The Surrogate Body and the Body Politic

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Science as Culture
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The Surrogate Body and the Body
Katharine Dow



Department of Social Anthropology , University of Edinburgh ,
Published online: 21 Feb 2012.

To cite this article: Katharine Dow (2012) The Surrogate Body and the Body Politic, Science as
Culture, 21:3, 399-403, DOI: 10.1080/09505431.2011.630725
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Science as Culture
Vol. 21, No. 3, 399– 403, September 2012


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The Surrogate Body and the Body Politic
Department of Social Anthropology, University of Edinburgh, UK

Birthing a Mother: The Surrogate Body and the Pregnant Self, by Elly Teman,
Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010, 361 pp., £14.95.
To what extent do practices of assisted conception reflect, or even encapsulate, the
social, moral and political contexts in which they take place? Historically, social
scientists have approached the natural sciences by critically reflecting on the
culture of science, as well as examining the ways in which science and
technology are implicated in the reproduction of culture.
Assisted reproductive technologies (ART) have proved a fecund source of interest for social scientists because the ways that clinicians, patients, policy makers
and laypeople respond to them illuminate some of our most deep-seated ideas,
both about the way people are made and how they are related to one another.
Given this, it is somewhat frustrating that so many (often incredibly theoretically
stimulating) ethnographies of assisted conception have relatively little to say
about the everyday social worlds of those accessing these technologies. Yet
these matter for an anthropology of ART.
Typically, ethnographies of ART cast considerable light on the medical regimens that people using these treatments undergo and how this affects the way
they think about their (in)fertility, parenthood and kinship to their child and
other family members, yet many of the most everyday aspects of these people’s
lives remains in the background. Now that social scientists have been writing
about ART for over two decades, this tendency towards sidelining everyday life
in ethnographies of ART needs to be addressed. If the context in which these

Correspondence Address: Katharine Dow, Department of Social Anthropology, University of Edinburgh, Chrystal Macmillan Building, 15A George Square, Edinburgh EH8 9LD, UK. Email: [email protected]
0950-5431 Print/1470-1189 Online/12/030399-5 # 2012 Katharine Dow

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K. Dow

treatments are experienced remains implicit, ethnographers risk taking too much
for granted and miss ripe opportunities to capture the everyday experience of those
undertaking infertility treatments first-hand. This is particularly unfortunate given
that the majority of the places in which these accounts of ART have been written
are in the ‘Western’ world, a region that has been historically under-represented in
the ethnographic record. Ethnography is an ideal tool to capture the minutiae of
everyday life and anthropologists are well placed to study ART because of our
focus on the small-scale and the level of access we typically have to research
participants. If we do not fully engage with the cultural, political and economic
milieu in which clinicians and patients operate, this can, ironically, serve to
reinforce the assumption that the clinic is a supra-cultural space.
Elly Teman has produced a compelling and detailed account of gestational surrogacy arrangements in contemporary Israel, based on many years of ethnographic
fieldwork amongst the ‘surrogacy community’ there. Her book, Birthing a Mother,
focuses on the relationship between the women in surrogacy arrangements, in a
country in which commercial surrogacy is legal but closely regulated by the
state. Teman provides a sensitive analysis of how surrogates conceptualise and
‘map’ their own bodies, temporarily dividing off their pregnant bellies and
attributing foreign emotions to the developing foetus and its ‘true’ parents. One
particularly telling example of this is a vignette in which a surrogate mother of
Iraqi descent describes craving a particular soup while pregnant, which is associated with the region of Morocco from which the intended mother originates. For
the surrogate, the craving she experiences is a sign, not of her connection to the
foetus inside her, but of its pre-existing, racialised kinship with the intended
As this example of physical craving from Teman’s ethnography suggests, the
experience of surrogacy can be one in which women experience their bodily
boundaries becoming more permeable than individualist medical discourse
would usually allow. Teman employs the term the ‘shifting body’ to describe
how, through the gestation period, the pregnancy is gradually transferred from
the surrogate to the intended mother. For example, many intended mothers have
bodily experiences akin to pseudocyesis (‘phantom pregnancy’), while surrogates
commonly contrasted their surrogate pregnancies with those with their own children by remarking upon the fact that they lost their pregnancy weight especially
quickly or that they had failed to lactate. This gestational osmosis—where not
only the child, but also the pregnancy, is transferred from the surrogate to the
intending mother—allows for intended mothers to gradually consolidate their
own identities as the only mothers of the children who are born through these
arrangements. Israeli surrogates report that they do not suffer significant feelings
of loss or trauma upon relinquishing the child to the intended parents,1 since this
act is experienced as the wonderful climax of the process of helping a woman to
become a mother rather than a sacrifice. For the surrogates, the close relationships
they build with the intended mothers are of primary importance, and problems

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The Surrogate Body and the Body Politic 401

arise when this bond is not honoured rather than because of doubts about relinquishing the child.
The positive experiences that Israeli surrogate mothers commonly report is in
no small part due to the extent to which this contentious practice has been normalised in line with wider state agendas of encouraging families to have children (pronatalism). Israeli surrogacy law, which is extremely favourable towards intended
parents, stipulates that only women who have already had children but who are
unmarried can act as surrogate mothers. While Teman goes to some pains to
show the shifting power dynamics within surrogacy arrangements and the
complex agency of surrogates, she does not shy away from the fact that, as
single mothers, Israeli surrogates already occupy a marginal space. The Israeli
state not only circumscribes who can take part in surrogacy arrangements in
line with traditional ideas about what makes a family, but, as Teman argues,
also sets itself up as the ultimate source of the child. This is seen most forcefully
at the child’s birth, where it enters the custody of the state welfare officer until its
intended parents secure a parental order. Israeli surrogates thus perceive that they
are doing something valuable for the state and, in a particularly strong section
towards the end of the ethnography, Teman analyses surrogates’ sense of their
own heroism in helping the intended parents. She is precise and convincing in
showing how, in describing themselves facing this physical test, surrogates use
military analogies that allow them to claim a ‘masculine’ mastery over their
bodies in the service of the state as personified by the intended parents.
Teman makes a strong case for why surrogacy in Israel is especially interesting, linking it explicitly with the state’s ‘pronatalist national ideologies and
demographic policies’ (p. 6). Yet, in the following sentence, she seems to contradict this point by arguing that, ‘Examining how surrogates and intended
mothers negotiate maternity, kin relations, bodies, and boundaries in a context
where these stakes are so high amplifies what we might find among surrogacy
participants in other cultural contexts’ (p. 6, my emphasis). No doubt, there
are continuities between surrogacy as practised in Israel and elsewhere, and
Teman makes careful comparisons of her data with that from the US and UK.
Yet, in searching for these continuities, she occasionally loses sight of the particularities of the Israeli case, so that it is sometimes difficult to get a clear
picture of how the very specific political discourse of Israel translates into the
everyday experience of the surrogate mothers and intended parents in her
The specifics of the Israeli context are more apparent in Michal Nahman’s work
on ova donation. She argues that ‘idealized national bodies and particular racializations are brought into being by discourses, exchanges and extractions of human
ova. Here, scientific and national agendas co-produce one another’ (2006, p. 200).
Most of the Jewish Israelis undertaking donor conception that Nahman spoke to
agreed that non-Jewish Israelis would not make suitable donors, albeit for
complex and not necessarily straightforwardly racist reasons (2006, p. 206), and


K. Dow

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she therefore describes the selection of egg donors as a ‘border-making practice’
(2006, p. 208) that reinforces contiguity between Jewish Israeli and white European identity. While Teman is clear about Israel’s pronatalism, the reasons for
this policy remain somewhat opaque in her analysis, so the reader is left to
infer the influence of Israeli nationalism and internecine tensions with Palestine
on both individuals’ desired children and the state’s ideal families.
I was struck by one example in Birthing a Mother of a surrogate mother who
explained the appeal of creating a genetically related child through surrogacy as
opposed to adoption, by outlining the ‘nightmare scenario’ of a Jewish couple
finding out they have accidentally adopted an Arab child. She said:
One day you will suddenly find out that it is an Arab, that you are raising an
Arab. He has Arab blood. One day he will come and he will throw a stone at
you and he won’t know why at all. Because it’s . . . it’s in the blood, you can’t
do anything about it [in] the genes, and genes are very, very strong. (p. 66,
original editing)
In Teman’s analysis of this quote, the political and societal implications of the idea
that hostility towards Jews is carried in Arab blood and genes is eclipsed by her
discussion of what this conceptualisation of relatedness through shared substance—‘it’s in the blood’—means for the surrogate and intended mother, their
relationship to each other and to the child they are creating together. Yet, this
example suggests a strong feeling of being under siege that surely has an effect
on both the intended parents’ desire to have children and on the surrogate’s motivation and sense of heroism in helping them to do that. Of course, this is just one
example from the wealth of data that Teman presents, yet it indicates that the
Israeli –Palestinian conflict is an issue that is embedded deep within these
women’s notions of how, and who, people reproduce, which would certainly
bear further investigation. The fact that she does not address this leaves something
of a political lacuna in her analysis, which undermines what is otherwise a fascinating and dense account of Israeli surrogacy.
It is my view that ART are always best analysed within the everyday contexts in
which they are used, wherever that might be, and I do not intend to single out
Israel as an exotic case to which we need to pay special attention just because
of its political history. Surrogates, intended parents and clinicians never operate
in a cultural or ethical vacuum, whether the medico-scientific culture of the
clinic, the normative space of the surrogacy approvals committee or the theatre
of family life. As much as further reflection on the experience of living and reproducing in a site of sustained conflict and intense political and religious tension, I
would also have liked to know where the people who populate the Israeli surrogacy community shop for their food, how they met their partners, where (and
if) they go on holiday and what they read whilst sitting in infertility clinic
waiting rooms. If we take it for granted that we all know what life in Israel, the

The Surrogate Body and the Body Politic 403

US or UK looks like, we will only ever give a partial and abstracted picture of
what it means, and takes, to produce a child in these places.

While additional evidence of this lack of emotional trauma following surrogacy is scant, longitudinal research on surrogacy in the UK seems to support Teman’s contention (see Jadva et al.,
2003; Golombok et al., 2006).

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Golombok, S., MacCallum, F., Murray, C., Lycett, E. and Jadva, V. (2006) Surrogacy families: parental functioning, parent –child relationships and children’s psychological development at age
2, Journal of Child Psychology & Psychiatry, 47(2), pp. 213–222.
Jadva, V., Murray, C., Lycett, E., MacCallum, F. and Golombok, S. (2003) Surrogacy: the experiences of surrogate mothers, Human Reproduction, 18(10), pp. 2196–2204.
Nahman, M. (2006) Materializing Israeliness: difference and mixture in transnational ova donation,
Science as Culture, 15(3), pp. 199–213.

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