Today’s dispatch comes from two remote outposts of stellar gender gobbledegook in the Galaxy of Improbable Lunacy. It suggests that some academics are navigating so deep in space that they have outpaced even the light emitted by the transgender supernova.
Feminism is a broad church. There are feminists who are strongly pro-family and pro-life; they fight for the human and spiritual dignity of women. There are feminists who are pro-choice and pro-divorce; they fight to right injustice and for absolute autonomy. But you can have a conversation with them.
And then there are ultra-radical feminists who will not rest until they have destroyed femininity, motherhood and the family. This calls for a certain amount of ingenuity, or loopiness. A conversation with them is almost unimaginable.
Here are two recent examples culled from academic publications.
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Consider surrogacy. Some feminists argue, à la The Handmaid’s Tale, that it is sheer exploitation of desperately poor women. But others contend that surrogacy is the quintessence of bodily autonomy and choice.
No better example of the latter can be found than Sophie Lewis, a British theorist living in Philadelphia. Last year she published Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family, a blistering attack on the family from a Marxist perspective.
The yawning history of so-called “unassisted” bio-kin provides the statistics, poems, songs, pamphlets, and novels detailing the discomfort, coercion, molestation, abuse, humiliation, depression, battery, murder, mutilation, loneliness, blackmail, exhaustion, psychosis, gender-straitjacketing, racial programming, and embourgeoisement. The private family is the headquarters of all of these.
Yes, surrogates are terribly exploited, she says. But we need more surrogacy, not less!
If more children are born to surrogates, the capitalist notion that children “belong” to those whose genetics they share will break down. Collective responsibility for children would radically transform our notions of kinship, “until they dissolve into a classless commune on the basis of the best available care for all.”
Lewis wants to reimagine pregnancy “as something to be struggled in and against towards a utopian horizon free of work and free of value”. She looks forward to the dissolution of the mother-child bond and to embracing “polyparental abundance.” Unsurprisingly she also wants to dissolve the notion of “woman” and “female”.
Some readers will probably have noticed by now that the terms “women” and “female” appear only infrequently in this text. The reason for that is simple: I feel there’s no call for them. The formulation “pregnant people” is just as good as the alternative “pregnant women, men, and non-binary people,” and it is more precise than “expectant mothers” or “pregnant women.” Precision is important, I firmly believe, because there can be no utopian thought on reproduction that does not involve uncoupling gestation from the gender binary.
So what does she think about Margaret Atwood’s novel? The dystopian tale presents a very dark vision of surrogacy. Religious conservatives in the United States point to the US$1 billion surrogacy industry and lament that “we’re already living in The Handmaid’s Tale”. It seems that Atwood’s fans are victims of “false consciousness”, as Marxists put it. Defining misogyny as “womb-farming” conceals less artistic forms of violence against women based on class, race and binary gender.
“In the mood created by The Handmaid’s Tale, fans can instrumentalise commercial gestational surrogates fleetingly as mascots for reproductive rights and quintessential victims of patriarchy, without ever feeling the need to engage a critique of capital.”
Full Surrogacy Now is a bracing read, with something to offend nearly everyone.
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And what about ectogenesis, or gestating babies in artificial wombs? This was, you may recall, the way that children entered the world in the dystopian novel Brave New World.
Women will never be free until they have been freed from the tyranny of reproduction. This was the audacious claim made by 1970s radical feminist Shulamith Firestone.
This utopia seemed unimaginably distant then, but technology could make it a reality with ectogenesis, or artificial wombs, contends Kathryn McKay, of the University of Sydney. She published her proposal in Bioethics. This is not feminist samizdat photocopied on yellowing paper, but an influential academic journal. Here’s what she has to say:
… a foundational piece of women’s oppression is the conceptual link to female reproductive function, and this link should be targeted for destruction. … ectogenesis holds the potential to radically challenge dominant notions of gender categories and family roles by allowing us to break the conceptual links between ‘woman’, ‘mother’ and female biology.
In fact, McKay argues not simply that ectogenesis is a good idea, but that “we have a moral imperative to develop ectogenesis as a means to assisted gestation”. Apart from being part of patriarchal oppression, natural childbirth is risky and dangerous. The alternative, gestational surrogacy, is dangerous and exploitative, and “contribute[s] to the maintenance of pronatalist social pressures to produce genetically related offspring”.
Ectogenesis would also help to destroy the patriarchal disaster that is the nuclear family by eliminating “motherhood” as an exclusively female experience.
Insofar as adoptive, kinship, and same‐sex parents are already pushing against pronatalist and geneticist assumptions, ectogenesis will further put pressure on this view. Ectogenesis reveals the possibility that what has hitherto been a major component of female reproductive function—gestation—might not involve a woman at all. If an infant might not be ‘carried’, or ‘birthed’ by anyone as such, then carrying and birthing are undermined as relevant factors in being a woman or mother.
Ectogenesis, therefore, is the ideal means of reproduction in a society which accepts fluid gender roles:
If an infant is not of woman born, but ‘decanted’ from an artificial womb, then the primary caring role cannot be determined de facto by who gave birth to it. So, it encourages an understanding of ‘mother’ and ‘father’ as social roles, not as specifically gender‐ or biologically‐determined identities.
Alas! The reality of ectogenesis is still a distant possibility at the moment. But McKay points out that the mere possibility of it puts pressure on oppressive patriarchal norms. Imagining it is a thought experiment which underscores the absurdity of biologically-based gender norms.
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Where do these people live, you might ask. Their proposals are so absurd that they could have been written by aliens from a distant galaxy. It makes one despair of a university education if people with PhDs are scribbling such nonsense.
But they are a painful dig in the ribs for people who believe in the vital importance of the nuclear family. No, abortion is not the end of the world. No, same-sex marriage is not the end of the world. No, transgenderism is not the end of the world. The end of the world will confront us with scenarios even more bizarre – the abolition of marriage, of motherhood, of procreation, of sexuality. It’s worthwhile fighting on these other issues, because if we lose those skirmishes, something much worse awaits us.