Earlier this year The Occupied Times (which is consistently excellent) published a second – different – piece I wrote on gestational workplaces. Flagging this here so you can check it out.
How Will Surrogates Struggle? (Sophie Lewis)
The stark and ugly two-tier geography of surrogacy—boutique and mass, transparent and opaque, North and South, voluntaristic and desperate—can be mystified through the telling of new age spiritual stories, and the blogging of miracles, that pretend there is no difference. Infertility having become subject to wholesale pathologisation, a surrogate’s final pay-day (parturition) inevitably becomes the happiest day of a long-thwarted would-be procreator’s life. Women helping women: it’s beautiful – that’s the way the optimistic contingent of the pro-natalist liberal-feminist establishment would like to frame it. Curiously, there are few voices to be found from the garment factory slums of, for example, Bangalore – where surrogates are recruited – that chime with the breathless descriptions of unforgettable journeys, bonds, unlikely comings-together, and incredible reciprocal transformations, which the industry (and Oprah) likes to platform. As is doubtless palpable to those workers, in many ways the outsourcing of gestation is typical of post-Fordist labour trends. A growing suite of reproductive and intimate domestic ‘goods’ now enter the international market in services, marked by precarisation and casualisation and characterised notably by a rearrangement of risk (typical surrogacy contracts read like litanies of risk disclaimers). Indeed, to zoom in on this small subsection of twenty-first century work is not to argue that it is qualitatively unique.
Rather, the challenge for surrogates, the value of whose labour is literally embedded in their bodies as living things, is to generalise their struggle. The experience of bodily unity with a child destined for an ‘other’ family seems like a very good place from which to instigate a politics of reproductive freedom. It springs from the same subversive mediational subject-position occupied throughout history by wet nurses, governesses, ayahs, sex-workers and nannies. Surrogate struggle by no means demands a technophobic attitude against assisted reproductive technologies, which should surely rather be reimagined – made to realise collective needs and desires. Actually, those who work as surrogates are the technology profitably controlled by others; they embody not only the form-giving fire but the partially conscious primary components. And the woman who stood up to her boss, with whom this article began, points the way to a revolution that begins simply with naming the labour of surrogacy as labour; naming the not-fully-conscious, not-fully-human, body, in which the commissioned baby resides, as synonymous with the labourer herself. We might imagine this struggle as one aiming to overthrow all conditions of life that stratify and impede the flourishing and re-growing of already-existing humans. Starting, certainly, with global markets in reproductive tourism as they currently exist, intensifying patterns of neocolonial inequality. But doubtless also including the nuclear family, based, as it is, on genetic heredity, inheritance, and oppressive divisions of work that prop up the tangled relations of nation, gender and race. Surrogacy, in short, has the potential to make palpable to us how co-produced, worldly and interdependent our bodies are. In the years to come, a form of radical cyborg militancy is to be expected in the gestational workplaces of the world.