In our dyspeptic online discourse, it’s relatively easy to write something that you know will tickle the outrage glands of your intended audience. From that perspective, you’d think reading Sophie Lewis’s Full Surrogacy Now for America’s foremost journal of religion and public life might be an easy gig.
A truly egalitarian feminism, Lewis argues, must extend the feminist challenge to sex stereotypes all the way to the origins of life itself. As long as we believe there’s a special bond between women, gestation, and the desire to care for the resulting baby, the sexes can never be exactly equal. So all these must be eliminated. Doing this, she suggests, will open a space for new, communitarian forms of family unconstrained by gender, embodiment, or oppressive bourgeois norms.
From even the most milquetoast Christian perspective, this argument violates so many foundational beliefs that it would be a straightforward matter to whip my esteemed readers into righteous rage. But Full Surrogacy Now merits more considered engagement than this, for it offers an insight into a worldview that today boasts considerable cultural cachet.
Imagine, if you will, that your intellectual tradition and social circle all believe “human nature” to be fake news: a mystification wielded cynically to naturalize systems of oppression. Imagine you see all cultural, social, physiological, and historical patterns as prima facie evidence of this apparatus, entrenched and bedded in through the ages via economic, political, and physical violence.
If you believed that, you might wonder: Given that this is all contingent, could we not do better? Could we imagine a kinder human society, freed from the monstrous, unnecessary weight of so-called “human nature” and the oppressive systems it naturalizes? Could we but achieve this, life might blossom into a polyphony of free-flourishing new forms.
These premises, or something very like them, underpin much progressive thought today. Full Surrogacy Now is no exception, situating itself in a tradition of “cyborg feminism” dating back to the dawn of our current age of reliable mass medical intervention in fertility, with the arrival of the contraceptive pill and legal abortion.
Lewis draws on Shulamith Firestone, whose Dialectic of Sex (1970) envisaged women liberated from reproduction by mechanical gestation and socialized child-rearing. She explores Firestone’s legacy in the work of Donna Haraway, whose Cyborg Manifesto (1985) calls for human/machine hybrid visions of personhood and feminist liberation to meet the digital age. Lewis develops this techno-optimist strand of feminism, in which medical advances are envisaged as capable of freeing all humans—but especially women—from those inconvenient constraints of embodiment that hold us back.
Lewis’s argument is not that we should embrace surrogacy as practiced “under capitalism.” Rather, she draws on Firestone and Haraway to argue that technology enables us to seize not just the means of production but also of reproduction, for a radical liberatory program. And the way to do so is by treating the surrogate as the central figure in reproduction, thus shifting pregnancy from the pre-political to the sphere of work. For if all gestation, not just that of surrogacy, is “work,” then it “has no inherent or immoveable gender” and thus paves the way for a final, radical uncoupling of biological sex and social “gender.”
With the link between gestation and womanhood dispatched, it becomes easier to denature the supposedly equally pre-political bonds of family. This is an essential project, as Lewis sees it, for Lewis stands here in the Marxian tradition of “family abolition,” arguing that communist struggle begins, quite literally, at home.
The claims made upon us by the supposedly pre-political affinities of family are, from this viewpoint, a core part of the systems of oppression that keep us down. The very idea of instinctive or given love is not “natural” but only appears so, to the advantage of capital, and of white bourgeois capitalist women, and to the detriment of everyone else.
In search of a love that transcends exclusionary affinities, she argues for liquefaction even of those affections and loyalties that are grounded in blood kinship—or, as she puts it, “capitalism’s incentivization of propertarian, dyadic modes of doing family.” This can, in her view, be achieved by centering the provisional, de-gendered, denatured, often marginalized or otherwise ambiguous surrogate “gestator.” This achieved, we can dismantle the “stratified, commodified, cis-normative, neo-colonial” apparatus of “bourgeois reproduction,” in favor of “gestational communism”: a world where babies are not the particular obligation of family units, but “universally thought of as anybody and everybody’s responsibility.”
A pivotal illustration of how certain Lewis is of the rightness of this task comes in an anecdote, where she recounts asking her father as a child whether he’d still love her if she turned out to be the milkman’s progeny. She fully expected him to say “Of course,” but received instead “stony, awkward silence.” Lewis recounts being so “devastated” by what this implied that “for the rest of the drive, I could not speak.” Implicitly, the instinctive, unconditional love of a parent for his or her genetic children is reframed as something capricious, exclusionary, and unjust.
Instead of being the foundation for life in common, to Lewis the embodied, particular solidarity of family replicates in microcosm the loyalties—and borders—of a nation. And if global justice demands that national borders be dismantled, so too the borders of the family must fall. She thus begins from a relatively familiar feminist call to revalue care, as a form of resistance to neoliberal capitalism, only to reframe all forms of care as in a sense forms of surrogacy.
For Lewis, this metaphor of surrogate care should embrace what we have in common across not just biological but political borders, and then return the dream of borderlessness to the intimate domain of family as a solvent. She cites her own “friendship networks” as a model for what might come to being in the wake of this shift: a “polymaternally held” warmth of “aspirationally universal queer love,” populated by “beautiful mutants hell-bent on regeneration, not self-replication.”
Where babies are still created, it would be via “queerer, more comradely modes” of reproduction than the bourgeois family—though this vision gives little attention to what any ensuing children might themselves want or need. She notes only that “there is no evidence that a childhood spent out of proximity from the womb one originated from correlates with unhappiness.” This may be so, though she offers no reference. But the question is less which womb gestated a baby than it is the potential dissonance between her hopeful vision of “gestational communism” and the elsewhere well-documented infant instinct to form an attachment to a primary caregiver and vice versa.
The most fully realized historical attempt at “gestational communism” to date was probably the Israeli kibbutzim, many of which raised children in separate “children’s houses.” The last of these closed in 1997, under the instigation of mothers who’d grown up in those conditions and refused to let their babies experience the same. In other words: The principal obstacle to “gestational communism” is particularistic love, an emotion grounded in the attachment instinct observed not just in humans, but numerous other species as well.
Lewis has no children nor plans to have any, and states cheerfully that she is “not really thinking of children.” But never mind the evidence on infant attachment; there’s no such thing as human nature, and we can thus safely assume that there exist no infant developmental needs that aren’t reducible to the cumulative weight of patriarchal and capitalist ideology.
Lewis is a skilled, mercurial, and often witty prose stylist. Taken on its own terms, Full Surrogacy Now is an elegant and well-written text. And if you believe there’s no such thing as human nature, its vision for family life is a logical extension of egalitarian ideals into new territory.
The principal obstacle to her utopia is the danger that human nature might not be a self-serving invention of white cisheteropatriarchy after all, but an irreducible fact of our existence. And if, in fact, human nature does exist, Lewis’s book is to be condemned for the idealistic coloration it affords what would then be a vision straight out of a horror movie: the technologically-enabled push to demolish all bonds of given, unconditional love—even of a mother for her baby.
Doing so in the name of freedom and desire, with no regard for what that baby might need, would be to frame a dog-eat-dog world of selfishness, force, loneliness, and caprice as one of infinite richness, possibility, and satisfaction. As with the free-market optimists of the 1980s and 1990s, this vision ignores the role played by norms, constraints, and givens in shielding the weakest among us from predation by the strong. Its utopian sleight of hand is thus profoundly neoliberal in spirit.
This neoliberal drive for deregulation of human nature is already at work today, in pursuit of a world in which all biological givens and relationships are opt-in, and none ever command special loyalty. Marriages may be dissolved if they are merely boring; bodies may be remodeled at will; parents have no special duty to or authority over their children. In this world the only argument against commercial surrogacy is a critique of capitalism, and infants can safely be entrusted to a string of faceless caregivers without harming their development. Underpinning all this is a vision of human biology as radically plastic, where all of us are hybridized blends of human and machine. I leave it to the reader to decide whether or not this is utopian.
Mary Harrington is a columnist at UnHerd.
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