What in the World is Antinatalism? I Ask Antinatalists to Find Out
Just what is antinatalism? My first time hearing the word was while listening to a podcast, which podcast I, unfortunately, do not remember (UPDATE: Reader Marcus figured out that this is the interview I heard via YouTube as opposed to a podcast). However, I am able to recall the guest star – David Benatar. Benatar is a philosophy professor and author of several books that focus on the antinatalist philosophy. He is perhaps most famous for his 2006 book, Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence. After the interview concluded, I did not go on to read Benatar’s body of work.
It is not that I was offended by his world views or personal opinions. I just wanted to hear from more than just one person.
The Textbook Definition
The dictionary defines antinatalism (or anti-natalism) as a philosophical stance that assigns a negative value to birth. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t mean much to me. As I looked a little further into what antinatalism, I got a clearer picture.
“The core philosophy of antinatalism is to recognise that being born means to suffer, as well as feel pleasure, but that the foregoing of pleasure is not as bad as the presence of suffering…It is better that unnecessary pleasure is foregone than that unnecessary suffering is created.”
– Nadeem Ali, Founder of The Antinatalist Party, Interview with The Independent.
This, I thought, made more sense.
The Antinatalists’ Definition
I interviewed nine people from the antinatalism subreddit, all of whom subscribe to the antinatalist philosophy to varying degrees.
“Antinatalism is an opposition to procreation,” Jan* tells me. “There are many reasons why one might be opposed to it, but the fact of opposing it is universal and defining for all antinatalists.”
Frank* explains, “Antinatalism is simply the belief that it is unethical to procreate.”
While Mark* agrees with Frank’s opinion, his view is a bit more staunch. He says, “[Antinatalism] regards childbirth as immoral due to a lack of consent on the behalf of the person being brought into the world.” He continues, “It is unethical to have children – actually, I would go so far as to say that it is the worst crime one can commit against another living creature.”
Margaret* adds, “If parents were able to obtain consent, then their action would not be wrong. Since they can’t, and their action does result in suffering and death, it is definitely wrong.”
“It is better to never have been born than to be born,” William sums up the definition of antinatalism simply.
The Journey to Antinatalism
All antinatalists embrace the childfree lifestyle — that is, if they didn’t already have children upon finding antinatalism— but do all childfree people embrace the antinatalist lifestyle? Well, no. I am not an antinatalist. This is, of course, no secret. Those I interviewed already know this. Regardless, I wanted to know how and when others adopted this viewpoint. And what better way than to ask, right?
Most of those I interviewed only recently came to recognize themselves as antinatalists a year or two ago. Some, for shorter and one for much longer. However, even those new to the antinatalist philosophy admit they knew how they felt before they heard of the term “antinatalism”.
“I came across the term…and everything I had been thinking before then finally clicked into place. I finally had a term for what I knew to be true for close to 20 years now.”
This made sense to me as I knew I was childfree for some time before even knowing there was a word for it.
But, how did these ones arrive at their decision to fully embrace antinatalism?
William tells me he did so “during a particularly bad bout of depression” and that “antinatalism was originally a conclusion [he] came to emotionally, but [he] later confirmed logically.”
Mark, too, became an antinatalist after going through difficult times. He explains, “Well, let’s just say that suffering can change your perspective of the world very deeply.” I think we would all agree.
However, others I interviewed may have ended up at the same philosophy but they definitely took different roads to get there.
Devin tells me, “I arrived at the decision based on the understanding that the planet has an over-population problem, carbon emission/greenhouse gas issues, and overcrowding issues.”
Jan also admits that his decision to become an antinatalist “started from a random insight and grew into its present form as it was slowly processed in the back of [his] mind at all times.”
Antinatalism Is Not Nihilism
Some interviewees also credited the HBO crime drama True Detective for opening their eyes to the philosophy of antinatalism. In Season 1 of True Detective, Matthew McConaughey plays character Rust Cohle, an antinatalist. His character is often described as a pessimist and/or a nihilist but it’s important to note that this isn’t necessarily the case of all antinatalists.
In fact, seventy-seven percent of ones interviewed identified themselves as realists. More than half also do not feel antinatalism is related to nihilism.
Juan, who formerly considered himself a nihilist, explained to me the difference,
“[Antinatalism] may be related with nihilism in the lack of value life has for both but a nihilist wouldn’t care about other people’s suffering and I, as an antinatalist, am concerned about that.”
Juan is not alone. Many others interviewed expressed similar feelings.
Sarah explains, “As an antinatalist, I am hoping that my actions to minimize the suffering of other people actually do matter in the end.”
“Antinatalism is quite the opposite [of nihilism] as it focuses on reducing individual suffering regardless of what others may be doing,” explains Jessie*. Later, Jessie also tells me, “Antinatalism is about not starting new life just so it can suffer and die. It is not about being miserable in your existing life or making other people feel bad.”
Antinatalism — Pro-Suicide?
When asked what she feels is the biggest myth about antinatalism, Sarah relates, “That we are suicidal or don’t enjoy life. I am actually quite happy: have a successful marriage, financially stable, enjoy lots of various activities, look forward to the future, etc.”
When I posed the same question to Phil, he responded similarly. “Probably that antinatalists are in favor of suicide, or are pro-death in general [is the biggest myth about antinatalism]. Antinatalism is really anti-death — you can’t die if you were never born to begin with.”
Jessie, too, highlights the myth “that antinatalists are pathetic losers that should just kill themselves.”
Devin tells me, “The biggest myth is likely that people think that we have others and want humanity to die off. While some may feel this way, I do not believe it is the root of the antinatalist culture and is instead simply that we do not believe that people should be having children either currently or at all for one reason or another.”
Certainly, suicide is not something most antinatalists condone.
Admittedly, I did not know much about antinatalism when I began this project. It was hard to imagine what to expect. What would they think of a non-believer questioning their world views? Well, while it is impossible to generalize antinatalists as a whole, all of those I interviewed were incredibly kind and very willing to discuss their beliefs with me. I feel really fortunate to have gotten a glimpse of this philosophy.
I think it’s important to become educated about what you don’t understand. As someone who has been unfairly judged for being childfree, I can relate to these antinatalists’ frustrations about common misconceptions. And so, I want to end with a beautiful quote from Greg*:
“It saddens me that people might dismiss the antinatalist philosophy out of hand due to a vocal and macabre subset of antinatalists who only represent one particular perspective. I want people to know that antinatalism can be the ultimate expression of compassion for the unborn.”
* Names have been changed.