Opinion

Is Having Children Still a Valid Choice?

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was attacked for raising this question. But forgoing procreation might be the most ecological-minded act a private individual can undertake

An abandoned playground.
Julian Calverley / Corbis RM Sti

U.S. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is the rising star of the Democratic Party. Not a week goes by without the young, socialist representative from New York making headlines. She has already stunned the public with various initiatives and comments on political, social and environmental issues that have challenged the boundaries of political consensus in Washington. Ocasio-Cortez is the chief promoter of the Green New Deal, which calls for extensive U.S. government investment that will bring about the total replacement of fossil fuels with new forms of energy. In a live-stream Q&A session on Instagram on February 26 – from her kitchen – she warned her followers that time was running out for taking dramatic action to reverse climate change. That in itself wasn’t exceptional, but this time the 29-year-old legislator added an existential thought: “Our planet is going to face disaster if we don’t turn this ship around. Basically, there’s a scientific consensus that the lives of children are going to be very difficult. And it does lead, I think, young people to have a legitimate question: Is it okay to still have children?”

The conservative media in the United States, which abhors Ocasio-Cortez, took the opportunity to attack her “off-the-wall” idea. She, for her part, noted that the question comes up repeatedly in conversations with supporters. Indeed, because she has become something of a culture heroine for progressive young Americans, it’s only natural for Ocasio-Cortez to raise one of the issues that is most disturbing people who are just entering adulthood: Is it reasonable to have children amid a constantly worsening environmental catastrophe, which will wipe out a large portion of the planet’s living creatures and inflict suffering and misery on billions of people?

It’s already clear that forgoing procreation is the most ecological-minded act a private individual can undertake, in order to reduce the damage to Earth. But the issue goes beyond the future of the planet: It concerns the future of the offspring himself. Anyone who’s read the latest reports published by United Nations’ experts on the climate cannot but reflect on the implications of their dire forecasts for human life on Earth in the decades ahead.

Ocasio-Cortez raised the subject in order to dramatize the urgent need for a drastic environmental revolution, which is the only way to ensure the continued existence of human life. But the fact that a well-known American politician has questioned the legitimacy of having kids in our time is yet one more indication that the concept of childlessness is becoming a central issue for discussion.

For its part, Israeli society is caught up in a childbearing frenzy; it’s hard to imagine a local politician questioning the precept to be fruitful and multiply. Not even gays here are “exempt” from that situation; in recent years they’ve been discovering the delights of raising children as though it were a genuine innovation. But almost elsewhere, the birthrate among educated classes has plummeted. They are increasingly willing to address the issue of antinatalism in conversations, on social networks and in the media. Indeed, it can be said without exaggeration that antinatalism is becoming the new veganism – a way of life that is increasingly accepted, particularly among the young generation.

The Guardian reported last summer about a growing movement of couples who are sterilizing themselves (such as by tying the male partner’s vas deferens) in order to be “child-free,” in their parlance. The premise is that forgoing children is the greatest gift they can give the planet.

The debate over the morality of bringing children into the world also takes the form of edge effects that resonate widely in various media, such as the recent series of video clips by the young, self-proclaimed antinatalist Raphael Samuel from India. Samuel recently sued his parents for giving birth to him without his consent. To bear children is an immoral act vis-à-vis the child, he argues, reminding his countrymen that the choice is in their hands. At this stage, parents don’t have to worry about being vulnerable to such lawsuits. But Samuel’s legal action has been supported by a number of contemporary intellectuals.

The most prominent of these is the mysterious philosopher David Benatar, from the University of Cape Town, who set forth his ideas in a 2006 book called “Better Never to Have Been” (Clarendon Press, Oxford). According to Benatar, everyone should consider himself harmed by the fact of having been born. For this reason, to create new people is a morally flawed act. Every parent forces on his children innumerable forms of suffering, as well as the risk of undergoing an especially horrific fate, such as nuclear war.

Burying ourselves

The question of whether it’s worthwhile to be born is as old as human history. It’s not by chance that the title of Benatar’s book is taken from a well-known line in Sophocles’ “Oedipus at Colonus.” But to the philosophical notions about the suffering that is the lot of everyone who is born, Benatar adds contemporary arguments – notably, the contention that humans inflict suffering on other species. He explicitly advocates misanthropy, in the most literal sense, as he sees homo sapiens as a destructive, harmful species. According to Benatar, if another species of animal was causing damage on this scale to people and to other species, there would certainly be agreement on taking action to prevent its proliferation. Opposition to procreation also has Marxist versions, such as that of the Lebanese-American scholar Zooey Sophia Pook, who maintains that “antinatalism is antineoliberalism.”

There’s room to contest the misanthropic views of Benatar and his ilk, and also their pessimism about the overall balance between suffering and enjoyment in life. But there are also critiques of a different kind. One was put forward by the philosopher Kenton Engel in the online magazine Quillette. In his view, if we imagine a hypothetical situation in which all human beings refrain from having children, we will find that the suffering that is caused exceeds the benefit. The reason is that the final generation of people will experience extreme suffering, due to the absence of young people who will work, treat the sick and even bury the dead. Benatar believes that this is a reasonable price, when taking into account the suffering that will be spared unborn future generations. Engel, in contrast, thinks that the suffering of the last generation will be so appalling that the whole ideology is a crime.

Arguably, the debate about “the last generation” is completely philosophical and hypothetical. In any event, a total cessation of human procreation is not in the cards. But there are also more concrete questions that arise, relating to the lives of real people who decide not to have children: How is it possible to endow life with meaning and content without raising children?

A few thinkers, among them American philosopher Donna Haraway, call for life to be filled by means of kinship relations that depart from biological parenthood – not only in the form of alternative, queer or non-heteronormative families with other human beings, but also with animals and other creatures. In her words, “I think that the stretch and recomposition of kin are allowed by the fact that all earthlings are kin in the deepest sense.” Her slogan: “Make kin, not babies.”