liberation, not procreation
Even within the vegan and animal liberation communities, principles surrounding family and fertility are not held consistently across species. To remain ideologically and, more importantly, ethically consistent, those who promote total liberation for all animals should not bear children. This can be accomplished either by remaining child free or by choosing to foster or adopt already-born children. The key arguments for childbearing as a valued step in the process of childrearing replicates several ethical and ideological imperatives against which animal liberation advocates argue. It supports biological arguments of superiority, creates unjustified boundaries to delineate hierarchies, values humans over other animals and the Earth, values humans with capital resources over humans in poverty, and neglects the needs of those children who are without families.
(Pro)natalism is a belief that promotes having children. This ideology is dominant and rarely questioned in most cultures. It is also rarely called out and referred to by name (when is the last time you heard a parent described him/herself as a pronatalist?). However, that which goes unnamed goes unquestioned. Feminist theorists such as Michael Kimmel have identified this trend in the maintenance of gender and race hierarchies—for example “man” refers to a white straight man and we know this because any other type of man must be labeled with a pronoun (black man, gay man, poor man, etc.). Melanie Joy has identified this in the case of maintaining meat-eating as a norm as well (she suggests calling meat-eaters “carnists” while I prefer Steve Best and Paul Watson’s term: necrovore). Similarly, I am suggesting we label the pronatalist position. How we do this productively is a topic for another essay as it opens up many new doors (e.g. is “breeders” simply a pejorative term that plays of sepeciesist ideology or is it an accurate label? Is “pronatalist” too esoteric to be effective? Etc.).
The point remains though that it is important to label the pronatalist position so that the pro-child lifestyle is seen as a lifestyle choice, not an expected stage in the life cycle. There is simultaneously a desperate need to normalize the child-free position as a viable and commendable option for those who have the privilege to make choices over their fertility.
Via agricultural and medical developments humans have done a wonderful job raising our population. However, the rate at which this is currently occurring is unsustainable. In 1650 there were about a half billion people in the world. In 1830 there were about a billion. That means it took almost 200 for the population to grow by a half billion people. The next billion people only took 100 years—in 1930 there were two billion people. By the end of the 20th century, just 70 years later the population had more than tripled to about six billion people. As we headed into the 21st century, it took only 12 years for the population to grow from six to seven billion people. There are now over seven billion people on this planet producing waste, urbanizing natural lands, growing food in an unsustainable manner, eating millions of animals daily, and destroying the Earth in other measurable and immeasurable ways.
A typical retort to arguments against reproduction that are concerned with overpopulation is that, in many western nations, overpopulation is not a problem. However, the problem of human overpopulation needs to be handled on a human level, not a national level. Nations are lands with constructed borders. Honoring those borders over the wellbeing of living others is a travesty and not a viable argument for procreation from a liberatory perspective.
People are people are people so while, in the US, the fertility rate (average number of births per woman) is 1.9, in Niger it is 7.1. When animal liberationists argue for spaying and neutering they do not consider some dogs or cats to have more of a “right” to breed than other dogs or cats. We don’t say feral cats have more pregnancies than house-cats so house cats shouldn’t be spayed. Instead, the entire species is viewed as at-risk and the idea that one cat would be left on the streets or killed in a shelter so another could be bred is unthinkable.
Overpopulation not only degrades the Earth, it takes needed land away from nonhuman animals. As the human population grows, the extinction of other animals and plants speeds up. Urban sprawl, introduction of non-native species, food preferences, and pollution all lead to the death of other animals, and at a rate leading to extinction for some. There are currently about 400 endangered species in the U.S. alone. Further, the proliferation of the human population means that more animals bred exclusively to be killed for their meat, skins, or other utilitarian anthropocentric purposes.
Human overpopulation also leads to an increase in inequalities among humans. As there are more people sharing fewer resources exploitation and the affirmation and solidification of current hierarchies of power and wealth are strengthened. More affluent countries have lower populations, less poverty, and more space for people. They accomplish this via the exploitation of other people and lands. For it is the privilege we have in the US that leads to the problems of poverty and a lack of reproductive health and control in some of the nations with the highest populations.
We allow others to remain impoverished, under-educated, and without access to adequate education (including about reproductive health and control) in order to feed our desire for inexpensive consumptive goods, all foods being available year round, and other luxuries. The cost of human overpopulation is a global crisis from an environmental perspective, a human rights perspective, and because there are abandoned and orphaned children who desperately need homes. Privilege is built on the disadvantage of others so we must act on our privilege responsibly. We may not be able to stop the daily onslaught of human murders that our government commits in other nations via military occupation, drone attacks, and other violence, but we can live more humbly, less selfishly, and more responsibly. Not procreating is one of many things we must do to achieve this objective.
Boundary construction goes beyond the aforementioned assertion of nation-state boundaries. Biological borders are asserted as well in pronatalist reasoning and the very same arguments animal liberationists argue against, such as biological superiority, are called upon to justify childbearing. These arguments rest their laurels on the same logics as arguments for eugenics, phrenology, and racism.
There are a number of arguments for having a biologically related child. One is that it is the natural urge of humans to procreate. I am not a biologist so I will not attempt to refute that, and I actually believe it to be true. However, the fact that we can do it or even that we are driven to do it does not make it right. Animal liberationists accept that desire alone is not an adequate ethical criteria for meat-eating, fur wearing, and using animals for entertainment; it should not be a justification for childbearing either. I have had myriad debates with people over whether our teeth are designed to eat meat. Debate as I might, in the end, I just don’t care. It is not okay to kill others for food when there are other options—no matter what our teeth look like—as we have the ability and privilege to make other choices. Biological arguments have been made for everything from the desire to rape to genocide. It doesn’t matter if there is an ounce of truth to any of it. It is simply not right and should be rejected. Humans must reject childbearing as well. Even if it is what we want to do it will lead to our extinction, and has already lead to the extinction an suffering of so many other animals.
Some advocate one-child families or one-child per person as a “replacement rate.” I, however, advocate no child or adopted-child families for those who have the privilege to choose. The one-child solution is easier to promote as it does satisfy another argument that I hear often that people should have one of their “own” children (even if they do adopt another child). Either because it just feels different, there is a desire to experience pregnancy, or to keep one’s genes in the gene pool.
The idea that we need to have our “own” babies, even while we assert control over the reproduction of other species is an anthropocentric position that is logically inconsistent with the claim that human and nonhuman animals deserve equal amounts of consideration. That inconsistency only exists because individuals interested in equality are still willing to reproduce hierarchies and inequalities insofar as they are the beneficiaries. As animal liberationists we must reject such arguments in favor of libratory politics that are inclusive of everyone’s needs. The Earth and human and nonhuman animals will all collectively benefit from a cessation of the current boom in human population and human dominion of the Earth.
This assertion of biological superiority is exactly what animal liberationists reject in arguments that pit the human species over other species. It is the same logic on which racism rests, it is the logical impetus behind eugenics. These arguments always assert a superiority, which can later become the justification for the oppression of others. It is inconsistent with a liberatory politics that rejects racism or sexism or other –isms built on very minor biological differences.
If you randomly selected any two fruit flies and compared their DNA, then randomly selected a human and a chimpanzee, there is likely to be more genetic variation between the fruitflies than the human and chimpanzee. Given biological realities such as this there is little reason for any person to assume his or her genes are so superior from another person that s/he will produce a “better” person. Notably, this “gene pool” argument, extended to its logical conclusion, would also suggest that anyone with any mental or physical deficits or any other trait not culturally valued should not procreate. And this would include most humans. So, while I reject the gene pool argument, it also pushes for humans to stop procreating.
This sort of biological boundary building is also what maintains species hierarchies. As animal liberationists work to shift the line of who “matters” to include all animals, we should not at the same time construct and promote intra-human biological borders. For this reason a particularly problematic argument for procreating from an animal liberation perspective is the argument that vegans must have babies because they are naturally more compassionate and they need to spread these genes. There is no room for vegan exceptionalism when pushing for equal consideration.
accepting privilege responsibly
“Privilege” is a word I have used a lot in this essay. I want to be clear— I am not advocating for these principles to be applied to all people everywhere. This is an argument relative to those with privilege—the privilege of education about reproductive health and the privilege of access to fertility control methods. We have the privilege of choice. We must use that wisely and advocate for that privilege for everyone.
I also do not advocate for policies to enforce or control the fertility of others as policies are instituted by nation states with the interest of only the elite in mind. For that reason policies surrounding fertility control and sexual health have historically been racist, sexist and classist—the Tuskegee Experiments in the early 1900’s, involuntary sterilization of women in Chicago in the 1970’s, the use of Norplant as a requirement of Parole release since the 1990’s, and the list goes on.
Policies about fertility and birth control will be racist and sexist and discriminatory in myriad ways because our notions of family and the pronatalist ideology in itself is entrenched with discriminatory politics. Having children becomes the lynchpin of various arguments for and against the full social incorporation of disadvantage groups. Poor and non-white mothers are lambasted for childbearing the wrong way (racist stereotype: group x, y, or z has too many (or any) children outside of “ideal” relationships…e.g. “welfare queen, breeders, etc.). And while this argument is rooted in stereotype it goes a long way to engender bias and discrimination. Even socially, people often feel the need to make note when Black or Latina women with children are married, as if that somehow justifies her worth. And these ideologies become fomented institutionally as well.
This culture’s pronatalist assumption has also led to the idea that having children is part of the debate over the legitimacy of homosexual couples, implying that these unions might not be valid otherwise. Many arguments for gay marriage are premised on arguments that homosexual couples can be just as productive as heterosexual couples by having and/ or raising kids. Arguments over the desire and ability to raise children are seen as the justification for the physical, emotional, and financial union between two people and the issue of equality and choice often remains underemphasized.
The answer is more education and the empowerment of women, not more policy instituted by the privileged. The countries that allow women the most education and the most access to fertility control are the countries with the lowest teen pregnancy and fertility rates. Let’s return to the US/ Niger comparison. In the US, 73% of women aged 15-49 use modern birth control methods, while in Niger only 5% of women use modern birth control methods. Notably, the literacy rate of women in the US is 99%, while in Niger it is only 15% for women. These literacy rates also highlight variable gender inequality as well, for in the US men and women have the same literacy rate while in Niger men have a literacy rate of 43%, more than twice that of women.
(FYI, I am not insinuating the US gives enough rights over reproduction… The Bush-era bans on comprehensive sex education and current assault on access to prophylactics in schools and to abortion services leave the US falling behind other Western countries—but way ahead of many nations—in terms of women’s reproductive rights).
there are other options
One great option is not having children—and not being ashamed of it. Generally, the option to remain child-free is not socially supported and when it is it tends to remain relegated to a sub-cultural space, exclusive to the child-free and functioning more as support groups or places of affirmation, rather than spaces where the intentionally childless can just exist. For example, a number of female authors and bloggers write on the topic, seeking to assert their worth outside of their womb. Some hetero-sexual couples celebrate being DINKs (dual income, no kids), bragging about luxuries such as late night social events and traveling that free time and extra money allow. And others consider themselves GINKs (green inclinations – no kids), promoting their child-free choice as an environmental responsibility. While these spaces may comfort the frontrunners of the child-free lifestyle, they highlight the way in which this a niche choice and how choosing not to have children becomes a defining characteristic of a person. A reconceptualization of social responsibility and family, particularly within libeartory politics, is desperately needed.
adopt. don’t shop.
Another option, which rejects child bearing but accepts childrearing is to foster or adopt children. This accommodates those who retain the idea that child-rearing is an important part of a fulfilled life. This option is also laudable, and may even be viewed as a responsibility for those with the appropriate emotional, temporal, and material resources, as it not only avoids childbearing but actually helps to ameliorate the social problem of children without permanent homes. There are currently 130,000 children in U.S. foster care facilities alone waiting for homes and an estimated 20,000 young adults age out of the system each year without being adopted.
Animal activists routinely make the argument that adoption of nonhuman animals is crucial for preventing the deaths of shelter animals. To hold this opinion in the cases of nonhuman animals but not in the case of human animals is ideologically inconsistent. A popular slogan among animal liberation activists is “Every dog bred is a shelter dog dead.” This translates to human animals as well. Put another way, every child born is an orphaned child neglected. And this neglect has a tangible negative impact on those individuals and on society at large. Children who grow up in state facilities are less likely to get jobs and when they do have lower earnings, may have higher arrest rates, higher teen pregnancy rates, and more difficulty maintaining healthy spousal relationships. There is a need for childrearing but not childbearing.
From this perspective the use of In vitro fertilization (IVF) and other fertility promoting methods is particularly vile and inappropriate. To lack the ability to bear a child and still choose to create new life over protecting and promoting those who are already alive and in need of homes is a travesty. Further, the culture surrounding IVF and other techniques reinforces various status hierarchies and inequalities that animal liberation activists should adamantly reject. Only those with money can afford them and typically those who need money become donors and surrogates. Further, the idea that at least one (and sometimes two) parent(s) must be biologically related is often the driving force behind such procedures; again asserting biological boundary building.
Importantly, there is institutional and cultural baggage that needs to be unpacked to make this option more viable for more people. First, the process to adopt children is often cumbersome and expensive and not everyone who is fit to raise a child is granted the legal right to adopt. And some not fit to raise children but with the appropriate funds can adopt nonetheless. However, this should not be an excuse to procreate. Institutional shifts should be demanded and promoted rather than simply using them as an excuse.
Animal liberationists would never suggest to someone who lives in an area where vegan options are limited to wait until it is easy to be vegan to stop eating animals. Likewise, we cannot wait until adoption is effortless to promote the cessation of childbearing among those with the privilege to make such choices. In the short term that may mean people who want children don’t get them, but that is a necessary sacrifice and those people must think outside of the box and add productively to children’s lives in other ways (e.g. fostering, teaching, mentoring, etc.).
Second, there is an imbalance between the number of white people who want to adopt and the number of children of color up for adoption. Currently most adopters (73%) are white though only 40% of children up for adoption are white. White people need to be willing to adopt nonwhite children and so a lot of racism needs to be unpacked on a cultural level to allow more multi-ethnic adoptions. In the meantime, animal liberationists should avoid playing into the system that privileges childbearing and shifts in adoption policy should be pursued—we can be some of the first to promote and fight for such adoptions.
your children will be murderers
Bottom line, there are already enough children in the world. There is no need to create more. Humans are the problem. There is no way for humans to reduce their negative impact to zero or to add so much benefit they cancel out the damage they do. Adding any single body to the overpopulated human species is a disservice. Adopting or fostering and intervening in the life of someone who would not otherwise have been exposed to a compassionate and vegan household is doing something good. Adding another human is not.
Even if you do everything right, your child will be a part of the problem. From the moment that the baby shower is thrown a child becomes a consumer. According to the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), there are over 7.6 billion tons of disposable diapers discarded each year in US landfills alone. (As a side note, every parent-to-be I know who swore s/he would use cloth diapers, didn’t). Add to that all the paper towels, excessive clothing, products purchased for short term use, social funds funneled to children whose parents need financial assistance, and the list goes on.
Further, there is no guarantee you are raising a vegan human. Having vegan parents does not necessarily a vegan make. Animal liberationists should understand this well as so many of us have chosen life paths totally at odds with anything our own parents envisioned for us.
Even if the parent-child relationship is perfect and there is no meat-eating-for-the-sake-of-rebellion there will be sleepovers, school trips, and extended-family outings that will lead to meat-eating, dairy-consumption, trips to zoos and circuses, and any other number of abusive situations.
Why not raise a child who was already on this planet and likely going to eat meat with gusto and introduce her/him to a compassionate vegan lifestyle rather than create a new life? Why not privilege raising a child who was already on this planet and who needs you?
an afterthought: ideological extensions
This debate is not a simple one. Along with these issues come a variety of other questions about inequalities, relationships between human and nonhuman animals and questions about what “animal liberation” will ultimately mean for these relationships. I will not broach these topics in this essay but wish to leave you with this thought so that we might develop on it and grow with it moving forward:
Recognizing speciesism in fertility control also forces a critical look at the methods used to control fertility and calls into question the way that we assert fertility control over nonhuman animals. When seeking to change the reproduction of male companion and farm animals we castrate them, removing their genitals. This has the benefit for humans of also changing their behavior, because as their interest in sex declines and they become more docile household companions. Animal liberationists need to critically investigate the human-animal relationship and be willing to reinvestigate how we deal with the overpopulation of other animals, particularly if we are able to provide them more space and autonomy by getting our own population under control.