Labor and Love Under Capital

The real path to liberation isn’t the call to “abolish the family.” It’s through radically transforming traditional family life with reforms that challenge capitalism’s corrosive logic.

Baby sleeping, circa 1950s, United States. George Marks / Retrofile / Getty

Is a commercial surrogate selling a womb, a baby, or a service? Does it matter? Should children “belong” to their parents or to the community? In Full Surrogacy Now, Sophie Lewis addresses these questions as part of her reflections on a subject on which progressives are far from united. Lewis is strongly critical of the practices of commercial surrogacy but rejects the call for banning the industry. Calls for a ban, she argues, are aligned with the anti-abortion politics of the Right. Instead, Lewis would like to treat surrogacy as any other labor issue and advocates for enhanced rights for surrogacy workers. In her ideal postcapitalist world, where children would be collectively reared, surrogacy would simply mean the care for others.

Lewis embeds her defense of surrogacy in a deeper view about the family. She feels that one of the goals of the Left should be to abolish the family, and far from being a source of oppression, surrogacy offers a path to the family’s dissolution. The conventional parent-child relationship in capitalism is an assertion of ownership — of the parent(s) over the children. It persists, she seems to believe, because of the family’s functionality for capitalism. It is in families that the next generation of workers is produced for capital, and parents, mostly women, provide caring labor gratis for the employer class. There is nothing natural about this, and it is fundamentally oppressive, not just for women, but also for the children.

In an ideal world, Lewis holds, children would be parented by multiple adults who would do so out of choice and not because the children “belong” to them. As a model, she looks to the practice of oppressed groups in history. So she cites the example of the enslaved, who, because they were denied the opportunity to “own” their children, developed practices of communal child-rearing, with multiple adults taking responsibility for their care. She considers current-day commercial surrogates as similarly oppressed. Her idea is that precisely because certain populations do not enjoy the privileges that accrue with the structure of the family, they are able to envision a liberation from the implicit oppressiveness of the family structure. Hence, far from abolishing surrogacy, it ought to be generalized.

While raising urgent ethical and political questions, Full Surrogacy Now largely fails in its argument. Lewis uneasily straddles the descriptive — the brutalities of the surrogacy industry — and the normative — post-capital, post-family commune. Even though several critics have focused on her critique of the family, that’s not the most problematic aspect of the work. Rather, it is her belief that the path to liberation from patriarchy and capital goes through a further commodification of social life. If “full surrogacy” represents her ideal of decommodified caring, it is not an ideal, she believes, that can be “legislated,” and the banning of commercial surrogacy most certainly is not her path to liberation. Instead, for Lewis, market dependency with all its perils is the only way forward towards a world without markets. It thus amounts to a recommendation of commercial surrogacy and hence, the deepening of capital’s incursion into domains protected from it hitherto. And in this, Lewis fails to make her case.

Pregnancy as Labor

The foundational premise of Lewis’s defense of commercial surrogacy is that pregnancy is a form of labor, like any other. The fact that it is typically unpaid and affinal does not alter the fact that it still is labor. The commercialization of surrogacy turns that labor into a commodity. The womb, she holds, works just like the “voice-boxes of call-center workers, the muscles of athletes, or the eyeballs of those on the smartphone assembly line.” And because it is a laboring activity — “uterine work,” she calls it — it should be recognized and rewarded accordingly, not abolished.

Now, there is no doubt that there is considerable labor involved in pregnancy. Does it follow from this that we can regard it as work, much as any other form of exploited labor in capitalism? Should we have no more hesitation in commodifying it, and arguing about its economic value, as we do about garment workers’ wages? Lewis seems to hold the view that the surrogate parent is exploited no less than is the garment worker, and thus, the goal should be to condemn and minimize her exploitation, not to ban the labor itself. Let us for the moment set the exploitation issue aside and simply agree that there are ample grounds on which to condemn the treatment of surrogates. Beyond that, are the different kinds of labor comparable?

Surrogacy contracts by their very nature dig deeper into the woman’s autonomy than do most other forms of exploited labor. First of all, in most contracts, the surrogates’ right to abort the fetus is often seriously curtailed; even more, that decision is often transferred to her employers, giving them partial control over her person. It’s true that surrogates choose to take on the work, just as a factory laborer chooses to be a wage laborer. But while the laborer at least has the right to walk away from the job, once the surrogate’s choice is exercised, there are severe restrictions on her exit options. The contracts allow for broad intrusions into a woman’s body and freedom including the agency’s right to medically treat the woman in all manners deemed necessary. Surrogates are often confined for the nine-month period of gestation with restrictions on movement and visitation rights. These restrictions are built into surrogacy contracts in a way that is not found in waged labor. While it is certainly possible to imagine contracts that would be more attentive to surrogates’ rights, the very nature of the exchange will inevitably call for limits on such protections. Since the process is intended to culminate in the production of a healthy baby, the normal process of “quality control” in the production process cannot but place severe restrictions on the surrogates’ freedoms, in a way that is unnecessary in other forms of commodified labor.

But that isn’t even the main problem. Maybe we could find ways of protecting the rights of the surrogate, much as with any other protected labor in a democratic society. The real specificity of surrogacy resides in the relationship between the worker and her “product.” The archetypal relation is one of profound alienation, as Marx explained. In capitalism, the worker has no real connection to the good she works upon. It even stands over her as an external force, as a source of her oppression, and it is not unusual for workers to consciously sabotage its production, and even its quality. But not so with surrogacy. The delivery of the product is typically a source of deep despair.

As highlighted in a BBC report, surrogates are sometimes not even allowed to lay their eyes on the babies they produced, inducing at times such a wrenching sense of loss and grief in surrogate mothers that it persists for years after the event. Lewis herself draws our attention to the silent tears of the surrogate in another documentary, Google Baby, as the newborn is whisked away even as the surrogate lies prostrate after her caesarian surgery. Another surrogate in the documentary is shown to part with twins she had birthed and spent three weeks caring for, including breastfeeding before the arrival of the parents, leaving the viewer to wonder about her emotional well-being. No doubt the experience of such distress is uneven, but it is recognized as a significant aspect or hazard of gestational labor.

This is the key to the qualitative difference between work in general and pregnancy as work. A garment worker does not shed silent tears at the loss of a blouse that she produced with her labor. Lewis admits that on one point, and only on that point, she agrees with surrogacy abolitionists — it is that “surrogates are selling a baby in a sense … [they] are not paid in full until live progeny has swapped hands.” But where she differs from the abolitionists is in “inferring that therefore, they are selling the labor power that produces a baby, labor which then evanesces in that baby’s “moving, still growing flesh.” Instead, Lewis holds that when “surrogates’ concrete labor is commodified, it congeals in the form of a creature,” and they are paid the price of their concrete labor in the production process.

The equivalence that Lewis draws between gestational and other kinds of labor unwittingly reinforces a notion that works against women. Her position that that the gestator’s contribution to the creation of a baby is severed at birth and has no relation with the baby’s “still moving, still growing flesh” is premised on the idea that parenthood is determined on the basis of genetic contribution — sperm and eggs — alone. This is largely the same view embedded in current legal practice. The courts have refused to recognize surrogates’ claim to parenthood because they are not genetically connected to the baby.

As Debra Satz notes, this “inattention to women’s unique labor contribution [by the courts] is itself a form of unequal treatment. By defining women’s rights and contributions in terms of those of men, when they are different, the courts fail to recognize an adequate basis for women’s rights and needs [thus placing] an additional burden on women.” In other words, the legal concept of surrogacy severs gestational labor from the definition of parenthood and in so doing reinforces the traditional notion of women as incubators.

Lewis strangely discounts the implications of the fact, which is also central to her own argument, that in addition to their eggs, women also contribute nine months of gestational labor to the baby’s birth. This gives the woman a connection to the newborn that is above and beyond the mere transfer of genetic material. In refusing to recognize the specificity of women’s gestational labor, and thereby the emotional violence of commodifying that labor, Lewis is only reinforcing the interpretation sanctioned by current legal practice.

Now Lewis might object that her reasoning for this is somewhat different. She does say on several occasions that her motivation stems, at least partly, not from views about pregnancy per se, but from an objection to all proprietary definitions of parenthood, especially those based on genes. So the reason it is OK to take the child away from the surrogate is that much like genetic parents, a surrogate mother should not have any special ownership rights over the child anyway. But, whatever its merits might be, surely an expansive ideal of parenthood cannot be based on an exclusion of the gestating woman from its domain. It is one thing to say that children should not be the exclusive property of their biological parents, and that there ought to be a wider penumbra of relations that attach to, and enrich, the child in her maturation. It is, however, quite another to assert that the wider community has first rights to the baby, and the parents will be granted access upon its pleasure. But this is what it means to defend the practice of taking the child away from the surrogate mother.

As a last resort in defense of surrogacy, Lewis observes that occupational hazards notwithstanding, “waged gestators … are not calling for destruction of the industry that exploits their labor.” In other words, the surrogates themselves seem to be content with their lot. But this is a strange argument coming from a progressive writer. The simple fact that some workers object to the abolition of their occupation can’t possibly count as a justification for continuing it. Workers often protest to it, not because they actually desire that labor, but because they have no better alternative to it. To take their protests as the reason to continue it isn’t the same thing as respecting their wishes — it amounts to taking advantage of their desperation.

A good example of this dynamic is the ban placed on manual rickshaws in Kolkata in the early 2000s. The Communist Party in power deemed the practice of laborers physically pulling the rickshaw to be a degrading and highly exploitative occupation. There is no doubt that it was both of those things. And yet, at the time, the rickshaw pullers protested against the ban. Now, it happens that they were also represented by a union. The union’s take on the matter was to support the protests — but not because they took the workers’ reaction to be a vindication of the occupation. It opposed the ban only because of the state’s grossly inadequate program for providing alternative employment to the laborers impacted by the legislation. Anwar Hussain, an executive member of the All Bengal Rickshaw Union, explained that “if the government comes forward with an acceptable rehabilitation package for all of the 23,000 people involved in the trade, we shall support the removal of rickshaws from Kolkata.” For the labor leader, the real issue is not whether the job is inherently demeaning — it is — but the protection of the workers.

For Lewis to submit the surrogate’s own willingness to undertake the work as somehow evidence for its desirability, is not just mistaken, it aligns with the more common right-wing defenses of some of the worst labor practices. True, when workers call for a legalization of their labor, it should be taken seriously. But it is not, and can never be, a trump card. Hence, any conversation on the possible outlawing of surrogacy must be integrally connected to conditions for comprehensive compensation and alternative employment of surrogate workers. It would have been helpful if Lewis’s research had explored these dimensions, even while promoting what she took to be the wishes of surrogate workers.

Abolishing the Family

Right after she leans on surrogates’ opinions to defend commercial surrogacy, Lewis turns around and ignores their views in her attack on the family. She offers no evidence that the surrogate workers wish to see the demise of the family structure. Indeed, if anything, surrogate workers overwhelmingly speak of doing the work for their families, especially their children. They speak of the longing to return to their familial setting after the forced confinement imposed by surrogate contracts. Lewis’s defense of surrogacy is ultimately rooted in her conviction that biological parents should have no special rights over — and one supposes, obligations to — their children. The real path to liberation goes through the abolition of the nuclear family. She describes her project as “animated by hatred of capitalism’s incentivization of propertarian, dyadic modes of doing family.” In other words, what makes surrogacy a potential model for progressive forms of social reproduction is the fact that it places no particular value on the biological connections between parent and offspring. Far from deserving to be abolished, surrogacy to her presents a model for transforming the practice of child-rearing.

Her ideal postcapitalist and post-familial commune would be practicing “full surrogacy” in the sense that people would be collectively responsible for child-rearing and for the care of each other. Everyone will be “surrogating” for everyone else. It’s worth exploring this more carefully. There’s good reason to strive for a social model in which people can lean on, and have the support of, kith and kin, friends and neighbors, so that children have a rich social environment and, even more importantly, parents have support in their responsibilities to their children. In this sense, a “village” is a much better model than an isolated nuclear family. However, in this model, we can, and probably should, expect that the first line of responsibility will be the parents. The child will know who to turn to, who is there for them, who is sleeping in the next room or on the next bed in the same room, etc.

But this is not what Lewis has in mind. She doesn’t seek to embed the family in a nexus of supportive institutions. She wants, instead, to abolish it altogether. She argues for a transformation of child-rearing in which the parents are replaced by the community. More still, it is one in which the child does not necessarily have binding ties with any particular people. She approvingly cites Shulamith Firestone’s model of communal child-rearing in which you have multiple adults who sign on as a child’s caretakers, and who have the option of opting out if they wish; and so too, does the child. She endorses it on the expectation that it fosters “an understanding that it is not nature but love, in all its contingency, that is the real source of the stability to which all children have a right.” It is not clear whether the biological parents are to have any special rights in this setup. Presumably they do not, since all relationships are supposed to be voluntary, and Firestone explicitly commits to wanting to “destroy this possessiveness [which issues from biological ties] along with its cultural reinforcements.”

I suppose that it’s possible for this setup to be better for children. But is there any reason to believe that it will? Amazingly, Lewis doesn’t offer even a shred of evidence that tearing children away from their parents, and parents from their offspring, is in fact better suited to the children’s emotional development. For anyone who has raised a child, the first lesson, painfully obvious from the very first day of their birth, is how desperate they are to connect; and it is apparent, at least on experience, that what they seek most of all in their relations with their caretakers is stability, not unpredictability. Is there any reason to believe that what they really need is to discover, in their infancy, the reality of love “in all its contingency”; is there any proof that for a two-year old, or for even a seven-year old, the experience of adults in their lives cycling in and out, as in Firestone’s model, is actually emotionally healthy? Even more, is there any reason to believe that the grandiose claims to granting children “autonomy” in their choice of adults is anything but a cruel fantasy imposed on them?

Children may not need their parent(s) or parental figures to be biologically connected to them; but they do need and demand noncontingent love from them. I do not mean to suggest that the current familial structure is best suited or even adequate to meeting children’s emotional needs. But the call for the abolishing of family seems to be pointless at best and possibly counterproductive. What should be attacked is an economic regime that systematically undermines the possibility of loving, meaningful relations involving adults and children.

While abolishing the family is obviously fraught with problems, providing it with the resources to reform its pathologies has much to recommend it. Multiyear fully compensated pregnancy and childcare leave, abortion care and leave, free and high-quality childcare, universal health care with special provisions for children and older people, and low-cost quality housing are all demands against the corrosive economic logic of capitalism, and they carry the potential to transform the traditional family in meaningful ways. When we are not tied down and punished for caring for each other, we discover more intimate, creative, and meaningful ways of connecting. It is certainly possible that the family as an institution will dissolve, not from an abolition pronounced from on high, but from the choices of people who are currently trapped within a punitive regimen of caring.

Lewis’s positions on surrogacy and the family are ultimately grounded in her opposition to the kind of biological determinism against which feminists have fought a long war. A large part of the anti-surrogacy campaign shares its platform with the anti-abortion right. Both often subscribe to the hoary idea of the sanctity of childbirth. Lewis is correct in stressing that the opposition to surrogacy cannot be based on reinforcing the patriarchal conception of motherhood, or of the heteronormative and racial assumptions that it typically promotes. She rightly decries the “humanist idealization of “fetal motherhood” rest[ing] on the conviction that gestation is not work but the very pinnacle of wholeness and self-realization.” Against such biological determinism, Lewis raises scenarios that defy idealization: “sometimes people can’t become mothers, sometimes they abort them, abuse them, abandon them, divorce their co-parent or even kill.”

It is of course true that not all women can or want to be parents, that most women want to and are able to parent only at certain points of their lives, that life circumstances, especially poverty, can debilitatingly impact the capacity for parenthood. But how does any of this negate the fact that women for the most part do form a bond with a fetus that they raise with their flesh and blood?

In recoiling against the Right’s continual invocation of the affective and emotional dimensions of family, there is a tendency on the Left to also reject the valuation of these aspects of life. And this is to their detriment. It is true that in the war against abortion rights, the Right mobilizes, often quite powerfully and successfully, the fundamental human emotions of love, compassion, and guilt. But Lewis’s approach embodies the flaws of a response that simply cedes the very ground to them. Any viable progressive vision of a postcapitalist future cannot look like an experiment in social engineering, but as a project that recognizes the ties, both within the family and without, that often underlie the everyday struggles of working people.

It is commendable that Lewis strives to develop a perspective that respects the labor of surrogates. But the dogmatic hostility to the parent-child relation not only makes it hard for her to connect with the emotional violence suffered by surrogates, it also leads her to the quite astonishing conclusion that the road to liberation leads through a further commodification of social life. For Lewis, if patriarchy weaponizes women’s reproductive and caring work in the form of “feminine mystique,” then there is a need to demystify such labor by commercializing it. But this is very odd reasoning, especially for a progressive. Since when is the commodification of labor, or forms of social integration, the necessary precondition to humanizing it? For any Left project, this has to be anathema.

The way forward is through the progressive constriction of the commodity form, the deepening of social supports for intimate relationships, and yes, through a genuine recognition of the labor of surrogates, who occupy that liminal space between the two realms.