The feminist thinker Sophie Lewis has a radical proposal for what comes next.
little more than two weeks before I planned to meet the feminist theorist Sophie Lewis, her mother died. She had been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer in March, requiring Lewis to travel back and forth between her home in Philadelphia and a hospital in the UK—a journey she technically wasn’t allowed to make due to the pending status of her green card. When her mother passed away in late November, she did so thousands of miles away, while Lewis and her brother sang the Taylor Swift song “Safe and Sound” to her over Skype.
Earlier that month, at a lecture in Lower Manhattan hosted by the arts journal e-flux, Lewis, who is 31, reflected on what some might see as an obvious irony to her crisscrossing the ocean to care for her ailing mother: Verso Books had just published her first book, Full Surrogacy Now, a polemic that calls for abolishing the family.
“2019, in addition to its more general geopolitical ghoulishness, has been a difficult one for this particular family abolitionist,” Lewis told the audience of about two dozen. “It’s been surreal because the temporal coincidence of the Full Surrogacy launch with this unprecedented requirement for me—that I be at my closest bio-relative’s bedside—brought the stakes of my subject matter to life with almost unbearable intensity.”
The book, and its core premise, has gained widespread attention, from leftist publications like Jacobin and The Nation all the way to Fox News’s Tucker Carlson, who dedicated a June segment on his prime-time show to tearing it down. Recently, the columnist David Brooks declared in The Atlantic that the “nuclear family was a mistake.” The piece inspired a niche version of a popular Drake meme, with the singer shaking his head in disapproval at Brooks’ column in one frame, and smiling at Full Surrogacy Now in the next. (“I gave up after two minutes admittedly, but let it be known that I (incredulous) started reading it,” Lewis tweeted of the Atlantic piece. “Like….have we reached David Brooks?”)
When Lewis demands “full surrogacy now,” she isn’t talking about commercial surrogacy, or ”Surrogacy™,” as she puts it. Instead, she uses the surrogacy industry to build the argument that all gestation is work because of the immense physical and emotional labor it requires of those who do it. She often refers to pregnancy as an “extreme sport.”
If all forms of pregnancy count as work, we can take a clear-eyed look at our current working conditions: “It is a wonder we let fetuses inside us,” she says at the start of her book, citing the roughly 1,000 people in the United States who still die as a result of pregnancy and childbirth each year—mostly poor women and women of color. “This situation is social, not simply ‘natural.’ Things are like this for political and economic reasons: we made them this way.”
And so we can also make them different, Lewis argues. She imagines a future where the labor of making new human beings is shared among all of us, “mother” no longer being a natural category, but instead something we can choose.
At this point, “surrogacy” becomes somewhat metaphorical: Lewis isn’t asking that we all agree to physically gestate fetuses that aren’t biologically ours. Her radical proposition is that we practice “full surrogacy” by abolishing the family. That means caring for each other not in discrete private units (also known as nuclear households), but rather within larger systems of care that can provide us with the love and support we can’t always get from blood relations—something Lewis knows all too well.
Even those of us who might call our family situations relatively “happy” should sign onto this project of demolishing their essential structure, Lewis says. Nuclear households create the infrastructure for capitalism, passing wealth and property down family trees, concentrating it in the hands of the few at the top of our class hierarchy. Maintaining the traditional family structure over time has also meant exploiting people of color and disowning queer children.