Gestators of All Genders Unite
In the week of International Women's day and the Women's Strike Sophie Lewis asks us to fight for more than just the right to safe work but also the right to be lazy!
"Say it loud: we can affirm our non-desire to work even if we don't work hard. Even when it comes to making babies who will die if we stop working."
Since moving to the US, where rates of death caused by gestation are about the worst in the ‘developed’ world, I’ve been acutely aware of living in a gestational dystopia. “We have not seen a decrease in maternal mortality”, a hospital director said last month. Not everyone is dying alike: 150 years since chattel slavery was formally ended in the US, Black gestators are still “three to four times” more likely than white ones to “die from pregnancy”. There is cause for hope, though, as the Reproductive Justice movement gains momentum, and radical ‘full-spectrum’ doulas ( who support not only birthing but dying, miscarriage and abortion) accelerate the charge to defend Medicare. Left feminists in my state are organising to expose and drive out the plague of ‘crisis pregnancy centers’. CPCs are anti-abortion missions; dressed up to look ‘medical’, in a land where actual abortion services are already in absurdly short supply.
The infrastructure of forced gestation that needs dismantling persists under the star of America’s moral obsession with fetal personhood [sic]: especially so-called ‘preemies’, that is, babies prematurely born (preferably white). Preemies’ survival is an immense medical and financial priority. Do we have the courage to challenge this instead, to prioritise thriving? It was in Philadelphia, my city, that lambs were gestated to term last year in ectogenetic ‘bio-bags’ - research oriented, it was explained, strictly only toward the end of saving preemies. It is clear that, as far as acceptable debate currently goes, research into automating gestation can only be developed for this purpose. The very suggestion that such technology might liberate people who simply don’t want to do the work of gestating is downright reviled. Commissioning parents who hire surrogates without being ‘infertile’, and/or who confess relief that they are not pregnant themselves, are derided with astonishing virulence in our media for their ‘vanity’. Meanwhile, “There doesn’t seem to be such a stigma in (cis) men saying that there is no way they’d ever want to be pregnant.”
‘The Right to Be Lazy’ never enjoyed so positive a reception among Marxist-feminists as it did among queer communists. One consequence is the temptation, in the context of the Women’s Strike, to proclaim the hard-working ‘capable’-ness of the people captured by that category ‘women’, while jeering at the ‘lazy’ ineptitude of men. This kind of discourse has all kinds of counterproductive (e.g. determinist, ableist, whorephobic) political resonances. Sadly, in a work society, identifying something as work can all too easily be mistaken for moral praise. It infects radicals too; sometimes, to listen to our overwork Olympics, you’d think a person doesn’t really deserve to be on strike unless they work really damn hard.
Say it loud: we can affirm our non-desire to work even if we don't work hard. Even when it comes to making babies who will die if we stop working. Though much bodily reproductive work ends up not being productive for capital (in either the immediate- or long-term), we can deploy the term ‘gestational labour’ literally. The particularity is that, just as gestation’s products take a while to emerge (babies have to grow up), work stoppages in this sphere generally don’t have any immediate impact. Their blows are delayed. Omit to bathe, feed and clothe your dependents on March 8th, and cynics may well snigger: nary a capitalist seems to be quaking in her boots. Extend that strike just a few more hours, however, and workers needed for the production of profits today and in the next decade start to sicken and fade.
Making and remaking human lives, what feminist human geographers have called “life’s work”, is what the now-booming field of social reproduction theory is all about. The pioneers of this field in the International Women’s Strike are opening up the vital lines of the world struggle that will weave a web of life worth living in - for humans as well as other beings. They have also enabled generative disagreements to bubble forth, for instance: do we mean the word “strike” here in the traditional Marxist sense - which would imply that labours like pregnancy are productive - or something looser (i.e., a “political strike”)? And... who is the subject of the “women’s” strike?
I perceive these two questions as linked, a perception shaped, no doubt, by the fact that I’ve just spent a lot of time thinking about commercial gestational surrogacy and the relation of that curiously genderless industry to ‘normal’ (unpaid) gestation. Commercial gestation typically uses IVF, embryo transfer, laparoscopic surgery and, above all, cheap human gestational labour made available via neocolonial channels of outsourcing and exchange, to manufacture human neonates matching clients’ genetic inputs, for export across borders, at competitive prices. I say ‘genderless’ here not simply to be polemical, nor even to reflect that fact (important as it is) that not all paid gestators are necessarily women, but because the disaggregation of mothering labour needs to be recognised as producing novel and potentially unexpected (unfeminine) workplaces.
Womanhood may still be helping more than it is hindering mobilisation, but I’m not sure this will remain the case very much longer. I respect and often share the strategic commitment many of my comrades maintain vis-à-vis the category ‘women’. Nevertheless, ‘gender strike’ is my preferred alternative for thinking through a movement of liberation in and against the coloniality of gender and the ‘techno-gestational division of labour’.
I’m impatient for the left to more fully embrace trans reproductive justice, a matter of life and death not ‘up for debate’. As Chikako Takeshita notes: “While acknowledgement that not all women are mothers is fairly commonplace, the fact that not all pregnant or potentially pregnant persons are mothers or women has yet to transform our language and conceptual frames substantively.” Heel-dragging on the part of ‘skeptics’ is doing us all harm. In her otherwise excellent Happy Abortions, Erica Millar asks doubtfully whether it is “possible or desirable” to envisage a gender-neutral subject of pregnancy (history and even the British Medical Association have overtaken her). Happy Abortions powerfully transforms our conceptual frames in one sense, showing that pregnant people “are not automatically mothers”. It could also help us see that they aren’t automatically women, either. It’s eminently possible, and doesn’t preclude noticing how all of those roles (mothering, being a woman, gestating) involve partially-unconscious, not readily interruptible work which can be refused or - exciting! - re-distributed.
Although a collective abortion tactic has yet to transpire, surrogate workers in India have threatened their managers with miscarriage as a bargaining strategy. This, to all intents and purposes, re-instantiates the necropolitical weapon historically documented among enslaved women on plantations in the Caribbean: the spectre of the gestational strike. Or does it? In a timely intervention, Eleanor Penny has recently favoured thinking about abortion as a form of riot, since the form of labour abortion refuses is imperfect material for a strike, “properly understood”. Thinking historically with and like Penny, I wonder if we couldn’t instead apply pressure to this ‘proper’ understanding, asking after moments when the human vehicles of apparently unproductive labour have, by withdrawing it, somehow directly disrupted value production after all. Perhaps we could entertain the possibility that a strike is a kind of riot where gestation is concerned.
Far more important than these definitional questions, however, is our willingness to undo ourselves as sexed, raced, genetically kinned, propertied and legally filiated animals. Come onto the streets with me on March 8th and educate my desire for the reproductive commune.
Sophie Lewis is the author of Full Surrogacy Now, a book about communizing reproduction forthcoming with Verso. She lives in Philadelphia now and helps edit Blind Field. She has a geography PhD.