Cyborg labour: exploring surrogacy as gestational work

  • Sophie Lewis

Student thesis: Phd


Commercial gestational surrogacy, also called contract pregnancy, involves privately contracting a biogenetically curated pregnancy using IVF. It distinguishes itself from what is commonly considered 'natural' in procreation, in that the human fetuses it produces are formally entered into a legal unit other than the family of the gestator. My work here contends that this practice is best thought, not in isolation, but in the context of social reproduction more generally and as a central component of future geographies of fetal manufacture that would treat (all) pregnancy as work. This project demands, for me, a critical revisiting of theoretic texts like Mary O'Brien's The Politics of Reproduction (O'Brien 1981). But, in my reading, O'Brien's race-blind gynocentrism doomed her to miss the ensemble of practices - forms of surrogacy among them - that have already long been engaged in the sublation of reproductive labour she professes (yet defers until after the revolution). In geography as in O'Brien, the political horizon of reproductive justice theorised by Black and/or Marxist feminists since the 1970s (Davis 1981; Ross et al. 2016), has been neglected. In assembling materials for a future rewriting of "The Politics of Reproduction" in the context of geography -a trans-inclusive uterine geography- I draw on this canon of reproductive justice first.I question the assumption that there can ever be an absence of surrogacy (i.e. an absence of assistance, co-production, or "sym-poesis" (Haraway 2016)) in babymaking. Thus I explore the synthetic substance of surrogacy synthetically, using a lens I call 'gestational labour': a conceptual hybrid of the postwork perspective on care (Weeks 2011; Federici 1975), the Marxist-feminist concept 'clinical labour' (Cooper and Waldby 2014) and cyborgicity (Haraway 1991). Deploying 'gestational labour' together with a commitment to solidarity vis-à-vis surrogates, I analyse recent events, pro- and anti-surrogacy discourses (both clinical-capitalist and activist), and trends in critical literature that illuminate an immanent 'uterine geography' (or fail to). I aim to demonstrate that the technophobic anticommodification critique of surrogacy's detractors is ultimately as insufficient as the class-blind ('philanthrocapitalist') feminism of surrogacy's sales representatives. My point is that so-called natural forms of the family are themselves already 'technologies of reproductive assistance' differently mediated in the market. Our task is unfortunately neither a matter of simply saying 'stop', nor of pretending that the satisfaction people feel in "mutually advantageous exploitation" (Panitch 2013), on such an unequal playing-field, is somehow 'enough'.Surrogate gestators sometimes show us glimpses of 'mothering against motherhood'. They expose gestation as a cyborg form of labour-power, which is to say, collective human activity always already mixed up with 'technologies' on the one hand and strange more-than-human organisms on the other. Pitting surrogacy against surrogacy, I propose keeping our understanding of what surrogacy could mean radically open. On this basis, I point readers and potential future collaborators towards new kinds of sym-poetic geographical practice: surrogacies - or, engagements with reproductive politics in the broadest sense - which I think our historic moment urgently requires.
Date of Award1 Aug 2017
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorErik Swyngedouw (Supervisor)


  • reproductive technology
  • cyborg
  • utopian reproduction
  • social reproduction
  • surrogacy
  • polymaternalism

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