Rethinking Surrogacy

Illustration: Verso

Kim Kardashian, arguably one of the most famous women in the world, has relied on the work of two surrogates to carry and birth two of her four children, a decision that she made after experiencing common and dangerous complications—preeclampsia and placenta accreta, a potentially life-threatening condition that occurs when the placenta attaches too deeply into the uterine wall—during her first two pregnancies. Kardashian and Kanye West paid La’Reina Haynes, a young black woman they hired through an agency, a reported $45,000 to be their first gestational carrier for Chicago, their third child.

The couple did not keep their hiring of a surrogate a secret, or at least not for long. Haynes herself appeared on an episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, visibly pregnant. “Pregnancy itself, you know, it just feels natural. Like I’m supposed to do it,” she said in the scene in which she appears. After Kylie Jenner described what she is doing as “beautiful” and “amazing,” Haynes agreed. “I’m so proud of doing it in general,” she said. “Like, with all the women who do have pregnancy issues, that put so much trust in people like me, it’s amazing.”

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In a subsequent interview, Haynes continued to sing the praises of surrogacy. Before becoming the surrogate for Kardashian and West, she had already been a surrogate once before. “Surrogacy is a very positive movement to make, despite what others may think,” she said. “I love having been a person for someone to trust with blessing them with a miracle.”

Yet for all that Haynes herself thought of surrogacy as a positive experience (she is not, it seems, in need of saving), Kim and Kanye’s hiring of surrogates gave groups like Stop Surrogacy Now their most high-profile data point to use in their campaign against what they describe as “a version of slavery” and “womb trafficking.” Speaking before the Washington state Senate in January 2018, anti-surrogacy activist Jennifer Lahl, the president of the Center for Bioethics and Culture and one of the founders of Stop Surrogacy Now, framed surrogacy as the exploitation of the poor by the rich, with Kardashian as the latest (but by no means only) example:

As Kim Kardashian gets ready to welcome her new baby with Kanye West through surrogacy, I ask you how many times you have seen a People magazine tabloid where a wealthy celebrity is offering to be a surrogate for her low-income housekeeper. It is the rich who can buy. It is the poor women who have to sell their eggs or rent out their wombs.

Surrogacy is typically thought of in the stark, Manichean terms as laid about above. Is surrogacy a “blessing” and a “miracle,” as Haynes described it, or an exploitative, dehumanizing global trade that forces women to turn a womb into a rental and children into commodities, as activists like Lahl would have us believe? To help answer those questions—or more accurately, explode them—here comes the British feminist theorist Sophie Lewis with her new book Full Surrogacy Now, a manifesto that, as its subtitle Feminism Against Family suggests, is both a critical examination of the ideological underpinnings of commercial surrogacy as well as a revival of the leftist dream to abolish the family, the private nuclear mom-dad-children arrangement that Lewis believes “sucks.”

She readily admits that what she proposes is almost unimaginable. “If it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, it is still perhaps easier to imagine the end of capitalism than the end of the family,” Lewis writes, riffing off of Fredric Jameson’s oft-quoted line about our collective inability to imagine living under a different economic system. But Lewis is drawing from a rich leftist tradition, from Marx to radical feminists like Shulamith Firestone to queer people of color who, both for survival and out of choice, create their own chosen family. For all those who would describe the nuclear family as “natural,” evolutionary theory, as well as our own not-too-distant past, cautions us against proscribing our current normative familial set-ups as the Way Things Have Always Been.

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While plenty would argue that abolishing the private nuclear family is a utopian fantasy (I suspect Lewis, whose Twitter handle is @reproutopia, would agree with that assessment), just as many would likely agree that the current state of biological reproduction and the American nuclear family is deeply dismaying. Here’s just a partial accounting: pregnancy itself, especially if one is black and poor, as well as the exhausting and contradictory demands of parenting, in particularly motherhood; the ways that the family, as Lewis writes, is the “primary site of patriarchal and queerphobic abuse”; the glorification of “family values”; the economic pressures of childcare; and the precarious state of living that can all too easily fall apart with one push (an aging parent, a loss of employment, illness). The phenomenon of the Wine Mom is a product of all of these forces; so is Bresha Meadows. Surely something’s got to give, but what?

For Lewis, the answer, in part, is the “voracious appetite for private, legitimate babies,” the idea that babies and children “belong,” like property, only to their parents. It’s an idea that, she writes, “privileges making babies in the shape of personal mascots, psychic crutches, heirs, scapegoats, and fetishes, not forgetting avatars of binary sex.” (As Malcolm Harris breaks down in Kids These Days, what are children these days but human capital, ever to be optimized?) Family can be both a balm and the causes of the need for that balm, and Lewis’s take on the family is clear, describing it as the headquarters of “discomfort, coercion, molestation, abuse, humiliation, depression, battery, murder, mutilation, loneliness, blackmail, exhaustion, psychosis, gender-straitjacketing, racial programming, and embourgeoisement.”

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Lewis is attempting to do for pregnancy what the Wages for Housework movement did in reconceptualizing the unpaid labor done by women in the home as work, which was a demand, in the words of the writer Sarah Jaffe, to “end the essentialized notions of gender that underlay why women did housework in the first place, and thus amounted to nothing less than a way to subvert capitalism itself.” And recognizing surrogacy as work and surrogates as workers is a necessary first step, for if surrogacy is work, then isn’t, by extension, every pregnancy? Gestating, to Lewis, is “a job that never stops, dominates your mood, hijacks your blood vessels and sugar supply, while slowly exploding your anatomy from the inside out.” In Full Surrogacy Now, Lewis asks, “What if we reimagined pregnancy, and not just its prescribed aftermath, as work under capitalism—that is, as something to be struggled in and against toward a utopian horizon free of work and free of value?” What can baby-making—and kin-making more broadly—look like “beyond blood, private coupledom, and the gene fetish?” What would it look like to take the popular notion that “it takes a village” to birth and raise a child literally and seriously?


Lewis takes pains to make clear that she is not a fan of what she calls Surrogacy™, the global, commercialized industry that for surrogates, is an experience that “can be everything from severely banal to disturbingly ghoulish,” one that “in order to become ethically acceptable by any noncapitalist standard” would have to “change beyond recognition.” But rather than ban the practice, as anti-surrogacy activists wish, she believes it’s more important to listen to what surrogates—gestational workers—actually want. Like the criminalization of sex work, Lewis writes, bans on surrogacy “uproot, isolate, and criminalize gestational workers, driving them underground and often into foreign lands, where they risk prosecution alongside their bosses and brokers, far away from their support networks.” She is not necessarily thinking here of people like La’Reina Haynes, but of gestational laborers in the global south—the most detailed survey of the surrogacy trade in Full Surrogacy Now is of the much-written-about Akanksha Infertility Clinic in Anand, India, helmed by the charismatic doctor Nayna Patel. Of American surrogates like Haynes, whom she calls the surrogacy industry’s “labor aristocracy,” Lewis notes that on forums like SurromomsOnline, they tend to “doubl[e] down on the ideology of maternal generosity” and “naturalize the cult of the… ‘real’ mother.”

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Anti-surrogacy advocates, Lewis points out, also reify the “cult” of the “real” mother. But for anti-surrogacy activists, all surrogates are victims of a “dehumanizing” trade. Lewis calls out the alliance of so-called radical feminists and rightwing, religious espousers of “family values” that has formed to ban the commercial surrogacy trade. Delving into the history of networks like FINNRAGE, the Feminist International Network of Resistance to Reproductive and Genetic Engineering, as well as more contemporary anti-surrogacy groups like Stop Surrogacy Now, she highlights how anti-surrogacy radical feminists—let’s call them SERFs—are oftentimes the same ones who traffic in anti-trans beliefs and who insist on the inherent degradation of sex work, much to the dismay of many sex workers themselves. As Lewis notes, one of the founders of FINNRAGE was Janice Raymond, the former nun and radical feminist whose 1979 book The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male is often pointed to as a foundational text for trans-exclusionary radical feminists. The disgust towards surrogacy is one rooted in biological essentialism, a fear of the “death of the female” dressed up as “righteous feminist rage.”

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To such women, surrogacy can be nothing more than “misery and pain experienced by the women who will end up being viewed as nothing but a vessel,” a framing that performs the neat rhetorical trick of making the surrogate invisible. Lewis rightly notes that undergirding the panic around both sex work and surrogacy are the uncomfortable truths that “payments for sex and pregnancy potentially reveal about sex and pregnancy”—that sex can feel like work and a contractual obligation, that pregnancy is often a situation that at times calls for a strike (what is an abortion but a refusal to perform a certain kind of labor).

But the promise of surrogacy, for Lewis, is, through its reconceptualization, the reclaiming of “the productive web of queer care (real surrogacy) that Surrogacy™ is privately channeling, monetizing, and, basically, stealing from us.” She wants to “see a surrogacy worthy of the name,” which is to say, mutual aid and the recognition that “we are the makers of one another.” There is, after all, something beautiful in the fact that “the gestating body does not necessarily distinguish between an embryo containing some of its own DNA and an embryo containing none;” the emerging field of epigenetics illustrates we are more than just the result of the DNA of two separate individuals. This biological reality holds the seed of Lewis’s gestational utopia—a world where there is more care for children, not less; where all of us, but particularly those who have been denied the ability to be thought of as mothers (read: those who are poorer, darker, queerer), have “more meaningful forms of agency around pregnancy.”

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But what, exactly, would this look like? Far from being only the subject of speculative fiction, hints of this world are everywhere, if one squints hard enough—open adoptions; queer co-parenting households; the ways that “family,” for black and Native women and children who have been denied kinship ties, ”is as family does,” the creation of family beyond the nuclear norm out of a situation forced upon people whom nevertheless create “a life worth living against all odds.”

It is here that I find myself thinking again about La’Reina Haynes and Kim Kardashian, an example that shows the distance between Lewis’s urgently wished for future and the present. Based on interviews Kardashian gave about her experience hiring Haynes, she wanted to have a “relationship” with the surrogate. “My surrogate is such a nice person, my family absolutely loves her and I’m so grateful,” Kardashian said. Yet despite this warmth of feeling, Haynes was notably absent at the baby shower Kardashian threw for the child that Haynes was carrying. When asked why no invite was extended, Kardashian explained that she was thinking of her children North and Saint. “I don’t know,” she said. “It was a weird decision to have to make.” She added, “Of course I would have wanted her to be there, and be a part of it, but I hadn’t really gone that far in explaining it to my kids yet.” Even less visible, I would point out, are who I suspect are the numerous women who perform the labor that prop up Kardashian and her husband’s family—other surrogates that clean, cook, and care for their children. It will take an imaginative leap for all of us to consider them family—kin—as well.

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But not impossible, even if what Lewis proposes—“ways of counteracting the exclusivity and supremacy of ‘biological’ parents in children’s lives; experiments in communizing family-support infrastructures; lifestyles that discourage competitiveness and multiply nongenetic investments in the well-being of generations”—feels remote (and, in the case of one idea she highlights, the radical crèche, close to past examples of failed communal living). “All kinship, in the end, is imaginary,” writes Ruha Benjamin in her essay “Black AfterLives Matter,” a “creative process of fashioning care and reciprocity.” For Donna Haraway, who has lately taken up the mantra of “making kin, not babies,” the goal is parenting, not biological reproduction.

Lewis, who objects to the second half of Haraway’s assertion, still finds much to agree with in Haraway’s point about broadening our web of caring, mothering relationships beyond the nuclear family. It would be a world in which children are neither owned by their parents nor thought of as property, nor as genetic wish fulfillment. It would be one instead in which everyone who, in the act of mothering children, proclaims, to borrow the words of the Sisterhood of Black Single Mothers:

They will not belong to the patriarchy.

They will not belong to us either.

They will belong only to themselves.

Wouldn’t that be, in all senses of the word, fantastic?

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