1,000 cancers: on TERFs and pregnancy
CN: transphobia, reproductive biology.
What follows is, in the first instance, an expansion - complete with handy URLs - of a spirited lesson about gestational biology and liberatory politics I composed on Twitter (on my @reproutopia account), by way of publicly schooling some self-styled Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists (remember those? my podcast appearance sought to shed light). Said TERFs had recently exposed themselves - in the ugly act of gloating about trans women dying from pregnancy - as not knowing the first thing about human pregnancy. I tweeted an epic thread - which you can go read here if you like.  

1. Womb transplants for all who want them?

In October and November 2017, one of several periodic waves of news articles circulated in the United Kingdom about advances in womb transplant technology. Predictably enough, many of these were disingenuous and misleading about the probability that this technology will be widely available soon, and, worse, espoused the fundamental transphobic double standard that has unfortunately (points out Jules Gleeson) become standard in the British press: celebrating the "hope" this gives cis women in need of UTxs (womb transplants) while shuddering at the possibility that trans women might benefit. A couple of Daily Heil and Telegraph articles were particularly notable for their awfulness, combining the worst kinds of misgendering and erasure with the irresponsible and erroneous implication that free UTxs for trans women were "imminent". ("Wombs for men: Astonishing prospect as fertility doctors back operations on NHS so transgender women born as boys can have babies" [sic]; "Sex-change men 'will soon be able to have babies'" [sic, sic, sic], etc.)

So far, so The UK Media. What piqued my interest, however, was some tweets on the subject by 'Fair Play for Women' (@fairplaywomen), which got some deservedly condemnatory coverage in Pink News: "Group behind Metro newspaper ad sent ‘chilling’ tweets about trans women getting ‘1,000 cancers’." [On the full-page anti-trans advert in question, targeted at the recently concluded survey on reform of the Gender Recognition Act, see this.]

Fair Play for Women is, like A Woman's Place, Mayday 4 Women and - at this stage - Object, a campaign group whose sole purpose is to deny trans women in the UK healthcare and legal standing as women. Anyway, in November 2017, its Twitter account tweeted a couple of comments on the womb transplant (non-) story. Namely: “Won’t happen. Any potential foetus would invade the host’s body & proliferate like 1,000 cancers [evil grin]”; and “Hahahahahahahahaaha! Good luck to ‘em. The foetus will invade their body like a virus.” 

Now, these @fairplaywomen tweets, sent 5 and 7 Nov 2017 respectively, also linked to an article by evolutionary biologist Suzanne Sadedin which the editors at Aeon magazine click-baitily titled "War in the Womb". 

It is an iconoclastic article, and an article I happen to have spent a LONG time thinking about writing my book. Oh no, you don't, I thought to myself, noticing this first-ever sighting (to my knowledge) of it 'in the wild'. No way are transphobes going to use Sadedin's piece to argue for the  moral superiority of cis women with viable uteri.

But I actually had no idea how entirely backwards and wrong transphobes could actually be. It appears they might not even have read (let alone understood) the article.

Before I delve any deeper, though, let me provide a gloss on Dr. Suzanne Sadedin's account of human gestation (also accessibly laid out at Quora)

2. Maternal 'generosity' at the molecular level

Contradicting prevailing cultural idealizations of maternal generosity as boundless, Sadedin explains that the gestator, in our species, "is a despot: she provides only what she chooses.” (I’m not at all sure, admittedly, that the one thing follows from the other.) Sadedin’s point is that our maternal anatomy is perpetually defending itself, decreasing sugar and blood pressure in response to the fetus signalling for more. Human gestators are technically “less generous” in this sense than are most nonhumans.

 They have to be, because human fetuses, “tunnelling" towards the gestator’s bloodstream, fight and override every “no” they encounter. They disable our immune system with floods of cortisol, and sometimes constrict our blood vessels w the help of toxins, causing kidney or liver damage, and stroke. 

The basic mechanics of reproduction in homo sapiens have evolved in a manner that can only be described as a ghastly fluke. Scientists have discovered—by experimentally putting placental cells in mouse carcasses—that the active cells of pregnancy “rampage” (unless aggressively contained) through every tissue they touch. Kathy Acker was not citing these studies when she remarked that having cancer was like having a baby, but she was unconsciously channelling its findings. The same goes for Elena Ferrante’s protagonist in The Days of Abandonment, who reports: 

I was like a lump of food that my children chewed without stopping; a cud made of a living material that continually amalgamated and softened its living substance to allow two greedy bloodsuckers to nourish themselves.

The genes that are active in embryonic development are also implicated in cancer. 

And that is not the only reason why pregnancy, for us—in Sadedin’s account—perpetrates a kind of biological “bloodbath.” It is the specific, functionally rare type of placenta we have to work with—the hemochorial placenta—which determines that the entity Chikako Takeshita calls “the motherfetus” tears itself apart inside. 

Rather than simply interfacing with the gestator’s biology through a limited filter, or contenting itself with freely proffered secretions, this placenta “digests” its way into its host’s arteries, securing full access to most tissues. Mammals whose placentae don’t “breach the walls of the womb” in this way can simply abort or reabsorb unwanted fetuses at any stage of pregnancy, Sadedin notes. For them, “life goes on almost as normal during pregnancy.” Conversely, a human cannot rip away a placenta in the event of a change of heart—or, say, a sudden drought or outbreak of war—without risk of lethal hemorrhage. Our embryo hugely enlarges and paralyzes the wider arterial system supplying it, while at the same time elevating (hormonally) the blood pressure and sugar supply.   

In short, the unborn routinely deploy all manner of “manipulation, blackmail and violence” in their contribution to being made.  

3. The polarized fans of "war in the womb" framings

Sadedin’s language unfortunately bears some similarity to the gynophobic suspicions propagated by influential doctors and medical textbooks in the '50s/60s about the inconvenience for babies of having to exist inside the hostile environment of the womb, where they are “attacked”. Patriarchal scientists and science-fiction writers, and misogynists of various techno-euphoric hues, have dreamed of ectogenesis (machine gestation) for over a century. The horizon here has been, straightforwardly, extracting the fetus from "the woman in the body" - not for "her" sake, but for the sake of the fetus (relentlessly imagined as male). We must free ourselves from the tyranny of "the Mother", brothers!

BUT - fascinatingly - as we see from these tweets, a "war" framing of gestationality also resonates surprisingly strongly with today's TERF resurgence. It has been – at least in England – self-designating ‘Radical Feminists’ who have gleefully shared Sadedin’s unorthodox narrative about maternality on social media (again, in the context of news stories concerning uterus transplants for trans women). This basic framing of gestating as violent is, in other words, popular not only among the most ambitious fringes of patriarchy but also among those who style themselves as patriarchy's fiercest enemies. Why might this be?

Let's see. The 100% fabricated idea TERFs have latched on to, here, completely misreading Sadedin, is that those already equipped with uteri (i.e., ‘real women,’ according to transphobes) are naturally able to cope with the “1,000 cancers” gestation unleashes on the organism (unclear where this colourful number came from, by the way) , whereas the recipient of a donor uterus, for some reason, is not. 

 This is a nonsense. A fantasy. No one copes easily with the gestational process wracking their anatomy. It is unclear why one would imagine that a transplanted womb is less protection against that process than is a womb one was born with. What @FairPlayWomen does make clear, in this sense, is that the everlasting persistence of pregnancy’s injury and mortality rate worldwide (300,000 human beings a year die of pregnancy) is a price TERFs are willing to pay for the satisfaction of excluding trans women from healthcare and legal standing as women.

Basically, while patriarchal scientists have sought, and still seek, to extract pregnancy from the brutal terrain of the uterus, in short, it is for similarly misogynist reasons that certain feminists hug that violence tightly to themselves. 

These are twinned poles. 

But it is a problem that Sadedin relies upon some of their same metaphors - of violent overwhelming, combat, competition, and male-female antagonism - that were so popular in the mainstream stories about sexual reproduction famously analyzed by Emily Martin. 

In the mid-20th-century medical canons parsed in The Woman in the Body, Martin found that the fetus appears as a jolly little soldier, a bumptious intruder, a cute emissary of the binary “otherness” of the dad's genetic difference lost in the nasty enemy territory of the mother’s body.

Fetal violence toward maternal anatomy was wholly naturalized in these casually sexist texts, and maternal-fetal antagonism was also never imagined as a relationship internal to the laboring maternal body (on the contrary, as so many scholars have shown: “the lady [sic] vanishes”).

These tropes have been instrumental in stabilizing the pernicious notion of fetus-as-subject beloved of “pro-life”rs. That's hardly a surprise. It is also no surprise that they live in the minds of many clinical brokers in commercial surrogacy - what I call Surrogacy™ - with the twist that the malevolent male father figure of the technophobic RadFem imaginary can now have any gender. Meanwhile, the laborer whose labor power is circulating in gestational surrogacy becomes more and more like an invitingly empty space—“only a uterus,” as one surrogacy clinician put it. Despite these and other changes, the gestational body in representation stays more or less where she was in Emily Martin's theorization, her putative “generosity” only growing more and more perfect as the various discourses around 'assisted reproduction' (as though reproduction could ever be unassisted!) are competitively refined. 

 What is less obvious, I think, because on its face it is paradoxical, is that the tropes I've been talking about here sustain and sub-tend the ideology of the anti-trans, anti-prostitution and anti-surrogacy 'abolitionists', the self-described radical feminisms behind groups like FINRRAGE (now defunct) and Stop Surrogacy Now. Far from representing anything 'radical' or even 'feminist' in feminism, by the way, this TERFy/SWERFy/SERFy formation having a heyday in the UK is - in historian Alice Echol's analysis - the right-wing dregs of the '60s and '70s women's liberation movement. A constitutively ressentiment-filled tendency.

4. Conclusions, questions, liberation horizons

 It is to miss the point to infer from Sadedin’s account either that getting into gestating willingly is "irrational"/bad, OR that fetuses are to be blamed, OR that gestators aren’t amazingly “corporeally generous” despite (or because of?) the LIMITS they place on that generosity. 

It obviously makes no sense for us - and by 'us', here, I mean reproductive justice militants and gender abolitionists - to espouse an un-dialectical anti-pregnancy position. We have to struggle in and against the violence of gestating and figure out how to redistribute, automate, and attenuate it. 

The rise of surrogacy notwithstanding, upper-class white women everywhere - even TERFs! - continue to do gestation, and to experience it as depressing and perilous. 

Yet, in complete contradiction of their own interests, TERFs here responded to the news that non-cis-women might share in that experience - not by worrying about their safety; not by welcoming the possibility of an expanded solidarity - but by gloating: 

"Hahahahahahahahaha *evil grin*." 

Theirs, umistakeably, then, is a politics of levelling-down. They don't want to fix the social-biological problem of gestation's physical brutality. They don't want to liberate human beings from gestational suffering. Since TERFs are fundamentally a reaction-formation, an exclusion-project, a wounded attachment, the question for them is, first and foremost: "How do we block trans women from suffering alongside 'us'?"

Meanwhile, since she is an evolutionary biologist, the pivotal question for Suzanne Sadedin is: “How did we humans get so unlucky?” 

But there is another question—a question all of this yields for a (gender-, race-, and class-abolitionist) repro-utopian politics. Namely:

"What do we do about this violence, and how can we help one another?”

What is key, for me, is that Sadedin’s insights can be framed as a demand for solidarity w gestators—a call for the very unalienated childbirth some feminists (especially, but not exclusively, cis white ecofeminists) think we would already have if only "technodocs" got “off our backs.” 

From my point of view, the process of gestating is necessarily going to estrange the labouring body in every society except a society where that labour’s independent existence is wrestled into maximal gestator control. (For more on this, see my contribution to the Women's Strike at the Verso blog: 'Gestators of all Genders, Unite!')

To achieve something like unalienated gestation, an environment that has secured “free abortion on demand without apology” would be a start, but isn’t in itself good enough; the services of abortion+birth (“full spectrum”) doulas, biohackers, gynepunks should be a universal given. As should be research into ways to prevent things like placenta accreta (where the placenta attaches to the body). While all hitherto existing societies have probably only known alienated gestating—even celebrating that disempowerment—biology is quite literally not destiny. 

Lastly, and most controversially, I'll say that if insisting on gestator-fetus agonism leads to certain degree of subjectification of the fetus (be it as a heroic or parasitic), then the challenge to which we must rise involves affirming a politics equal to the killing of subjects. 

We need a politics of abortion that resists “preemptive compromise”  on the question of what it is exactly gestators sometimes kill. In the absence of such a discursive step, there can be (with thanks to Eleanor Penny) neither gestational strike nor gestational riot.  


Thank you for your patronage. I welcome questions any time, on Twitter or elsewhere, and I hope you buy my book when it comes out (Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family).

Sophie lewis released this post 10 days early for patrons.   Become a patron