Feminism is fracturing. The noisiest debate is between feminists who welcome transwomen into the sisterhood and the so-called TERFs, the trans-exclusionary radical feminists, like Gloria Steinem and Germaine Greer.
But simmering away is a debate over surrogacy. Some feminists argue à la The Handmaid’s Tale that it is exploitation; others that it expresses bodily autonomy and choice.
No better example of the latter can be found than Sophie Lewis, a British theorist living in Philadelphia. She has just published Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family, a blistering attack on the family from a Marxist perspective.
The yawning history of so-called “unassisted” bio-kin provides the statistics, poems, songs, pamphlets, and novels detailing the discomfort, coercion, molestation, abuse, humiliation, depression, battery, murder, mutilation, loneliness, blackmail, exhaustion, psychosis, gender-straitjacketing, racial programming, and embourgeoisement. The private family is the headquarters of all of these.
Yes, surrogates are terribly exploited, she says. But we need more surrogacy, not less!
If more children are born to surrogates, the capitalist notion that children “belong” to those whose genetics they share will break down. Collective responsibility for children would radically transform our notions of kinship, “until they dissolve into a classless commune on the basis of the best available care for all.”
Lewis wants to reimagine pregnancy “as something to be struggled in and against towards a utopian horizon free of work and free of value”. She looks forward to the dissolution of the mother-child bond and to embracing “polyparental abundance.” Unsurprisingly she also wants to dissolve the notion of “woman” and “female”.
Some readers will probably have noticed by now that the terms “women” and “female” appear only infrequently in this text. The reason for that is simple: I feel there’s no call for them. The formulation “pregnant people” is just as good as the alternative “pregnant women, men, and non-binary people,” and it is more precise than “expectant mothers” or “pregnant women.” Precision is important, I firmly believe, because there can be no utopian thought on reproduction that does not involve uncoupling gestation from the gender binary.
So what does she think about Margaret Atwood’s novel? The dystopian tale presents a very dark vision of surrogacy. Religious conservatives in the United States point to the US$1 billion surrogacy industry and lament that “we’re already living in The Handmaid’s Tale”. It seems that Atwood’s fans are victims of “false consciousness”, as Marxists put it. Defining misogyny as “womb-farming” conceals less artistic forms of violence against women based on class, race and binary gender.
“In the mood created by The Handmaid’s Tale, fans can instrumentalise commercial gestational surrogates fleetingly as mascots for reproductive rights and quintessential victims of patriarchy, without ever feeling the need to engage a critique of capital.”
Full Surrogacy Now is a bracing read, with something to offend nearly everyone.
Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge
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