN that the art of boundary-making and -unmaking (amniotechnics) is key to remaking life on earth, not because water is benign, but precisely because it is a kind of “frenemy within.” In pregnancy, for instance, leaky hybridization can mean internal hemorrhage. Technologically or otherwise, we need to get better at making the watery work of pregnancy safe or at least safer for all gestators. Water is very difficult to make clean once it has been soiled or abused. Boundaries are very valuable, as groups whose boundaries have historically been disrespected know all too well. It’s just important to grasp that the containers we use to conceptualize ourselves—family, kin, nation, self—aren’t natural or immutable.

Natasha Lennard is a columnist for The Intercept and her work has appeared regularly in The Nation, Esquire, and the New Inquiry, among others. She teaches critical journalism at the New School for Social Research. Her first book, Violence: Humans in Dark Times (with Brad Evans) was published by City Lights in 2018. Her second book, Being Numerous: Essays on Non-Fascist Life, was published by Verso Books in May.