Coloniality and the surrogate body
Surrogacy is an arrangement wherein an other carries, or gestates, a foetus for a person or persons who intend to parent the child born thereof. The surrogate may also be the provider of genetic material, of the eggs that are to be fertilised in vitro and implanted in the surrogate – although this needn’t always be the case. Surrogacy primarily entails gestational labour – i.e. the use, or consumption, of a body’s physiological capacities, to bear a child for another. Surrogacy thus marks an evolutionary moment in the use of assisted reproductive technologies to facilitate procreation.
Assisted reproductive technologies (ART), are themselves often extoled for denaturalising reproduction – that is, for unhooking reproduction from sexual desires and physiological capacities deemed “natural”. ART introduces what Manfred E. Clynes and Nathan S. Kline – progenitors of the term cyborg – call an artifact-organism system into the bio-historical reproduction of life. As such, ART manifests the drive of modern technology to impose power over the natural given environment and adapt it to fulfil human needs. Here, it is the body and its capacities that form the natural given which is then imposed upon by technological artifacts in order to fulfil the individual and social need for reproduction.
Surrogacy takes this further. It not only denaturalises reproduction – but it makes possible its absolute externalisation from the desiring body into an other. Surrogacy thus undoes bio-centric, sex-coded notions of reproduction and kinship. In other words, reproduction is no longer confined to the heteronuclear family but rather facilitates various other configurations of kinship. Recent scholarship on surrogacy, such as Sophie Lewis’ Full Surrogacy Now, in fact views surrogacy as a means to communalise reproduction and kinship. Surrogacy may thus be viewed as manifesting the liberatory potential of technology – the potential to undo and transcend associated socio-cultural norms.
While surrogacy as such may be subversive, my interest has been in why and how surrogacy becomes a form of work; meaning, I am interested in the conditions under which the practice of paying an other to undertake gestational labour so as to fulfil one’s own procreative needs, becomes viable.
I recognise that reproduction and parenthood are tender issues. So, I am less concerned with the choice to either undertake or use surrogacy work. Choice is socially, culturally and economically conditioned – so to speak of it in the abstract is impossible. I must therefore underscore again that what I am interested in understanding are the political and ethical conditions under which surrogacy can exist in its commercial form, as work.
I come to surrogacy work, then, through a concern with coloniality.
Coloniality is a logic, a principle of seeing and understanding, that idealises the Human. Establishing the priority of the Human over all other forms of being, all other forms of existence, demands the will to dominate all that is not, that is other than, Human. Within the framework of coloniality, then, to be Human is to exercise mastery over the natural given and to shape it in accordance with one’s will and understanding. This will-to-power inherent in coloniality is evident in its originary application – that is, in acts of colonial expansion and conquest.
The description of the Americas, for instance, as terra nullius, or empty land, follows from an imputation on indigenous arrangements of life as absent mastery, and hence other than Human. This non-Humanness of indigenous life sanctions the imagining of associated land as empty, and hence suitable for mastery; for conquest and settlement.
I should say that I use the present tense here intentionally – to acknowledge the hold that this form of thinking still has. (cf. recent comments by ex-US Senator Rick Santorum.)
To be sure, the idealisation of the Human under coloniality also carries with it the idealisation of particular bodies and minds that are deemed capable of mastery – indeed, of world-making – and hence of bearing moral value. We know this well from the history of race and racism, wherein the “European” body and mind is posited as able and rational – and thus capable of mastery, of Humanness – as against the grotesque, affected and irrational bodies and minds of non-Europeans, absent the capacity for mastery and hence Humanness. Coloniality thus institutes a moral difference between those who master and those that can be mastered – between Humans, and their abjected Others.
In previous writings, I have tried to demonstrate how surrogacy work exists as an effect of coloniality. Here is my argument:
Commercial surrogacy is structured, in the first instance, through failure. The intended parent or parents are confronted with a desire to reproduce that is frustrated by a physiological incapacity. This “failure” to reproduce through “natural” means and arrangements also marks a failure to fulfil personal desire and, arguably, the social imperative to reproduce.
Surrogates too enter the commercial transaction from a place of failure. Here, failure is economically marked – the failure to ensure economic security and advancement for oneself and, especially, for one’s own children.
A few clarifications. The surrogacy context that I am most familiar with is India. Until 2019, India had the largest surrogacy market in the world, worth over $2.5 billion. The Indian market had a few particularities – for one, only gestational surrogacy was offered. Moreover, all surrogates were required to live in surrogate homes – most often run by surrogacy clinics themselves – where the nutritional and medical intake of surrogates was highly regularised, they were provided constant counselling to maintain their physical, mental and emotional health – including being provided with emotional coaching specifically to mitigate against any affective bonds that a surrogate might develop with the child. Finally, and most importantly, living in a surrogate home meant that surrogates spent the duration of their pregnancy away from their families, including their own children.
In 2019, however, the Indian government banned all commercial surrogacy. Only altruistic surrogacy is now allowed and, even then, only under specific conditions. Even so, I do not think this spells the end of commercial surrogacy.
To continue then with the coloniality of surrogacy work – this form of work emerges, as I’ve noted, through the experience of failure – physiological, moral, economic, etc. In this circumstance, ART offers a means to transcend failure. But it does so differentially. For intended parents, ART offers a means to exercise mastery; to not remain subject to one’s natural given – in other words, to not remain subject to their given physiological limits – but rather to shape this given in accordance with one’s own will and understanding. ART thus presents itself to intended parents as a means of world-making.
This world-making activity proceeds, however, by seizing the surrogate body.
Insofar as the gestational labour of surrogacy work is intended for another, the surrogate body is – at least for the duration of pregnancy – the site of conquer and settlement. ART captures the surrogate body, and modifies its capacities and affects, so that the body may be made productive in world-making activity. Yet this capture is possible only because the surrogate body, itself, is deemed absent of mastery. The economic insecurity – or what in some contexts, like in India, is described as the “backwardness” of surrogates – marks, ultimately, their inability to master their socio-economic environment; their inability to be world-making.
ART thus appears to surrogates as a promise to overcome economic failure – yes. Yet, the possibility of overcoming this failure requires, first, an acknowledgment of a more fundamental failure – the failure of mastery – and a willingness, then, to be mastered. This mastering of the surrogate body becomes starkly evident in the operations of the surrogate houses that I referred to earlier – where surrogate bodies, including their emotions, are highly regularised, optimised and standardised.
Thus, ART offers a means to overcome failure, to both intended parents and to surrogates. Yet, for intended parents, ART appears as a means to affirm mastery – whereas for surrogates, ART affirms their suitability to be mastered.
In outlining surrogacy work through the lens of mastery – and referring, as I have, to the surrogate body as a site of conquest and settlement – I do not mean to cast intended parents as colonizers. Yet, the surrogacy relationship is indeed structured through coloniality. ART, in the context of surrogacy work, holds firm the distinction between the Human and its abjected others. It is only in this context – within this persistent logic of coloniality – that surrogacy work, I believe, becomes possible.
And It is also in this context that I have begun to contemplate the surrogate body as cyborg.
[Read Part 2.]