Children of Production

Making babies is not a natural process

“I’ll wager that there is a baby making to be aimed for that will be defined neither by the alienated misery of the status quo nor the silver absolutism of their techno-fix,” writes Sophie Lewis in the introduction to Full Surrogacy Now, her bracing exploration of the gestational surrogacy industry. Aided by technology, gestational surrogacy is biological and social reproduction via network technologies, a fitting form of cyborg becoming for the biotechnology age. Gestational surrogacy is a signature form of labor for our age: a post-factory, homework economy whose potential as a example of worker agency in struggles against capitalism, sexism, racism, and nationalism has not yet been fully recognized or realized. Through listening to surrogates, Lewis shows how common ideas about the givenness of labor relations, the family, and nature in the modern world become untenable. Gestation makes babies while remaking the categories we use to make sense of the world.

The analysis of surrogacy in Full Surrogacy Now destabilizes the link between biological sex and social gender, between women and uteruses, and thus disturbs the fantasy of “motherhood” as the biological destiny for “women.” Yet Lewis does not suggest that these disarticulations are a corruption of a more natural, sacred form of pregnancy. Dominant cultural narratives assume gestation is private and mystical, a matter to be dealt with in secret, behind the physical and metaphorical closed doors of the nuclear domestic family. Through her deeply researched account of the surrogacy industry, Lewis shows how gestation is, in fact, increasingly public, commercial, and scalable through reproductive technologies like in-vitro fertilization and sperm banking.

But even with these modern miracles, gestation is still unavoidably reliant upon the bodies of thinking, agential human beings. Paid gestational surrogacy disrupts the cultural fiction that childbearing and childrearing are forms of magic. Lewis uses the growth of surrogacy to argue that all gestation — “natural” and technologically assisted — is a form of labor. Being a body in which another body grows is a form of work: gestational labor. It is, in all cases, a social relation embedded in capitalism, not something natural that stands outside market relations. Gestational surrogacy markets just make this social fact impossible to ignore.

As a term, gestational labor — like “emotional labor” and “clinical labor” before it — highlights a feminized form of labor that, though typically unwaged, is in fact work that can be alienated and exploited for profit. Technologies for becoming a gestator, like period and ovulation trackers, also turn hormonal signaling and the transit of female human gametes into sources of financial value. These are all intensely embodied forms of work, and they refute the idea that contemporary capitalism has disembodied labor or made it more immaterial. They demand that we consider instead whose physical bodies are still treated as resources, and to what ends.

Embodied labor in the service of making kin may be the most modern form of labor around. Far from being marginal, gestational surrogacy has all the hallmarks of contemporary capitalist production. It is, for one, globally distributed. In many cases, the process of family-making through surrogacy is transnational. In Full Surrogacy Now, we learn about parents from Israel and the U.S. who contract with gestation workers in India. Dispersed clinics and homes are linked together into a virtual factory using modern communications technology. The actual work of gestation is carried out within a largely unregulated cottage industry, making it part of what Donna Haraway has described as “the homework economy”: Homework has comprised forms of capitalist production that are disaggregated from the factory and feminized both culturally and economically while being rendered flexible and still eminently scalable: electronics manufacturing and recycling are late 20th-century examples, or lacework in the 19th century. Gestational surrogacy — “a nine-month, 24/7, piecework commission with a bioethical burden of responsibility attached to it” — represents homework’s current frontier.

Attention should be paid to how the voluntary use of bodily functions within families is also shaped by power

When seen as laborers rather than natural vessels, gestators can appear as active participants in their biological functions rather than merely subject to them. Lewis presents readers with the agency of surrogacy workers themselves, despite the many ways they face disempowerment and exploitation: Their role in gestational labor, she writes, “defies the still-active ideologies that construct the womb as the passive object of efficient and expert harvesting, a space of waste, surplusness, or emptiness that is profitably occupied.” Gestational workers are neither entirely at the whims of “natural” biological processes nor fully at the mercy of gestational clinic owners and contracting families. They can always break the rules if they are incensed enough at working conditions to risk their pay, and at a transnational distance there is not much the intended family can do about it.

Some organizations like Stop Surrogacy Now have refused to recognize the agency of these workers. Instead, Lewis argues, these anti-surrogacy groups largely view them as victims in much the same way anti-sex-work feminists regard sex workers. Such groups seek to protect the interests of an imagined, universal “woman” subject against bodily appropriation under conditions of economic coercion. But the problem with this is that it extends the moralizing of patriarchal, heteronormative, nuclear family norms further into public life. Rather than “rescuing” people from using their bodies to do things that are normatively classified as intimate and private, attention should be paid instead to how the voluntary use of the same bodily functions within families is also shaped by power.

The attitude of anti-surrogacy organizations restages a tired confrontation of privileged white, cis, heteronormative women in the West against working class, black and brown, and transnational feminist workers whose bodies have long been resources for capital. Rather than identifying fleeting moments of worker agency and building solidarity on that basis, these groups would effectively deny that meaningful resistance is even possible.

As an alternative, Lewis argues we should focus attention on recognizing when, where, and how bodies become embedded in markets. Bringing surrogacy into the heart of feminist politics would allow for a more universal and inclusive feminist platform, Lewis suggests. It can give workers the footing to advocate for basic human rights and build more leverage to fight against forms of exploitation within families that are often hidden from public view. It presents new ways to work toward a future based on appeals to justice and worker power rather than appeals to a mystical cult of motherhood.

It would be a mistake, Lewis wants us to understand, to see surrogacy as capitulating the sacred and natural space of the family to the artificial mastery of capitalism. If gestation is labor and thus social and not (entirely) natural, then so too is the family, even (or especially) in its heteronormative, patriarchal, nuclear form.

The cultural association of gestation with the nuclear, heterosexual family and with the private space of the home has exempted most gestational labor (that is, most non-technologically aided pregnancies over time) from the formal economy until recently. But modern reproductive technologies — techniques that, at more than 30 years old, are already hitting middle age — have already disrupted the “nature” of family. As medical anthropologists like Rayna Rapp have observed, the direct effect of modern reproductive techniques like surrogacy, in vitro fertilization, and prenatal testing has been to reduce the biological imperative for cis women to exclusively bear children in particular ways at particular times of life. People regularly bear children into their 40s and 50s, or hire surrogates to do it for them, and trans men can carry pregnancies to term just as well as cis women. This places the assumption of a biological “necessity” of a fertile adult male and a subordinate fertile adult female to make a family on highly shaky ground.

Surrogacy makes it obvious that the family and the home are continuous with public spaces and markets, not exceptions to them. When families are made with the aid of outsiders, entrepreneurs, and technology, they must be recognized as fully integrated with broader social and political institutions. The legal status of children as a form of property is laid bare and the work of making families is explicitly priced when a gestational worker is paid for their effort. Making kin, in other words, is not a natural process but a means by which constructed categories of race, gender, family, markets, and nations are articulated in infinite novel ways. Gestational surrogacy shows how racialized geopolitics, the gendering of work, and market relations are always being negotiated in the process.

Surrogacy makes it obvious that the family and the home are continuous with public spaces and markets, not exceptions to them

Lewis is far from the first to critique the “naturalness” of the family. “Abolition of the family!” cried Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto in 1848, and Engels returned to the theme in The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State in 1884. Though wildly racist in its view that human societies evolve toward European civilization, the latter treatise also recognized the contingency of family arrangements. In Engels’s account, the naturalization of the nuclear, biologically related family follows from the entirely cultural desire to hoard wealth and pass it down through the generations, allowing the rich to get richer while the poor get poorer.

Many feminists have since taken up Engels’s critique, with Shulamith Firestone, one of Lewis’s key textual companions, chief among them. In Firestone’s version of family abolition, technology plays a key role, with artificial wombs liberating women (understood by Firestone as biologically female and white) from the biological labor of childbearing. No longer just gestation machines, women can seek independence from abusive and controlling husbands and relinquish their individual claims (and duties) to children to a larger community of caregivers. Children benefit as well, freed from the obligation to perform obsequious respect to abusive parents and learning from the wisdom and experience of more than one or two adults. In Firestone’s hopeful vision, artificial wombs would distribute caretaking and give women more choices for control of their reproduction.

While Firestone saw women’s universal sexual liberation cascading into a series of other liberations, Lewis is attentive to the fact that the category of “woman” does not have universal meaning, nor does it map perfectly onto questions of sex and childrearing. For example, she is sensitive to the fact that the ability to build a “family” in the first place is unevenly distributed. Queer families and poor families have fewer opportunities to gestate and raise children how they wish in most countries in the world, in the first case due to the continued high expense of surrogacy and adoption and in the second due to state surveillance and intervention in the parenting practices of the poor. For these families, universal access to gestational surrogacy could ensure a wide range of family-making options. But fully realizing these opportunities would also require an interrogation of the carceral state and the criminalization of poverty. Thus for Lewis, as for Firestone, surrogacy — embodied or outsourced to machines — is but one step toward the liberation of women, children, and families. It is an important one, but one still embedded in broader systems of oppression, including race, nationalism, class, caste, religious fundamentalisms, and ongoing struggles for decolonization.

Full Surrogacy Now shows that there is still much more that can be done to decouple sex, biology, and gender norms from their fixed relations. Furthermore, it shows how much more regard must be paid to the workers in the reproduction industry who use their bodies to make miracles of modern science possible. The workers most intensely engaged in body work might have the most to teach the rest of us about how to remake families without reifying nature or normative arrangements of power, if only we would make space for them to lead.

By examining a form of gestation that is more obviously artificial than most, Lewis demystifies the labor involved in so-called “natural” kinmaking. Her refusal to appeal to a return to a romanticized past state of nature has earned her death threats, insults about her appearance, and other malevolent and misogynistic attacks on social media — a demonstration of the power that nature still holds in how kin is imagined. The nature at stake for those who hurl death threats is not pastoral or gentle or retiring. It is Nature with a big N, a cudgel with which to beat one’s enemies, an ideological bastion that evidently triggers a violent systemic defense when presented with a well-armed challenge.

Without appeals to Nature, patriarchy would be on much flimsier footing. Women couldn’t be defined as “natural” gestators or “inherently” inferior to men in technical skills. They would no longer need paternalistic protection from the darker elements of their own being. Even with the middling reproductive technologies available today — birth control devices that exacerbate mental illness, surrogacy techniques that still require female bodies, egg harvesting procedures that require many months of painful hyperfertility  — males need only to provide a few cells and the biological process of gestation can chug along largely without them. Challenging the social order by pointing out that it does not perfectly reflect nature renders many forms of oppression illogical, indefensible, immaterial. So when Lewis debunks the doctrine of Nature, patriarchy’s immune system must fight for its life.

Gestation operates as a metaphor and a means for a needed rethinking of kinship as chosen family

Appeals to a singular Nature to justify the order of society are always gestures of oppression. Such appeals, whether they concern gender, or class, or disability, or race, assert that the categories and hierarchies that humans observe within it map perfectly onto cultural categories. But like the gestational workers and the babies they bear, the very idea of Nature is also produced, pushed forth from the cunt of capitalism, generated in the circulations of semen and ova and people in transnational supply chains and scientific laboratories. In the case of gestational surrogacy, biologically related families are made through tremendous effort across time and space, mediated by digital communications technologies, managed via active negotiations within transnational supply chains, producing children who have a minimum of two biological contributors.

Lewis’s hope in Full Surrogacy Now (and mine, in general) is that unmasking Nature — in this case through demystifying gestation and surrogacy — can be a tool for liberating people of all genders from racist, capitalist, colonial heteropatriarchy. Gestation operates as a metaphor and a means for a needed rethinking of kinship as chosen family, helped by technology (or not), and held together through collective deliberation.

Instead of appealing to Nature to guide us through kin-making under capitalism, Lewis proposes that we embrace a watery “amniotechnics”: “the art of holding and caring even while being ripped into, at the same time as being held.” Amniotechnics offers another way to trace our relations to one another: through the medium of water, not through ideas (the domain of intellectual history) or genes (the domain of biology) or dealmaking (the domain of big-p Politics). Amniotechnics offers a grammar for linking, for example, gestational surrogates in India to the Standing Rock water protectors’ cries of “mni wiconi” in 2016 to Lewis’s own biography in the final pages of the book.

Not merely becoming, but suspended in fluid relation, barely contained and yet helping contain one other, gestation might be a needed model for thinking queer kinship that might help us stand a chance on a planet on the brink. “Everywhere about me, I can see beautiful militants hell-bent on regeneration, not self-replication,” Lewis writes. “Recognizing our inextricably surrogated contamination with and by everybody else (and everybody else’s babies) will not so much ‘smash’ the nuclear family as make it unthinkable.” This is the nature we need, and the nature we deserve: one that makes purity, patriarchy, and biology as destiny unthinkable. Surrogacy is one way to rethink how we use and define nature, and to figure out how to remake it to foster flourishing rather than oppression. Count me in among the revolutionaries, before it’s too late.

Danya Glabau researches, teaches, and writes, about gender, bodies, and technology in New York at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research and NYU Tandon School of Engineering. She is working on a book on food allergies, gender, and capitalism.