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Debating Pro- and Anti-Natalism

By Richard Gibson
10 Nov 2023
photograph of parent/child pedestrian sign on tile pavement

Every person on the planet has an incredible ancestry. We’re all the result of countless interactions between parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, great-great-grandparents, and so on. This lineage is so extensive that it stretches past the emergence of humanity as we know it today, through our caveman ancestors, all the way through to the advent of life itself. We are all, each of us, the result of an inexhaustible history of relationships, both biological and social.

So, with all this ancestral pedigree, one might feel the pressure to continue the line and have children themselves. Some may be familiar with such a demand in the form of arguments like carrying on the family line or name (think back to Tywin Lannister’s obsession with family legacy). Breaking the maternal and paternal chain that has existed for multiple millennia is no small act. Even if one faces no social or familial pressure to have children (and many do), it is understandable to feel some force to the idea that, after the countless generations and innumerable interactions necessary for you to emerge into the world as you are, you will be the one responsible for breaking the chain.

Yet, there are some who argue that not only is this not something to feel bad about, but that refusing to have children is the morally correct action as reproducing is a morally transgressive act. Those who hold such a position are known as anti-natalists.

There have been multiple arguments supporting the anti-natalist viewpoint, including convictions that life is inherently bad and thus should be avoided, that life need not be bad but we’re unable to create a life which would be good, or that we shouldn’t reproduce because we cannot obtain the consent of those we would create. What they all share, though, is the core tenet that the negative aspects of life are so great that we should not inflict that harm upon those yet to exist. This does not mean that we should try and eliminate those who do exist, as this would equate to murder and be itself wrong – for us, it is already too late as we are already subject to the harms of existence. But it does mean we should avoid passing that harm down to future generations.

Now, this may sound unreasonable to some. After all, while many of us will experience hardship in our lives, I would suspect most would say that such hardship hasn’t made our lives not worth living. Thus, to say that my being brought into existence by my parents was an inherently immoral act would seem a step too far. You might want to say it was selfish or reckless, but to accuse them of doing something wrong is a fairly extreme claim to make. Indeed, if it applies to one generation back, then there’s no reason to say it should go further than that and apply to my grandparents, my great-grandparents, and so on. Thus, the anti-natalists don’t just condemn you for having children, but everyone who has ever had children, and that’s a lot of people to scold.

The reason I want to bring this up is because, in recent years, there has been a renewed interest not in anti-natalism but in its opposite – pronatalism.

For pronatalists, having children is a moral necessity for which we should be commended and those who avoid such a “duty” should receive condemnation. And, while it has a long and troubled history with strong (yet not necessary) links to right-wing populist movements and theories like the Great Replacement, it is easy to see how it can capture the public imagination given that we typically celebrate the family unit and any addition of members to it.

Today, we see governments around the world implement policies designed to increase birth rates, be that through offering couples financial incentives – like tax breaks and housing assistance – to have children or by curtailing reproductive freedoms like abortion. In a rather striking example, Russia has recently reinstated the Mother Heroine medal, awarded to those women who have 10 or more children.

The reason for today’s emphasis on pronatalist ideologies is undoubtedly varied and complex. But, to oversimplify it: many countries worldwide fear the socioeconomic implications of their populations getting, on average, older and smaller. This is because an older population requires more younger people to look after it than a younger population (unless technology can come to the rescue). It also means that a more significant percentage will be retired and thus less economically productive. We have seen the effect of this already in Japan, where 1 in 10 people are now over the age of 80. Thus, all those countries wanting to deal with the demographic shift towards an older population must either make the elderly more economically productive (deferring retirement age) or shift the age imbalance by bringing more younger people into their fold. The latter is done either by encouraging immigration (which can be politically difficult to achieve) or by driving up birth rates.

It cannot be ignored that failing to address the global socioeconomic issues associated with an ageing population would be devastating. The prosperity of a country is inextricably tied to its economic productivity. And so, when a country becomes less productive, its population suffers. On this basis, there seems to be an argument that it is in governments’ interest to find any way to promote raising birth rates. (This is baked directly into the state’s job description – if a government can’t look out for the needs of its people, what is it for?).

Any success, however, would only kick the can down the road. The only way we can avoid the dangers of an ageing population is to have one of ever-increasing size. And this simply isn’t possible. Eventually, any given population will shrink as exponential growth isn’t possible on a planet with finite resources.

And it is here that we see the tension between pro- and anti-natalism: should we try to lessen the pain people are experiencing now or limit the number of people who will experience pain in the future? The former is born out of a desire to maintain the status quo, while the latter wishes to blow it all up.

It’s hard to say which viewpoint will ultimately carry the day. Pronatalism has the historical advantage. But life lived under threat of economic collapse, climate disaster, and humanitarian crisis makes the prospect of having children less appealing. Given these rising risks, I suspect more may come around to the anti-natalism way of thinking.

Richard B. Gibson received his PhD in Bioethics & Medical Jurisprudence from the University of Manchester. His research interests lie at the intersection of philosophy and biology, the philosophy of law, nihilism, and normative ethics. Richard’s currently working on a series of papers examining the social, legal, and ethical implications of cryopreservation.
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