The ethics of sexual reproduction canvas a huge swath of human experience. Debates about whether abortion is morally permissible, what assistive reproductive technologies may be used to conceive a child, and whether there are limits to the number of children one may have fall within its ambit. A recent entrant to this area of ethical philosophy is anti-natalism. Derived from the Latin natalis, which means ‘of or relating to birth,’ anti-natalism says procreation is always morally wrong, that no person has a right to conceive a child. This is a controversial thesis. In this article we’ll get a grip on it by placing it within the context of rights more generally.
Rights Are Protections of Interests
People find many rights uncontroversial. Rights to vote, a fair trial, peaceful protest and freedom of the press are generally accepted as bedrock democratic protections, even if their scope or precise content are debated. Other rights are more controversial, like abortion or assistance in dying (euthanasia). But in jurisdictions where protection of these interests is guaranteed, they are recognized as rights nonetheless. So rights are not necessarily what everyone agrees on.
Controversial or not, the rights in these examples have in common the idea there are protections of interests (such as to vote) that others (the government, your fellow citizens) must recognize, or entitlements to treatments (such as to abortion or euthanasia) that others (the government, a healthcare worker) must honor. So rights are roughly protections of interests and entitlements.
This leaves a lot unsaid. (What interests and entitlements should be protected? Are any rights alienable? Who can be rightsbearers—persons, animals, the environment? What grounds rights?). But it will suffice for our purposes here. The point to take away is just that, as protections of certain interests and entitlements, rights enjoy a default weight or authority in our deliberations about what we may or must do.
Anti-Natalism Challenges Reproductive Rights
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Reproductive rights are an especially important subset of rights. They concern what protections individuals should have of their reproductive functions, or what entitlements they are owed in order to realize these functions. The right to abortion claims to be a reproductive right, for example, because it protects individuals’ interest in making their own procreative decisions. The right to assistive reproductive technologies, like IVF, also claims to be a reproductive right, but one that entitles individuals to interventions that would help them realize a procreative decision. So some reproductive rights protect their bearers from interference in procreative decisions, while others entitle their bearers to interventions that should help them realize these decisions.
Not all reproductive rights are controversial. Consider the reproductive right not to bear children. Very few people believe they have a duty to bear children—being child-free isn’t prohibited (if you have a right not to perform some action, then you have no duty to perform that action). But what about the converse, the procreative right to bear children? Not only is this right enshrined in Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it is almost entirely uncontroversial because it protects an interest many people believe is fundamental to their personhood and autonomy: whether to have biological children at all.
But anti-natalists reject even this right. Let’s see why.
Anti-Natalists Distinguish Moral and Legal Rights to Procreation
Anti-natalists reject one kind of right to procreation, anyways. Common to secular societies is a distinction between moral and legal rights. Most would agree no one has a moral right to adultery (assuming the relationship is avowedly monogamous, there is no coercion, and so on), which is why this behavior typically meets disapproval. But most would agree everyone has a legal right to adultery, because otherwise this would be punishable under criminal law (I put aside here civil liability), and this strikes many as draconian. So most would agree no one has a moral right to adultery even though they have a legal right. These are different kinds of rights.
This helps us place into context anti-natalists’ claim that there is no right to have children. David Benatar, a contemporary anti-natalist philosopher, accepts that we have a (limited) legal right to have children (Benatar, 102-09). If we didn’t, and instead had a legal duty not to procreate, the state would be responsible for enforcing this duty and Benatar finds such incursions intolerable. But Benatar denies we have a moral right to have children. So anti-natalism does not necessarily say no one has a right to procreate, period. Its more moderate proponents, like Benatar, say everyone has a (limited) legal right to procreate even though doing so would be immoral.
This leaves us with a key question: why do anti-natalists believe there is no moral right to procreation?
Anti-Natalists Focus on the Harms of Procreation
Anti-natalists like Benatar believe there is no moral right to procreate because we have a moral duty not to procreate, and this entails the absence of this right (if you have a moral duty not to perform an action, then you have no moral right to perform that action) (Benatar, 102). And this duty not to procreate, anti-natalists believe, stems from the fact that procreation imposes upon offspring harms that outweigh the moral right to procreate.
This general answer shows anti-natalists must make a two-step argument: first, they must show that procreation harms offspring and that these harms outweigh any supposed moral right to procreation; and second, they must identify the ground of this supposed right to procreate—what justifies it—as only then can they show that the harms of procreation outweigh the benefits that a right to procreate is intended to protect.
It suffices to say that anti-natalism is a position in the ethics of sexual reproduction that says there is no moral right to procreation, and that procreation is always morally wrong.
Works Cited: Benatar, D. (2013). Better never to have been: the harm of coming into existence. Clarendon Press.
By Ryan SosnaPhD, MA, BA in PhilosophyRyan is a musician, audio engineer and writer living in Prince Edward Island, Canada. He holds a BA and MA in Philosophy from the University of Toronto, and a PhD in Philosophy from Boston University (Epistemology). When not unlearning what he has learned, he can be found in his music studio writing metal and mixing anything that comes his way.