Who is trusted to take care of others? Investigating the relationships between surrogates and commissioning parents, feminist science and technology studies scholar Kalindi Vora discusses the ethics of assisted reproductive technologies. She argues that the global distribution of care and service work these technologies promote requires structures of trust and security that are in line with recent ideals of work, family, social, and biological reproduction.
Care and service work are being increasingly automated and outsourced with the development of technology. Assisted reproduction technologies, for example, including in vitro fertilization and transnational commercial surrogacy, have led to the inclusion of gamete markets and gestational surrogacy in the globalization of reproduction, care, and service work. Processes that were once highly localized, such as factory production and surrogacy arrangements, if not even hyperlocalized within families and households, such as personal assistance and tutoring, are now stretched across national boundaries. This international distribution of what were once household processes challenges national ideals of family, the household economy, and the raced, gendering, and sexualized practices that go with them.
Transnational gestational surrogacy in India, one of the research sites for my book Life Support: Biocapitalism and the New History of Outsourced Labor, illustrates these technological and social challenges. I did fieldwork with international participants including current and former surrogates, commissioning parents, doctors, technicians, staff, and community members at an Indian assisted reproductive technology clinic in 2008, when the practice was still fairly new. At that time, there were only a few clinics offering the service, and people outside India were just starting to hear about it. I followed the development of what some call an industry, tracking legal debates and draft legislation, feminist organizing, and policy recommendations in India as well as discussion in Europe and the United States about the ethics of being commissioning parents who hire low-earning Indian women to become gestational carriers.
“Whom will I trust to take care of me when I am not able?” This question comes up in pressing medical emergencies, like a sudden serious illness or injury or a loss of shelter, or simply due to the organic fact of passing through physical fitness into age and infirmity. One answer offered historically by both socialist and capitalist democracies has been: the nation-state. This imagined community that arises out of a social contract asserts that in exchange for submitting to the power of the state, we gain its protection. This protection includes the redistribution of wealth in the form of social welfare benefits like emergency medical care, disability and medical payments when we cannot work, and retirement pensions. Another structural answer to the question has of course been: the family. Just as the nation arises out of a social contract, where actual legal contracts will be enforced through the state apparatus of the nation, the family, too, arises out of a contract—the marriage contract.
The modern nuclear family as an ideal is a relatively recent invention consisting of a set of people living together in one household economic unit recognized through tax reporting, medical insurance registration, school enrollment, death benefits, visitation and custody rights, etc. In the United States, it wasn’t until the early to mid-twentieth century that the heteropatriarchal nuclear family became the privileged site of the citizen subject. In his book Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco’s Chinatown, Nayan Shah explains how in the US in the mid-twentieth century, anxieties about immigration and racial intermixing were part of a national project to promote the members of the white, middle-class, heteropatriachal nuclear household as the ideal citizen subject. He explains that many alternate domestic formations existed at the time, and that these were pathologized to support the ideal family household. For example, Shah looks at Chinese immigrant residences in San Francisco in the 1920s and ’30s, which included female-headed households, multifamily households, and apartments where many single migrant men lived together, among others These lifestyles and households were cast as a racialized threat, and in fact a danger to public health. The threat of the dilution of white America by immigrants was countered by the promise of a new ideal family model that was being nationally promoted, in racist and classist tones, as the “American way of life.
In reality, of course, most households do not match this imaginary of the nuclear family—in fact, we can see these “queer domesticities,” as Shah calls them, as protesting the reproduction of the nation, because they destabilize the white nuclear family norm. Shah describes queer domesticities as forms of intimacy and domesticity that are nonproductive in a capitalist frame and that don’t replicate the idealized citizen subject out of that white middle class nuclear family Mixed families, single mothers raising children within unofficial cooperative arrangements with other single mothers, grandparents housing and supporting adult children and grandchildren … the list goes on. Yet, the state goes on giving social welfare benefits primarily to the sanctioned legal family, constituted through a legal marriage contract. However, saying queer domesticities refuse to reproduce the nation is not to simply celebrate the fact that they exist, since they are also most often testimony to the fact that low-resource contexts lead to creative living solutions, because the state refuses to recognize its nonidealized forms as viable for rights and social welfare entitlements.
Feminist scholars including Maria Mies, Carole Pateman, and Janet Jakobsen have argued that marriage, the state’s preferred way of recognizing domesticity and family, has also historically been a labor contract, specifically a labor contract that creates the subordinated economic position of “wife” within the household unit Of course, women of color feminists, including Angela Davis, Evelyn Nakano Glenn, Jennifer Morgan, and Grace Chang among others, have pointed out that immigrant and low-resourced women have always done their own household labor, plus additional underpaid wage labor in the households of wealthier, often white, families Mies, in her book Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale, says that the marriage contract was what made the nuclear family possible, creating a new historical economic domestic form that replaced wages for labor With marriage, “love” would now be the compensation for labor in the household. Jakobsen explains how the household economic unit has also helped support the fiction that the liberal subject is free and autonomous. She says this freedom is a fiction because it relies on the subordination of invisibilized and devalued support labor: the historical male head of household could not survive without the labor of wife, children, servants, and slaves, subjects that are erased through the marriage contract and through the strict limits of what counts as “family” under the law
Mies goes on to explain that the modern marriage contract sets up a model of unpaid labor in the private sphere, the home, that is then extended through globalization to encompass the formerly colonized world’s labor economies We can add casualized labor, including many forms of crowdsourced digital labor and sweatshop work, as extending from this model of unpaid and underpaid labor in the gendered private sphere. The former colonial metropole, in the position of patriarch, commands the gendered labor of globalized service economies in the position of wife—sweatshop garment work, customer service call center work, long-distance tutoring and teaching, or crowdsourced microtask work like that managed by Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform. These forms of labor have little in common except that they are deemed to be uncreative or reproductive, and therefore while they are performed by people of any gender, the work itself is feminized, a process that in the late 1970s Mies called “housewifization.
The post-1980s retraction of the social welfare state is putting immense pressure on the household as an economic unit. This pressure could destabilize the family as the privileged site where the state recognizes people as having the rights entitlements of citizenship. Instead, those who can afford it are finding new ways to supplement the household economic unit by outsourcing the necessary domestic labor that keeps it going. Of course, the white middle-class household was never self-sufficient, because families with the economic means have always hired lower-class and often racialized women to do domestic work in their homes. The outsourcing of care work, including the work of gestation and childbirth, which I study in the form of transnational surrogacy markets, draws our attention to what is in fact a very long history of outside support for what looks from the outside like the simple bourgeois family unit When the work of the household gets stretched out across a global map of outsourcing, we get what Rhacel Parreñas calls “global chains of care,” in which women emigrate overseas to care for families, leaving their own to be cared for by other family members, often their own mothers These chains of care get superimposed onto the map of the formerly colonized world and its metropoles in what is now termed the global North.
When I started researching transnational Indian surrogacy arrangements, I spent several months at a surrogacy clinic in northern India. At one point in the first week, I was asked to step in as a translator for a conversation in which a commissioning father named David was introduced to Puja, the woman the clinic had assigned to be his gestational surrogate. The arrangement called for in vitro fertilization, where an embryo created with David’s sperm and the ovum of a different local Indian woman would then be transferred to Puja’s uterus for gestation. Puja explored the extent of David’s intentions toward her and her family by asking if he would be willing to bring her family to the US and help them find jobs. He expressed a vague intention to help educate her children and perhaps invite them to the US, but by the end of their contract, nine months later, he described mounting frustration with her continued attempts to, as he phrased it, “get more money” from him and his wife each time they communicated
I found an insistence among surrogates that common sense should dictate that commissioning parents would naturally feel that they owed their surrogate an extended form of patronage, in light of what the surrogate had given them—something beyond what money can repay or represent. In fact, such relationships between people of power and resources and those of little have well-established precedents in South Asian history
The social contract that binds the nation together, where citizens subject themselves to state power in exchange for security, is a model for the marriage contract. It is also a model for surrogacy contracts. The social contract—an agreement between two supposedly autonomous parties that will be upheld by the state legal apparatus—makes one party, in this case, the surrogate, subordinate to another, the commissioning parents, because by law she is a temporary service worker who will gestate their property and progeny for nine months, after which she is no longer part of the parents’, or the commissioned infant’s, social world.
The work of care, nurturing, attention, and biological gestation performed by commercial surrogates is devalued because it is gendered. It is outsourced to racialized nations and performed by their citizen bodies as underpaid labor. However, as Shah’s study of “queer domesticities” in San Francisco’s Chinatown of the 1930s means to suggest, the work of care can lead to new social forms and can change existing institutions Assisted reproductive technologies, including the practice of surrogacy, are destabilizing the citizen subject of the nation-state and the laws that protect them. The notion of “family” has been shifting in response to outdated models of patriarchy and the nuclear family, for example, through the notion of “genetic” parents. Should we really then think of some surrogates’ assertion that they should have a lasting economic connection to the families they contracted with for surrogacy as irrational or impossible?
The challenges posed to national ideals of work, family, and both social and biological reproduction by the global distribution of care and service work require participants to remake structures of trust and security as we create new forms of kinship and social responsibility. These new forms of collectivity are required because the outsourcing of care has been accompanied by a retraction of the national social welfare state. In 1987, Margaret Thatcher famously encapsulated neoliberal economic subjectivity when she said, “There is no such thing as society. There are individual women, and there are families.” From the perspective of the nation-state, the family is a unit through which the life of a collective (the body of the nation) can be reproduced both biologically and ideologically. It is privileged in many ways, from its ideological promotion to its gatekeeping function to control full access to the entitlements of a citizen subject. From the perspective of a critical race and gender studies analysis, the family is an imagined ideal that has been constructed to mark full citizenship at the expense of raced, gendered, and sexualized subjects against whom it is defined.
What types of communities of care might arise, then, out of the retraction of the social welfare state? Can we see these both as a symptom of the failure of the state and also as sites of possibility to interrupt the easy reproduction of the nation and the family form? The way former surrogates in India describe the potential for structures of lifelong responsibility between commissioning parents and the families of surrogates helps us imagine alternatives to nation-state organized family and marriage-based structures of kinship and mutual aid.
If we rearrange this essay’s opening question, “Whom can I trust to take care of me,” to “Who can trust me to take care of them?,” the question becomes open to the social, and to the ongoing life of “society.” It pushes against the atomization encouraged by privatization. Thinking about being trusted to take care of others—to not just be responsible for oneself and one’s family but to also recognize mutual dependence as in surrogacy arrangements—points to the power to use social reproduction, and perhaps even technologies of biological reproduction, to change the fabric of society in response to the retraction of social welfare by the neoliberal state. “Who can trust me to take care of them” is a question of building collectives within or despite the nation. Collectives have historically challenged the model of the autonomous individual property owner. Surrogates who feel they should be in a relation of responsibility with commissioning parents are calling for those parents to think about a collective investment. Who will they care for? Not the surrogate, but the genetic progeny she has borne, because it is a relation sanctioned by the state? Many people are already living as part of alternative collectives—those queer domesticities that the nation-state has tried to penalize. I’ve argued that in some ways social reproduction and the domestic sphere have always been such a place, even as they have been central to raced, gendered, and imperial exploitation.