Elly Teman

Berkley: University of California Press, 2010

Reviewed by Megan McCullough

Elly Teman’s Birthing a Mother: The Surrogate Body and the Pregnant Self elegantly and aptly illustrates Ginsburg and Rapp’s (1995) classic yet cogent point that reproduction is at the center of social life, social theory, and apparatuses of power. Teman’s ethnography significantly addresses a gap in anthropological literature on surrogacy that has not been examined at length since Ragone’s (1994) ethnographic study focused primarily on surrogate mothers. After eight years of ethnographic research into gestational surrogacy in Israel, including interviews with surrogates as well as contracting couples, Teman challenges feminist arguments that surrogacy is an exploitative practice. In addition, she deconstructs popular media depictions of surrogacy as abnormal and surrogates as acquisitive and emotionally unsound women who are somehow not “natural.” Teman’s work takes on the dense and complicated issues around what make a woman a mother, how motherhood and reproduction are embodied and performed as well as exploring the significance of motherhood to reproduction of the nation-state. Teman’s multifaceted text furthers anthropological work on new reproductive technologies, the social practices that arise within the context of such technologies, how kinship and motherhood and relatedness are forged through bodily practices within surrogacy as well as advancing anthropological work on the body and embodiment in several significant ways.


Teman’s book is organized around four key themes (“Dividing,” “Connecting,” “Separating,” and “Redfining”), three of which probe the meanings of bodily practices. In her section on “Dividing,” Teman’s three chapters detail the “body maps” surrogate women construct and inhabit in order to separate themselves from the fetus they are growing for other bodies, other selves. Teman’s concept of “body maps” is not difficult to grasp, and yet is in no way simple but rather an innovative and multilayered way of exploring the myriad ways surrogates figure and reconfigure their bodies and bodily experience. Readers benefit greatly from the text’s illustrations culled from Israeli newspapers and artists that assist readers in visualizing the embodied divisions between selves and bodies in gestational surrogacy. However, through further use of phenomenological approaches, Teman could have advanced theoretical work on subject/object relationships as her work on the relationship between surrogate and fetus challenges many frameworks in phenomenological inspired anthropology.


In the second theme, “Connecting,” the complex relationships among surrogates and the women they are gestating the fetuses for, the “mothers,” is made accessible in a highly readable and intimate manner. Temans’s ethnographic examples of how surrogates crave food from the ethnic groups of the contracting parents is just one example of how body maps are operationalized and how surrogates and contracting mothers engage in “body shifting” that is part of the process of surrogates “making” mothers. Her examination of the body, illustrating how surrogates find ways to open up the boundaries of their body to allow another woman in, is ethnographically and theoretically rich.


Teman’s third section gives the reader an inside peek at how hospitals and staff participate in the “making” of mothers along with the actions of the surrogates in ways that have the attributes of ritual. She provides a complex panorama of epistemological maneuvers that allows surrogates and the expecting mothers as well as the hospital staff to manage this complicated shift of constructing and performing reproduction and motherhood. Teman’s exploration of how surrogates maintain a sense of themselves and their bodies through a complex maze of bodily practices, vocabularies of attachment (to their own children) and un-attachment (toward the fetus), and kinship relationships (within in their own families and friendships and with the contracting couple) make clear how they are able to disconnect themselves from the final product of the fetus and at the same time construct another as mother.


Teman’s text concludes in the fourth section where she redefines what a surrogate is and sums up the actual experiences of surrogates and contracting couples. In her conclusion, she notes the difference between what policy makers and the general public think are problems with surrogacy in contrast to what surrogates themselves think. Surrogates suggest that what is important for them is not giving up the baby but rather, the quality of the relationship between themselves and the contracting couple, especially the contracting mother.Teman’s work further illustrates the complex intersection between nationalist interests in producing Jewish children for the state of Israel and how within this process surrogates maintain a sense of themselves, their bodies and a belief that they are giving a gift to others (not just the state).


At this particular moment there is increased interest in the role of men in studies of anthropology of reproduction. However, I would not want Teman’s book to be found wanting in this regard.  Understanding men and surrogacy is another project. As a feminist anthropologist, I think that well researched, ethnographically grounded, theoretically interesting, and intellectually challenging accounts of how women engage in the project of reproduction and how they understand their “selves” and their bodies in this process is still an under-explored social phenomena in many disciplines and in the public sphere. This book is excellent for undergraduates who find it provocative in re-thinking the boundaries of the body and kinship and useful theoretically and ethnographically for graduate students, particularly those interested in medical anthropology, embodiment, and reproduction. There are many facile representations and limited understandings of pregnancy, surrogacy, and motherhood circulating in the public sphere. It is a pleasure to read a monograph about bodies and bodily practices and the role of the state in reproduction that so elegantly illustrates how complicated yet central women’s bodies and reproduction are to social theory.


References cited:


Ginsburg, Faye, and Rayna Rapp, eds.
1995 Conceiving the New World Order: The Global Politics of Reproduction. Berkley: University of California Press.


Ragone, Helene

1994 Surrogate Motherhood: Conception in The Heart. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.


Megan McCullough, PhD is a Visiting Assistant Professor and Visiting Scholar at Brandeis University. Her research interests include indigenous peoples, the political economy of medical care, the social construction of gender, the construction of obesity as a medical risk and a moral panic, and investigating the relationships among subjectivity, embodiment, and social suffering in Australia and more generally Oceania.





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