I have decided to release my new book, available on Lulu at this link. Here is the beginning of chapter 1. Enjoy.
Some of the inconvenient facts
In Western societies, anywhere from 70% to 90% of people will have children at some point in their lives. This is an overwhelming majority of men and women.
It’s also, in itself, not a topic that’s very much discussed publicly. Sure, we discuss the impact of having children, especially on women’s lives and careers. We also discuss the impact of having children on relationships. And that gives us some pretty interesting results.
As it turns out, having children has a profound negative impact on families: it’s correlated with lower happiness, life satisfaction, marital satisfaction, and mental well-being. As it’s popularly said, it destroys your sex life. It also keeps divorce levels lower, because people who don’t get along are forced to stay together “because of the children.” It’s no wonder that a third of parents say they regret their decision of having children.
Pregnancies also come with their own problems, ranging from constipation, gas, vaginal secretions, and getting kicking by the fetus, to serious psychiatric problems (women who give birth have a 72% greater incidence of psychiatric problems than before giving birth, while abortion carries no significant risk), and medical complications and death (rare occurrences in the Western world, but a significant risk in Third World countries).
There are not only personal consequences to procreation, but also global, planetary consequences. Each new human being born in the Western world adds a burden of pollution that we all pay for, anywhere from 5 to 20 tons of CO2 per year. It also adds to the torture and killing of livestock, to the tune of 30 to 150 kg per year. Producing the manufactured goods required for the life of that human being also entails hard labor, including slave labor. More than 18 million slaves are involved in producing goods like clothing, electronics, food, and so on, which end up on our shelves.
The reasons given for procreation
These are all serious repercussions that should give us pause, but people seem to procreate without giving much thought, if any, to these consequences. This in itself is a rather interesting fact. While I don’t want to stereotype parents, it seems like parents generally give less thought to their reasons for having children as they would buying a car or a house, even though these latter purchases have less of a financial and personal impact on people than having a child.
The reasons parents give for having children are varied, but they have certain common themes. Here are some randomly sampled examples:
I had children because I wanted children, and I thought I’d be a good parent. I have always imagined myself raising children. I love babies and children…
I always wanted to be a mommy, among other things. There was my gymnast phase, my ballerina phase, my scientist phase. But the constant was a baby doll.
I had children because I wanted a family. In my culture, we stay together and help each other grow. Again, it’s my upbringing and I embrace it.
I had kids because I fundamentally enjoy the family dynamic, and because I knew I had a lot of good shit to teach young people.
I had children because I wanted children. I wanted the love, closeness and chaos that comes with offspring.
To be honest, it started when my husband and I just reached a point where we threw up our hands and said: Why not give this a shot and see what happens?
I had children because I want to be a parent, and I want to be there for them.
These answers give us a good idea of the range of reasons for procreation: socialization (gender socialization, cultural socialization), conformity (wanting a family, wanting to be a parent, “giving it a shot”), and personal needs (need for love and closeness, need to be a parent).
These are not the only reasons, of course, but the other ones aren’t much better. For example, there is the “biological clock” which people use to rationalize their desire for procreation. It’s very convenient to have a supposed biological process to back up what you’re saying, but there is zero scientific evidence of a connection between hormone levels, or some other biological factor, and the desire to procreate. Laura Carroll, author of The Baby Matrix, has opined that the idea that procreating is instinctual makes no sense because, if that was the case, there’d be no need for social pressure:
In addition to pushing the idea that parenthood was “the” path to fulfillment in life, another had to do with the idea that “normal” women experience an instinctual longing from within to have a child, and if they didn’t there was something wrong with them. This belief is part of the larger pronatal “Destiny Assumption” that was created many years ago, that, like the Fulfillment Assumption, has stuck long after its usefulness.
The deep feelings of wanting to have a child have their roots in a learned desire from strong, long-standing social and cultural pronatal influences — not biological ones. And we’ve been influenced so strongly for so long that it just feels “innate.”
What she calls the “Destiny Assumption” is this belief that we are biologically wired to want to have children. Personally, I would go further and say it’s a mass delusion. Either way, it’s got nothing to do with biology and more to do with ideology.
Another common reason is the desire to propagate one’s genes or the family line. Procreation is not a particularly good way of spreading your genes, unless you don’t mind mixing them with someone else’s (cloning would be more far more accurate than sexual reproduction, anyway). Either way, they are both based on the expectation of one’s genes or family continuing to exist in the future, but there is no particular reason for this expectation to exist. We are not our genes or our family.
I will skip over the more trivial reasons related to racism (“we have to breed more than THEM!”) and religion (“God said to be fruitful and multiply”), as they are unlikely to convince anyone who doesn’t already buy into the worldview they’re a part of.
What all these answers have in common is that they are all about the parent: the parent’s needs, the parent’s socialization, the parent’s expectations. This is not surprising. After all, a parent could hardly be procreating in the name of a child’s values, when that child is not even born yet. All reasons for procreating are necessarily selfish.
Parents reading this may start objecting at this point. After all, I’ve already listed a number of negative consequences that procreation brings to relationships and to women. How can a selfish act be so dangerous to the individual? We think of a selfish act as being an “easy way out,” and having children is certainly not an “easy way out.” It’s a great deal of hard work that comes with a great number of risks.
As I already mentioned, I don’t think most people even think about these risks when they take the decision of procreating. But that fact alone does not make it a selfish act, merely an extremely imprudent one.
Children: the missing corner
So far I have only discussed the consequences to the parents and to society. We are very familiar with these kinds of consequences, because parents have some interest in them (usually only after they have a child and start feeling said consequences). In order to get the full picture on the ethics of procreation, we must include the corner of the procreative triangle that never gets discussed and which necessarily remains silent: the child.
This book aims to bring to bear this new child-centered perspective to the issue of procreative ethics (whether it is right or wrong to procreate, and in what contexts). It is based on the premise that existing perspectives on procreative ethics must take into account two ideologies in particular:
Childism: The awareness that we live in profoundly childist societies, i.e. societies where children are seen as inferior or not fully human, and that this prejudice provides powerful support for procreation and parenting.
Antinatalism: The ethical position that procreation (within the scope of this book, human procreation specifically) is wrong.
These two ideologies, thus summarized, may seem implausible on their face. The reaction of most people, when confronted to them, is incredulity. This is a natural reaction, as procreation is considered normal and part of a successful life. There is a sort of standard life blueprint (what Laura Carroll calls the Fulfillment Assumption) which we’re all indoctrinated to believe is the way to have a successful life: go to college, get a career, get married, buy a house, have children, retire, have grandchildren (not necessarily in that order).
Because of this, any ideology which argues against procreation will inevitably appear implausible. If having children is necessary to have a successful life, then not wanting to have children, let alone being against having children, must be an aberration. Childfree people are very well aware of their social status: although we tolerate people who don’t have children due to sterility or loneliness, childfreedom is not a popular stance.
But a further problem with the life blueprint is that it objectifies children: children are not human beings but a thing (like marriage or a house), a prize, that you must collect in order to get to the next level, like levels or points in a video game. Within that mindset, procreation is justified solely by the values and desires of the parents, and the values and desires of the future child do not, and cannot, be included (because, again, the future child’s values and desires do not yet exist).
The quotes I listed earlier reflects this objectification. Children are not seen as ends in themselves but as means to some other end: the end of receiving love and attention, the end of fulfilling one’s socialization, the end of gaining social status as a parent or teacher, and so on.
In philosophy, the term “end” designates the ultimate goal of an action, and the term “means” designates actions or objects which are used towards that ultimate goal. When we say a person is a means to an end, we are saying that the person is being used to fulfill some goal which is not connected to that person’s values or desires. When we say that a person is an end in themselves, we mean that the person is seen as innately valuable.
Sociopaths and authoritarians generally regard other human beings as means to an end. When making decisions about how to treat others, they think not of how to get people on their side and come to some mutual understanding, but rather of how they can exploit people to accomplish some objective. They see other people as gullible fools, as tools that must be exploited, like we would use any other tool to fulfill a goal. Objectification goes hand in hand with treating people as means to an end.
The principle that we should not treat people as means to an end is, I think, pretty fundamental. All societies have rules against things like murder, theft, and so on, actions which people undertake in defiance of the victims’ interests or desires. All tyrannies, all slavery, all war, all attacks against human rights crucially involve treating people as means to an end (and, generally, objectification and dehumanization as well).
As I will explain in detail later, the perspective that concerns us here, that of the child, entails the awareness that children are being treated, not as full human beings, but as means to an end. Antinatalism brings us to the conclusion that the act of procreation itself requires us to see children not as human beings but as means to an end, something which we find unacceptable (at least in theory) when applied to anyone else. Childism brings us to the conclusion that procreation is part of a clear and definable pattern of prejudice deployed against children, a pattern which involves treating children as means to some end. Antinatalism and childism are linked together, because both are directly concerned with exposing the missing side of the procreative equation, that of children.
Now you might say that parents are concerned with their children’s welfare and want the best for them. I don’t dispute the fact that many parents (not all of them, obviously, but many) are concerned with their children’s welfare and want the best for them.
In this neo-liberalist and post-modernist age, it has become fashionable to reduce all criticism of institutions or ideologies, i.e. systemic criticism, to criticism of individual choice. Popular debates on capitalism are now often about whether workers or business owners are making the right decisions, and popular debates on feminism are diverted to the issue of whether women are living the right lifestyle and holding the correct opinions.
But systemic criticism really has nothing to do with blaming individuals. Individuals generally have good intentions but they are still part of a society which contains within it institutions and beliefs which motivate them to act in certain ways. It is those institutions and beliefs that are the problem, not the individuals. When I talk about procreation being wrong or about children being used as means to an end, I am talking about structures of oppression that are spread throughout entire societies, not about any specific parent doing “bad things” or making “bad choices.”
A standard reply to systemic criticism is that any problems are the result of the actions of a few “bad apples” who spoil the rest of the barrel. Sure, people can point to specific parents who do particularly egregious things, such as have twelve children, or kill their child because they followed a book that advocated strict corporal punishment. But concentrating the discussion on those cases erases the very real incentives that motivates all parents in our societies, not just the “bad” ones.
Just to be clear, I am glad that many parents have their children’s best interests at heart. Abusive or manipulative parents are always undesirable. Those conversations are happening, and that’s a good thing. But we also need to look at the big picture, at the way we glorify procreation in our societies, how illogical and childist it all really is, and those conversations are not yet happening.