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Artillery Row

The global surrogacy industry is proving feminists right

Women are being objectified and dehumanised in the name of progressivism

In a now-removed episode of the podcast Private Parts, Made in Chelsea stars Ollie and Gareth Locke-Locke have been discussing their recent acquisition of a new baby. It has been an arduous process, upon which they have spent a quarter of a million pounds. Issues having included: finding an egg donor who was “super fit” (thankfully they found a company that has “supermodels who were Ivy League educated”); their commissioned surrogate suffering a miscarriage (her third); getting around with “archaic” British surrogacy laws, with their fussy concern for the emotional lives of surrogates themselves.

You can’t help thinking the whole process would be a lot easier if the people who produced eggs, got pregnant and gave birth weren’t actual human beings, but machines. God knows, patriarchy has put the work into dehumanising uterus-havers, but alas, you can’t erase female personhood and embodiment by wishful thinking alone. All you can do is find ways — create stories — that make your form of reproductive exploitation look morally acceptable. Use religion, use forced marriage, use financial coercion, use tradition, use “progress”. Use whatever framing you like, as long as you get what you want in the end. The trouble is, there will always come a moment when you have overplayed your hand (best take that podcast down!).

One of the worst things about the rise of surrogacy as a global business, at least if Sophie Lewis’ Full Surrogacy Now is anything to go by, is that it risks making actual feminists look right. In an age where the progressive, sophisticated thing to do is to pretend that sex is the same as gender, and no one really knows who has babies anyways, it doesn’t do to be reminded that reproductive appropriation remains patriarchy’s biggest obsession. It doesn’t do to witness, in its rawest, crassest form, the breaking down of women into spare parts, or the use of material wealth to legitimise ownership of the child. It doesn’t do to have concrete evidence that this form of exploitation is not exclusive to one side of the political spectrum. That’s precisely the kind of thing that might give womb-havers ideas!

As a book, Full Surrogacy Now is darkly entertaining, if only because the author is so annoyed at the way in which the unique exploitation of women as a reproductive class continually gets in the way of insisting that women aren’t uniquely exploited as a reproductive class. The Handmaid’s Tale, Lewis complains, “reproduces a wishful scenario at least as old as feminism itself”, in which it is painfully obvious which class of people are oppressed and why. Mary O’Brien’s The Politics of Reproduction is “trans-exclusionary” and “romantically gynocentric” (unlike, say, pregnancy itself).

Evidence that real, live women are being treated as uteruses for hire, warns Lewis, risks producing a “‘universal’ (transerasive) feminist solidarity” — that is, women might start organising on the basis of sex, in ways which exclude males. The impression you get is that Lewis truly believes “cis women” love having all this exploitation to themselves, just to make others feel left out.

If you try really hard not to think, you could almost believe it

It’s not that it isn’t true that female people are singled out for mistreatment because of a capacity some women have that all men lack. The issue, one feels, is that pointing this out is viewed as a form of vanity. There are lots of ways in which this distaste can be masked — particularly by pretending that if you think women are oppressed on the basis of sex, you can’t conceive of this intersecting with other oppressions; or that if you link patriarchy to reproduction, this excludes female people who can’t get pregnant — but that is what it comes down to. Echoing the men’s rights activist who will claim that women actually enjoy hearing stories of male violence because it gives them something to weaponise, Lewis protests that in The Handmaid’s Tale, “The dystopia functions as a kind of utopia.” Just look at those feminists! They want it, really!

To be fair to Lewis, what passes for “progressive” politics never sets out to solve the problem of men wanting something they can’t have. As the “gynocentric” O’Brien put it, “In a very real sense, nature is unjust to men. She includes and excludes at the same moment. It is an injustice, however, which male praxis might reasonably said to have overcorrected.” Those who wish to “smash the patriarchy” have been surprisingly reluctant to acknowledge that to do so may involve foregoing the standard perks of the patriarch, such as assurances of paternity. Instead, they have offered us nonsense lines about how “rights aren’t pie” (unless they’re to do with whose name goes on the birth certificate) and “sex isn’t binary” (unless you’re on the hunt for a gestator). If you try really hard not to think (and if it doesn’t affect you anyways), you could almost believe it.

In The Outsourced Self, Arlie Russell Hochschild visits an Indian surrogacy clinic in which women are encouraged “to think of their wombs as carrier bags, suitcases, something external to themselves”. The next step up from this is to think of your entire sexed body as something that is irrelevant, exploitable, something to be disregarded should you want to have any intellectual or emotional life. This is the heart of patriarchal thinking, yet contemporary, mainstream, “progressive” politics — which considers itself so edgy — doesn’t come anywhere near it. It skates on the surface, believing that if you mess about with words (“think of your body as a vessel, the contents as a gift!”), you can do the exact same things as before, and no one will notice.

There are times, however, when it’s just too obvious — times when podcasts say the quiet part out loud. Feminists are right. Instead of accusing them of smugness, maybe it’s time to listen.

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