Situating the Maternal: Surrogacy as
Artifice / Agency



“Our bodies; ourselves;

bodies are maps of power and identity.”


-Donna Haraway, The Cyborg Manifesto, 1991


The connection between hospitality and femininity predisposed as “natural” and “given” is an outdated notion often applied to the maternal body. This is obvious both the ways in which the labour of hospitality is ascribed as “feminine” and has been insidiously connected to capitalist and colonial projects of expansion and exploitation of womxn’s bodies. Irina Aristarkhova theorizes hospitality as producing space and matter of/for the other (Aristarkhova 167). Etymologically the term hospitality is directly related to the notion of hostility, meaning both stranger and enemy. Hostilis, as in hospitality, is stranger/enemy and potes (of having) power or conversely, the power the host has over the stranger/enemy. Drawing from Derrida’s “aporia of hospitality,” it is conceived of two essential elements: one of owning and being empowered by means of ownership. The other by giving away ownership and then becoming vulnerable. Thus, Derrida suggests that the host occupies a necessary position of power by circumscribing the parameters through which the needs of the stranger/host are met.

The maternal for Aristarkhova is an act rather than a void or abyssinal space waiting to provide. Providing this care contradicts the engineered ideology of space-giving which has largely influenced biomedical perceptions and approaches to the maternal, especially the ways in which branches of medicine operate according to the assumption that “women want and need to have a choice to be “liberated” from giving birth to or nursing children” (Aristarkhova 172). For instance, in embryology, the figure of the maternal body which spatially accommodates and physically nourishes the embryo is overlooked altogether. The womb is rationalized as separate from the body (especially when deploying terms such as “womb donor” to refer to gestational surrogates). Part of this rhetoric is connected to the historical shifts that occurred when relating reproductive labour to productive labour and how capitalism co-opted reproductive labour as unpaid and more dangerously, undervalued and trivialized labour. Davis-Floyd argues that obstetrical practices serve to create docile bodies which reinforce a social order that subordinates the bodies of mothers to medical industries (Davis-Floyd). Through the regulation of a mother’s body and the subordination of embodied knowledge to privilege institutional medical knowledge, control of the birth process is transferred from agency of one’s body over to industry. Both the mode of reproduction and mode of production are controlled under reproductive law and consequently the medical industry.  Medicine plays a critical role in objectifying bodies and bringing them under surveillance within the medical system. Bodies are generally perceived as objects to be controlled and manipulated meanwhile agency of the body is presupposed as subject.

Marxist feminist scholar Silvia Federici reminds us how the introduction of capitalism violently shifted womxn’s bodies into machines (re)producing the new labour of giving birth, by outlining the ways in which Medieval witch hunts of the early 14th century played a role in disciplining womxn into new restrictive and gendered roles. The incentive for historical oppression and control over women’s bodies has more to do with control over the female body inherently connected to colonization, reproducing labour for colonies and exploiting it. “The economic importance of the reproduction of labor-power carried out in the home, and its function in the accumulation of capital become invisible, being mystified as a natural vocation and labelled “womxn’s labour”(Federici 75). The sexual division of labour peaking in the 19th Century reimagined a new historic change, the separation of production from reproduction and the feminization of reproductive labor. The transition of feudalism to capitalism therefore not only inaugurated the devaluation of reproductive labor, but also instituted markets that profited off the accumulation of this unpaid and undervalued work. A significant shift at this time biologically fixed womxn (with reproductive abilities) to a state of increased dependence on men who engaged with wage labour from employers. To foreground the relationship of wage relation and the gross amount of unpaid labour that capitalism reaps off of this unwaged reproductive labour, it is important to observe the ways in which reproductive rights remain a global political tension amongst governments worldwide who consistently seek to impose more enforcement against reproducing bodies’ agency. It’s no wonder that reproductive rights (specifically for womxn’s bodies) have historically been made contentious and disputed and when womxn dissent against restrictive laws imposed on their bodies and consequently are met with governmental and political barriers and institutionalized tension.

The ability to birth is largely controlled from bodies assigned-female-at-birth (AFAB) and little contraceptives are enforced on assigned-male-at-birth bodies (AMAB), reinforcing the privileging of AMAB bodies as neutral agents and actors to the reproductive matrix, and AFAB bodies as problematic or requiring higher degrees of control, regulation and discipline within this matrix. This logic reinforces an age-old patriarchal agenda and the notion that men require less policing over their bodies and womxn must remain subject to invasive methods of reproductive control. The fact that womxn’s autonomy with their own bodies need to be “enclosed” with their childbearing capacity is closely tied to the ways in which these bodies are enclosed and interiorized within the domestic sphere. As if domesticity was inherent within womxn’s natural condition and desire. Naturally, any womxn who failed to conform to this radically constricted reality were persecuted for being “witches”(Federici 76). “Capitalism, as a social-economic system, is necessarily committed to racism and sexism,” Federici wrote. “For capitalism must justify and mystify the contradictions built into its social relations ... by denigrating the ‘nature’ of those it exploits: women, colonial subjects, the descendants of African slaves, the immigrants displaced by globalization.” (Kisner). This notion of interiority is closely tied to the discreet, silent, inside a space or house but also has a history in the ways marginalized peoples have been enslaved, held captive, imprisoned and persecuted.

Meanwhile, surrogacy complicates the stable family unit narrative as it proposes the opposite. Surrogacy insofar as we understand it today generally has articulated fulfilling the “biological” or “physiological” aspect of reproduction while couples focus on the “social” and “genetic” aspects. Surrogates are actively referred to as “carriers” or “womb donors” while “genetic” couples are referred to as the “real” parents. Thus, gestational surrogates splinter and complicate the narrative of the nuclear family and reproduction into a series of aspects which may be structurally true of reproductive technologies but are not necessarily ontologically stable mainly because “genetic” and “biological” categories are all embodied processes steeped in the social histories and power (Goslinga-Roy 113). The surrogate as “extending” and “extensive” and “communal”. It is clear that in order to shift the dynamics of oppressive conditions that have normalized the contemporary gendered roles and labour within a nuclear family household, we must foreground reproductive/care work as central to daily struggles. While energy systems, nuclear technology, oil extraction assault the environment and health and wellness of those who precede its short-lived extraction and long-term consequences, the form of energy work that keeps the world moving is that of care/reproductive labour. Domestic care fuels the larger economy in more ways than capitalism would like us to acknowledge. This is especially evidenced by a pandemic wherein parents of all genders (depending on class privilege) are overwhelmed by the demands of care at home while coping with working and maintaining jobs to secure housing and survivability. It is clear that we must continue to foreground reproductive/care work to be central to daily struggles. In a world where we are being forced to normalize and accept a slow death and life of constant anxiety - financial security, employment, lack of resources, waste and toxins in our air, food and water. This rooted situation is a direct assault on energy work that is premised fundamentally on women’s labor which is what keeps the world going. 

Surrogacy complicates fixed reproductive narratives and by extension, their emotional, biological and psychological designations within the nuclear family. Surrogacy as embodiment of an act can be interpreted through the lens of Haraway who believes, “ it is not about a fixed location in a reified body, AFAB or otherwise, but about nodes in fields, inflections in orientations, and responsibility for difference in material-semiotic fields of meaning.” (Haraway 195). Womxn as her biology is a narrow definition and delineation of reproduction as interior or privately located within the AFAB body as well as the ability for this role to be fulfilled by other genders or biologically oriented peoples. It enables the abstraction of ownership which is at the centre of debates around surrogacy (Goslinga-Roy). It renders the experience between and within their reproductive histories rather than “outward” or “extended” or having a viable effect on production for the benefit of capitalism. Derrida suggests that ultimately, hospitality is dependent on ownership before it is offered hospitality to the other. The aporia for the giver is the tension of wanting to give while simultaneously wanting what has been given away. This aporia is precisely what we must be concerned with, rather than denying it by paralyzing its movement forward, and pushing to/at its limits towards its extension.


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