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 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 avers, 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 — and hence, by deepening capital’s incursion into domains protected from it hitherto — for this is what her recommendation of commercial surrogacy amounts to. And in this, she fails to make her case.