Feminism is fracturing over transgender women. Some feminists are welcoming transwomen into the sisterhood. But so-called TERFs, trans-exclusionary radical feminists, like Germaine Greer, are repulsed by the male colonisation of the female body. “I’ve asked my doctor to give me long ears and liver spots and I’m going to wear a brown coat, but that won’t turn me into a cocker spaniel,” Greer once said, in her forthright Australian way.

Nowhere is the TERF war fiercer than over surrogacy. Older feminists argue à la The Handmaid’s Tale that it is exploitation. Gloria Steinem, for instance, has been campaigning in New York against a bill to legalise commercial surrogacy. “It undermines women’s control over their bodies, jeopardizes women’s reproductive rights, renders women vulnerable to reproductive trafficking and exploitation, and further subordinates women as second-class citizens, all with a third-party profit motive that is unregulated,” she wrote in an open letter.

In her time the 85-year-old Steinem seemed radical, but she has been left in the dust by younger women. On the other side of the surrogacy split is a trans-friendly generation of feminists. They believe that gestational surrogacy symbolises bodily autonomy and choice, not just for XX-women, but for XX-men and XY-women as well. And as a bonus, it will help to dissolve the traditional family.

No better example of this line of thinking can be found than Sophie Lewis, a British theorist living in Philadelphia. She has just published Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family, a blistering attack on the family from a Marxist perspective. “The aim,” she states, “is to use bourgeois reproduction today (stratified, commodified, cis-normative, neocolonial) to squint toward a horizon of gestational communism.”

A fundamental theme in Marxism is the wickedness of private property. And what is more “mine” than a child born to a man and a woman? It is the fruit of their love; it shares their genes; it lives in the mother’s womb for nine long months. Nasty bourgeois stuff, very nasty, argues Ms Lewis.

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 what we need is 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, says Ms Lewis. 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. Facing a birth dearth in the Republic of Gilead, fanatical religious conservatives force fertile women to produce offspring for the ruling class.

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. It should be taken seriously — because it settles once and for all one of the enduring mysteries of our time. It shows that Karl Marx is not dead; like Elvis he has been hiding from the paparazzi in an unventilated, shuttered, cheap motel. The air is foul; the carpet is worn; cobwebs cover the cornices. But that's where Marx always did his more creative work — far, far from reality.  

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet.