I’m still slowly learning more about the idea of anti-natalism, on the grounds that it’s intriguingly counter-intuitive. It’s one of those things that tends to get immediately shut down in more mainstream conversation, generally by people who don’t seem to be fully understanding it or giving it even partial credit where it may have a point (as is also the case with anarchism).
The latest post in one explanatory series focuses on “body ownership”, and while I’m still not finding the approach of this particular series entirely satisfactory, it’s inspired what might be an interesting thought experiment.
Let’s assume that you’re like the majority of people I interact with online: not an anti-natalist, but in favour of a woman’s rights to choose what to do with her own body as far as reproductive health goes. If she wants to terminate a pregnancy in the early stages of development, she should be allowed to do so safely and legally. If she wants to have the baby, it will be legally her child, assuming she doesn’t display a serious dereliction of parental duties. While carrying an infant to term, there should be some legal restrictions on the activities she’s allowed to engage in, such as using drugs, for the sake of the baby’s welfare.
Most of the controversy in all this tends to surround the abortion side of things. On the other hand, a woman wanting to become a mother is usually seen as positively admirable.
Let’s imagine a hypothetical woman called Linda. She’s healthy and financially comfortable, and she and her husband want to have a child together. Millions of children are born in the US every year; however you might feel about the suitability of some of these parents to the task of raising a new child, Linda and her husband are as uncomplicated and controversy-free as possible. They’re in an excellent position to be great parents.
But Linda’s hypothetical world is a slightly different world than ours. In Linda’s world, scientists have learned something about fetal development in the womb (which doesn’t apply in our world). From the stage when Linda’s baby starts developing a brain and central nervous system, and for the rest of the pregnancy, it will be in extreme pain. As its consciousness starts to appear, the first sensations it experiences will be of constant anguish and torment, which will continue unabated for several months.
This happens to all babies. Pregnancy is an agonising experience, until the point of birth, and this can only be prevented by terminating the pregnancy before the fetus reaches that stage of development. There are no long-term effects from this pain, no trauma that causes any suffering later in life. But every unborn child will begin existence by experiencing several months of torture.
Is it morally acceptable for Linda to deliberately try to become pregnant, and purposefully put an infant through this pain?
In fact, let’s say it’s even worse. Let’s say that Linda’s baby will be in the same unceasing pain for the entire first year of its life, as well. It won’t be able to express its suffering usefully; it’ll just cry and flail a lot, like most babies do, and regularly wear itself out and fall asleep. Again, the pain stops after about a year, and there’s never any trauma or suffering later in life associated with these experiences in infancy. But we know that this is what unavoidably happens to every child that’s born.
Here’s my point: In Linda’s world, taking the same attitude to motherhood that we do in our world would be actively immoral.
To create new consciousnesses as cavalierly as we do here, knowing what will happen to them, is morally unconscionable in Linda’s world.
To have the option of artificially preventing fertilisation, or terminating the embryo’s chance of developing into a conscious being that will experience months and months of excruciating pain, but to refuse to do so, is something for which you’d need a seriously convincing justification.
Perhaps it’d be part of some regulated scheme to keep the human species alive while doing everything we can to minimise this pain. There’s perhaps an interesting set of questions to explore there too, which I’m not going to get into too deeply right now. But I think it’s clear that “I just really want a baby, I think it’d bring me and my partner closer together, plus they’re so cute, and anyway we got drunk and couldn’t find the condoms” isn’t going to cut it any more.
In that world, there’d be a seriously strong case that pregnancies should not generally be permitted to reach such a stage of development.
Sexual and reproductive health there would probably go in a very different direction than it has here. But it’s conceivable that it would reach a point where enforcing mandatory abortions, in the cases of a high proportion of pregnancies, becomes the least evil option.
Are you still with me?
If you think I’ve already parted ways with reasonable ethics, common sense, or basic decency, I’d love to hear what mistakes you think I’ve made in the comments below. I think that, in this imaginary scenario, the conclusions I’ve drawn are tragic, but valid.
And if you agree, then you’re at least playing in the anti-natalists’ ball-park. You might not be on the same side, but you’ve stipulated to one of their primary ideas: that the potential future suffering of a conscious being may morally necessitate us to terminate its existence, for the sake of its own well-being, before it has a chance to experience said suffering.
In Linda’s world, this moral obligation seems unavoidable. What about ours?