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“Unpaid Gestation” and the Abolition of the Family

April 13th, 2022 | 8 min read

By Grace Humbles

Every day, 385,000 newborn babies enter the world. A fledgling group of theorists and writers is interested in reimagining how we think about these births and the children they produce. Using the provocative tagline “Abolish the Family,” this group of thinkers wants to challenge current notions of family structure and reproduction.

Abolish the Family and Redistribute Reproduction

Dr. Sophie Lewis is at the forefront of the family abolitionist cause. In an interview with Verso Press, Lewis describes some of her core concerns with the current state of the biological family. These concerns range from the family’s role in capitalism to the idea that children should not be owned by anyone. For our purposes, I want to focus on her thoughts related to human reproduction.

Lewis notes that she is “interested in thinking about how pregnancy could be redistributed, rendered more safe, more pleasurable, maybe partially automated.” She expresses a kind of shock, near horror, that “so many of us are walking around in a state of physical implantability.” How is it possible that something as unpleasant and “violent” as pregnancy could just happen to so many of us without our full consent?

Within Lewis’s framework, pregnancy is understood as “gestational labor.” This labor may be dangerous, is typically unpaid, and most often occurs within the context of a biological family that will keep and raise the child as its own. Lewis would like us to imagine a world where there is a broader “care commune” for children and has said that she wants to challenge “the idea that babies belong to anyone.” In the utopia Lewis asks us to envision, babies belong to everyone because we all belong to one another. Relationships are not dictated by biology but are chosen and rejected based on individual volition and affinity. This utopia supplants a biologically centered family with what Lewis has called “a care commune based on comradeship, a world sustained by kith and kind more than by kin.” This utopian commune is one picture of what it looks like to abolish the family.

Family Abolition: We Deserve More

A number of the concerns from the family abolitionist movement are valid and worth noting. Our narrow Western understanding of the nuclear family pales in comparison to the rich layers of familial and neighborly relationships present in traditional cultures throughout history. The longing for a more communal care for children is not so far off from the multi-generational families still present in many traditional societies today. It is also true that pregnancy and reproduction are messy, challenging, and often include layers of suffering. There is certainly room for improvement in the reproductive care and cloistered parenting practices we often experience in 21st century America.

Unfortunately, family abolitionist solutions to these concerns entail troubling assumptions about the nature of human connection and flourishing. The movement argues, in Lewis’s words, that “we deserve more than the sort of blackmail that says we must be content with relationships defined as blood or as nature—the relationships which we find given to us.”

Here we come to a core premise hidden in arguments for abolishing the family: we deserve more. This mode of thought looks out at the world and asks, “What can you give me?” This unspoken question reveals a commitment to the prioritization of pleasure, individual autonomy, and freedom of choice over biological obligations. Unlike multi-generational families and communities bound by blood or neighborly obligation, “chosen families” and the relational responsibilities that come with them can be entered into and exited at will and without consequence. The assumptions embedded in the family abolitionist framework present a picture of humanity in stark contrast to the historic Christian understanding of what it means to be a person—interdependent, finite, mysterious, and formed in the image of a relational Triune God who cannot disown Himself.

Choosing What Is Given: An Alternative Solution

Like Dr. Lewis, farmer, poet, and thinker Wendell Berry takes issue with today’s excessive consumerism and narrow circles of care. But Berry offers a radically different response to the pitfalls of Western culture. His well-known poem “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” begins with an explicit critique of our market-driven society.

“Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.”

Where Lewis sees the openness of choice as a gateway to pleasure and freedom, Berry’s “Manifestoreveals a dark side to the obsession with individual autonomy. If I am bombarded with consumer choices about my circumstances, identity, relationships, and reproduction, what mystery is there left to experience? Places, people, and even my own flesh become sets of features and widgets to pick and choose (and discard) as I see fit. Nothing can break in from the outside. Not even your future will be a mystery. Preoccupation with individual choice leads, almost inevitably, to the destruction of mystery.

Berry’s poem, instead, challenges us to take our choice muscle and turn it back on itself. He asks us to choose the thing that was already given to us. “Love the world. Work for nothing,” Berry writes. The poem then draws our eyes to the nature of things—to pictures of reproduction.

“Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit.”

And later, “Put your faith in the two inches of humus / that will build under the trees / every thousand years.” What are these if not pictures of a seed falling into the ground and dying so it can bear fruit—so that it can reproduce? Far from the utopia imagined by Lewis, Berry’s response is to return to the interconnected natural way of things—the slow, nearly imperceptible goodness of organic matter dying to give other beings life.

Human bonds of connection, like the humus under a forest floor, are not formed through a simple obligation-free choice that I can later opt out of. They are formed through long-term, repetitive, monotonous actions of love—a love that is often self-sacrificing, inconvenient, even obligatory. Embracing the challenge and joy of reproduction and family life can invite Christians into a renewed understanding of the real profit Berry describes in “Manifesto.”

Laura Jansson, a Christian doula and author, writes about the rhythms involved in birth and parenting in her book Fertile Ground. She notes that children are birthed into the world through a rhythmic cycle of contraction, rest, contraction, and rest. This process is not a directionless repetition devoid of meaning but, as Jansson writes, a spiral that is going somewhere: “Even the path the baby takes as he is born traces a spiral shape while he pivots to navigate the landmarks of his mother’s accommodating pelvis.”

Cycles of repetition do not end with birth. Jansson points out that mothers and fathers continue this powerful spiral of caregiving in repetitive feedings, changings, wakings, sleepings, and more feedings. These repetitive cycles are monotonous, difficult, and burdensome—after many sleepless nights, they can amount to real moments of suffering. But they are also moments that form an effective spiral of connection, drilling bonds of love into the hearts and brain structures of parents. These obligatory tasks are not problems to be solved. They are the building blocks of human connection.

Attempting to reimagine the family in a utopia outside of the interwoven web of joy and suffering and monotony will cripple the very connections family abolitionists are attempting to build. Yes, the bonds of biological family oblige me to others in ways that are uncomfortable and inconvenient. But they also bind the other to me. Shaking off the shackles of obligation also means that no one is obligated to me. I am truly and completely alone. An individual. It also rejects, sight unseen, the deeper, mysterious pleasure that comes from the bonds formed by waking every two hours—or thirty minutes—to nurse or comfort a newborn baby knowing that you will not opt-out of this relationship, no matter what.

Embracing What is Given

Near the end of “Manifesto,” Berry says to “Ask yourself: Will this satisfy / a woman satisfied to bear a child? / Will this disturb the sleep / of a woman near to giving birth?” Wendell Berry does not look at the world and ask, “What do I deserve?” Instead, he asks the reader to turn inward and to have the courage to ask, “What is required of me?”

Writers and thinkers in the family abolitionist camp may find it interesting to ponder the idea that children belong to no one “but themselves,” that we should redistribute pregnancy, and that we deserve more than the natural family relationships we are given. But let a baby grow in your womb. Let it come out, screaming and bloody and through great effort. Look at its face, which has never existed before. Listen to it scream and feel your breasts fill with milk—without your consent. And you may find yourself looking at your baby and asking, “What do you need? What can I give you?” Theories of autonomous utopia are crushed under the weight of a newborn child.

Societies of all sizes, forms, and kinds rely on human reproduction to survive. No society, so far, has found a way to perpetuate itself without women releasing eggs, men ejecting sperm, and mothers giving birth. I don’t fault Lewis for wrestling with this reality. At a quick glance, human reproduction and familial relationships can appear insane and even, to use Lewis’s word, “violent.” Pregnant women experience pain and loss, fatigue and hunger; they bleed and tear; they, physically and metaphorically, break down their own lives to give life to someone else. How do we respond to this insanity? The idea of pregnancy redistribution may sound far-fetched but is not out of the question for those committed to investing in technocratic solutions to all human inconvenience.

I don’t have a solution to the madness of human reproduction. But I do know that this way of producing life is what was handed down to me. It is the way of my mother and her mother before her and a thousand other mothers before them. I could stand before the face of humanity and reject what was given, but who am I? I am just one of 7.9 billion people walking the earth, and in no position to comprehend the layers of reality and possibility necessary to argue for altering the course of human reproduction.

Rather than fight for the creation of new choices that defy human culture and tradition, I can step into the stream of unpaid gestational laborers and receive what is passed down—the suffering, blood, fatigue, and insanity. Receive the gift of co-creating a being that once did not exist and now does. And I can call that profit.

In the middle of writing this, I had to walk away from the computer because I heard one of my kids wake up from his nap to demand my (unpaid) attention. Frankly, at that moment, I would have rather listened to Dr. Lewis tell me her thoughts on the unacceptable, alienating gestational labor the human species hasn’t quite figured out how to eliminate. I went ahead and got my son anyway. And he smiled an eight-tooth smile, put his head on my chest, held up his stuffed animal, and said, “Cat!”

What if we resisted the impulse to stand in autonomous opposition to the millennia of cultures that preceded our own? What if, instead, we stepped into the stream of tradition and mystery? What if we were content with the things that satisfy a woman satisfied to bear a child? What could happen?