Abolishing the family and obtaining gestational justice: an interview with Sophie Lewis

INTERVIEW

Sophie Lewis is a feminist theorist, scholar, and author of Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family, which argues for the abolition of the nuclear family as we know it, and against the long-accepted status quo of pregnancy, which sees 300,000 women die a year during childbirth (World Health Organisation). “What other workplace or industry would society accept, if it injured millions and killed 300,000 a year?” asks Lewis. Following her appearance on the eleventh episode of School of Resistance, Politika News (virtually) sat down with the author of Full Surrogacy Now to talk family and pregnancy.


In the introduction of your debut book, Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family, you give a stark statistic on pregnancy: ‘hundreds of thousands of humans die because of their pregnancies every year.’ You say this is a ‘social situation’, not a natural one. What do you mean by this?

The World Health Organization estimates that more than 300,000 people died from pregnancy-related causes in 2015. It’s a horrifying statistic, at least, it is to me, and to you. I reject the notion that there’s some kind of “biological” necessity for this kind of human carnage; that it is somehow the “natural” cost on the human population of reproducing the species. My suspicion is that, culturally speaking, societies around the world still harbour some sense of resignation vis-à-vis the beautiful, tragic sacrifice “Nature” requires of those among us who nobly perform gestational labour, frequently paying for the privilege with our lives.

“My suspicion is that, culturally speaking, societies around the world still harbour some sense of resignation vis-à-vis the beautiful, tragic sacrifice “Nature” requires of those among us who nobly perform gestational labour, frequently paying for the privilege with our lives.”

And my point here, which you’ve quoted, is that the naturalisation of certain problems (poverty, for example… and pregnancy) is itself a social achievement. In other words, it is in our power to choose, collectively, what we consider ‘natural.’ As you know, I seek to modify the frame on contemporary pregnancies by retrieving the 1970s discourse according to which the fact of gestating is productive labor and not only that but also, under capitalism, work. What other workplace or industry would society accept, if it injured millions and killed 300,000 a year? Let us, I say, direct the full force of imaginative courage and scientific utopianism towards the problem of pregnancy. Another gestational reality is possible.

“What other workplace or industry would society accept, if it injured millions and killed 300,000 a year?”


In a 2019 discussion published by Verso Books, you say that capitalism has relied on the family as a unit of social discipline, social order, and austerity. How has the nuclear family been a unit of austerity?

Most straightforwardly, I am referring to the way in which the nuclear family is austere because, well, it is small and labour-intensive (and a very convenient source of free labour for the state and for capital).

It is supposed to meet almost all our needs, and represent a haven in a heartless world, but in fact this is quite a tall order – e.g. what if it is impossible (even just exhausting) to get along with those particular individuals? what if they beat us or violate us? – and even when it is relatively happy, the arrangement stretches the members of that “haven” very thin in terms of the labour it requires.

“It is supposed to meet almost all our needs, and represent a haven in a heartless world, but […] what if they beat us or violate us?”

Nuclear households are logically and ecologically irrational. Supposedly there is a sense of luxury for individuals to enjoy in this infinite replication of tiny laundries, kitchens, recreation facilities and so on, over and over, in non-overlapping boxes. However, real abundance, real (communal) luxury derives from provisions that are held not in private but in common.

So, I would like us all to be denaturalising the nuclear family as a base unit or infrastructure for reproduction. What if the private household were not the default psychological architecture for modern living? What kind of relational abundance might we, instead, build around ourselves?

“What if the private household were not the default psychological architecture for modern living? What kind of relational abundance might we, instead, build around ourselves?”


If the nuclear family has been a tool for capitalism, do you believe feminists ought to look towards the often vilified ’s’ word as an alternative system to capitalism? Or do you believe there is a third route?

Ha ha, to be sure, yes. I am a feminist to my very core, but above all, I am a communist (small c) – how’s that for a vilified word?

The distinction between socialism (state-administered equality) and communism (true classlessness) seems important to me. And while I’m not precious about terminology, the best name I know of for the society my friends and I desire, the society in which capitalism, imperialism, white supremacy, settler colonialism and gender unfreedom would be no more, is ‘communism.’

I leave ‘third routes’ and such to Tony Blair, and to the growing number of red-brown (socialist-fascist, as in ‘brownshirt’) pundits and podcasters quivering in anticipation at every opportunity to throw queer and Black people under the bus.

“The best name I know of for the society my friends and I desire, the society in which capitalism, imperialism, white supremacy, settler colonialism and gender unfreedom would be no more, is ‘communism.’”


In your conversation with Verso Books, you mention that during the 60s and 70s, feminists were arguing for women and children to have more authority over their households. I have argued that women and girls won’t be free until paternal authority has disappeared (or drastically been reformed). Would you agree that the key to revolutionising the nuclear family is taking away paternal authority?

Feminists and Gay Liberationists and Marxists were arguing for children’s liberation, yes.

In the nineteenth century, utopian socialists were envisioning family abolition in theory but also in practice, drawing up templates for 200-person communes or “phalansteries.” Certainly, the question of overthrowing paternal authority, as you put it, has always been a key component of this queer feminist and child-emancipationist horizon.

Mothers are in no way innocent in the history of the family, however. White bourgeois women in particular (but not only white bourgeois women) have been deeply implicated in the building and maintaining of eugenic, cisheteropatriarchal order.

Conversely, people of all genders can do the labour of liberatory mothering, as I demand we all do, in Full Surrogacy Now. So it’s important to keep in mind that many dads (not to mention non-binary parents) are wonderful mother-ers. And, if you like, some mothers are total dads. 

“Mothers are in no way innocent in the history of the family, however. White bourgeois women in particular […] have been deeply implicated in the building and maintaining of eugenic, cisheteropatriarchal order.”

Moreover, paternal sovereignty over women and children within the “male breadwinner” family was a prize that proletarian white men (or male citizens) were offered as a concession by capitalist states. If I am serious about a politics of #nodads, it is in the sense of opposing private property, queerphobia, heredity, and so on. No to the oedipal disciplinary story, no to biogenetic possessiveness.

“Paternal sovereignty over women and children within the “male breadwinner” family was a prize that proletarian white men (or male citizens) were offered as a concession by capitalist states.”


The other important focus of your book is the surrogacy industry, that has in many countries been forced into clandestinity. You sum up capitalism’s outsourcing of surrogacy as follows: ‘Let the poor do the dirty work, wherever they are cheapest (or most convenient) to enrol!’ From the research you have done, do you think there is also a racial injustice taking place here?

Not only is there racial injustice taking place in the commercial surrogacy industry—it is synonymous with racial injustice. Just like the “natural” regime of reproduction, which Shellee Colen famously defined as “stratified”, commercial surrogacy is a vehicle (or rather medium of) white supremacy.

“Commercial surrogacy is a vehicle (or rather medium of) white supremacy.”

I open Chapter 1 with a discussion of eugenics and colonialism for this reason, and I open Chapter 2 with a comparative discussion of the twinned 1980s legal cases that took place in the United States around, on the one hand, the so-called “Black Surrogate” (Anna Johnson) and, on the other, the unmarked (i.e. white) surrogate Mary-Beth Whitehead. This enables me to get into the valuations of “white babies” as opposed to nonwhite ones within the capitalist economy currently called “surrogacy.”

My family abolitionism, I should add, has more in common with Alys Eve Weinbaum’s account of “the afterlife of reproductive slavery” and Dorothy Roberts’s account of “reproductive dystopia” than they might think. Even if “abolish the family” is not a framework these scholars are all in favour of, I can honestly, in all humility, affirm that my argument for abolishing the family is built on Hortense Spillers’s, Christina Sharpe’s and Saidiya Hartman’s analyses of kinship, of the invention of cis gender and the nuclear family (both) in the image of whiteness, off the back of the “ungendering” of enslaved Black flesh within chattel slavery.

“These technologies of racialised outsourcing are nothing new. They’re just the same old arrangements, […] whereby women of colour are subordinated to the needs of the white family, and put to work (re)producing that family from within and without at the same time.”

It was Angela Davis who made the crucial intervention—back when “new reproductive technologies” were hitting the headlines—of pointing out that these technologies of racialised outsourcing are nothing new. They’re just the same old arrangements, Davis said, whereby women of colour are subordinated to the needs of the white family, and put to work (re)producing that family from within and without at the same time.


The 1971 hymn of the French feminist organisation, Mouvement de libération des femmes (Women’s Liberation Movement) includes the line, ‘The hour of violence, fellow women, our time has come’. Is a proliferation of women’s violence compatible with your vision of a utopian future?

Following Fanon, I would say I am anti-violence rather than nonviolent. As you may know, in my discussion of the human placenta, I discuss the reciprocal violence of the gestational process as something we need to reckon with, and understand as part of the ongoing labour of caring for and manufacturing one another.

“I am certainly in favour of self-defence by any means necessary against rapists as well as against police, the armed wing of the state.”

But I would not single out “women’s violence” for apology. Yes, sometimes violence is part of the liberation struggle towards a society free from violence. Sometimes violence, in that sense, is antiviolent. I am certainly in favour of self-defence by any means necessary against rapists as well as against police, the armed wing of the state. But I am firmly opposed to any sense of women’s innocence.


In a nutshell, what does a ‘proliferation of relationships of care’ look like in your imagination?

If you don’t mind, I will quote from Full Surrogacy Now. It means that

“We are all, at root, responsible… We are the makers of one another. And we could learn collectively to act like it. … Let’s prefigure a way of manufacturing one another noncompetitively. Let’s hold one another hospitably, explode notions of hereditary parentage, and multiply real, loving solidarities. Let us build a care commune based on comradeship, a world sustained by kith and kind more than by kin. Where pregnancy is concerned, let every pregnancy be for everyone.”

Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family

So, in other words, it means that the provision of basic physical and psychological needs is no longer dependent on a genetic lottery. 


Politika News would like to thank Sophie Lewis for her time. Readers can purchase a copy of her book, Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family, here.

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