To Breed or Not to Breed? — On Wishing You Were Never Born

12 Min Read

I N S I G H T – P H I L O S O P H Y

Koushin Unber

How many times have we been so frustrated with the inconveniences of life that we wished we were never born in the first place? Perhaps we’re frustrated with university applications, or fed up with paying bill after bill and regretted ever being born and having to put up with the slings and arrows of life in the 21st century. And the more anarchic of us may have even resented our parents for begetting us.

Raphael Samuel, a millennial businessman from Mumbai, made headlines when, in 2019, he went as far as to attempt to sue his parents in court, for giving birth to him without his consent. He told me in a conversation over Zoom,

“The court rejected it outright, and I even had a lot of people threatening me that instead the court will sue me for wasting their time.” 

Mr Samuel is an antinatalist, someone who opposes the idea of giving birth to children, and although the judiciary system of India may reject his attempts at suing his parents, his motives were purely symbolic.

I’ve come to learn that his parents are both lawyers and firm supporters of his cause, which gained traction after he attempted the lawsuit. It sparked conversations across the internet and boosted the antinatalist movement. He told me that he’s always been wondering what our purpose was in this world, and what is the point of being born amidst a world of war, constant politics, and tragedy. According to him, human existence is completely pointless, and parents/families have a moral duty to not procreate as that will only guarantee suffering for the child.

In its essence, antinatalism is a philosophical position that discourages birth and assigns a negative value to giving birth. Some antinatalists argue that human beings have a moral duty to not have children. This idea stems from the impossibility to ask fetuses for their “permission” before giving birth to them, therefore, anti-natalists argue that it is better to have never given birth to them at all. Different antinatalists support their arguments by comparing the life (or lack thereof) before birth, and after birth. They disagree with the norm that “needlessly pumps out children without their consent and makes them suffer in an imperfect world full of toils and troubles”. 

For many, the idea of not wanting to give birth to children because they might suffer in the world may seem like too much of a stretch. It’s easy to scoff at the premise and dismiss it as something ridiculous. However, the philosophy around it brings up more questions around morality and existence than meets the eye. A concept, named the Asymmetry Between Pain and Pleasure, was brought up by author David Benatar, who argues that there is crucial asymmetry between pain and pleasure. It goes a little something like this:

  • The presence of pain is bad.
  • The presence of pleasure is good.
  • The absence of pain is good even though it’s not an ACTIVE benefit.
  • The absence of pleasure is NOT BAD unless someone is missing out on it.

The absence of pain is good, the absence of pleasure is not bad. Therefore, the ethical choice is weighed in favour of non-procreation.

Charmaine, a 26-year-old woman from South Africa describes her experience as such:

“I truly wish that I was never born. I don’t want to die, I just wish I never existed. I wouldn’t know what I was missing if I didn’t exist… and there’s not much to miss.”

Not everyone has to have children — what society expects from you.

Because having children is such a crucial milestone in a lot of people’s lives — whether it’s because of religious imperatives or a social expectation — the discouragement of having children one day can be contentious amongst many communities. Many religions encourage giving birth to a child within 1 or 2 years of marriage, and preach children as ‘blessings’ for the family.

“The peer pressure DEFINITELY is to have kids, especially for a woman with a ‘biological clock’. There is no pressure to be an antinatalist. People have called me selfish for not wanting them,” says Reese, a 32-year-old from Iowa.

This notion is harmful for both men and women because a child is not a gateway to a fruitful life, as is often preached to couples who don’t have children. Women, especially in Asian societies, who do not want children are stigmatised and labelled ‘unconventional’ and ‘egocentric’. It’s unlikely that most people will subscribe to the idea of not having children, since becoming a parent is an incredibly emotional part of people’s lives and provides a great deal of happiness for them. But that does not mean that it is okay to have children to seal a gap in your life, because that is how you create individuals who are poorly brought up with extremely flawed parenting (since the parent is dealing with issues themselves). The needs and wants of these children are barely catered to, their entire existence stems from the purpose of fixing their parent’s life. 

“I suffer from pretty severe depression, so I don’t think me having children of any kind would be a healthy thing for anyone involved. You have no guarantees for your child’s life, even if you do your absolute best. My parents think they did a wonderful job at raising me, but they messed me up for life,” says Charmaine.

But what remains when you remove the “philosophical” part of it?

Philosophy is not the only aspect. Antinatalism is not only a philosophical school of thought that advocates for fetuses’ rights to not be born unwillingly, it has also gained political traction in countries like Singapore, which introduced a population control policy in 1972 to limit the number of children families were having. With campaigns such as “Stop at Two” and “Two is Enough”, the campaign was a roaring success.

The antinatalist philosophy also ties itself to the morally unsolvable problem of  overpopulation. And while edgy 14-year-old Marvel fans proudly proclaim (in a hilarious attempt to be “not like the other girls”) that Thanos was right all along, the only morally acceptable way to mitigate the  exploitation of non-renewable resources, is to reduce the number of humans born (instead of say, vanishing half of the population that already exists).

Overpopulation is indubitably a major problem in the southeastern parts of the world, especially Bangladesh, which is the 10th most densely populated country in the world. 9256 people are born on an average day in this country, and with a reputation for having little to no proper provisions of sexual and reproductive education, the number of children given birth to only rises. From the stance of an antinatalist, giving birth to more children, especially in a country with a long history of inadequate opportunities and low employment, would only mean impending and inevitable misery for them, and in their case, it is better for them to not have been born at all.

Adoption — A suitable compromise?

Not too surprisingly, trying to convince people to not have kids can prove to be a strenuous (or even impossible) task. Therefore, we look for other ways to mitigate needless suffering, and the easiest way to do that, is to end the suffering of those already born. This is different from giving a good life to a newborn, because the net amount of suffering in the world in the second scenario remains the same.

The discouragement to have children does not mean antinatalism inhibits rearing children in and of itself. Most antinatalists believe in the normalisation of adoption, they are in favour of taking care of and providing opportunities to the children who already exist instead of begetting newer ones.

We hear from Jarryd, a 33-year-old from Cornwall,

“I believe that if you want to become a parent, your only choice must be adoption. There’s no excuse for increasing the amount of suffering in the world when this simple decision could simultaneously reduce and prevent it.” 

 But rationality isn’t why people have children. It’s emotionality. This black-and-white nature of antinatalism is unpalatable to those who believe there is no greater joy than having a child. Unsurprisingly, this movement is often met with extreme criticism — whether it be from pious Christians, observant Jews, or fruitful Muslims.

Do you have what it takes to not f*ck up your child?

We circle back to antinatalist Raphael Samuel, who believes that parental licensing (the idea that the state should confirm an adult’s parental competence before they procreate) should become the norm. He believes that a person should go through the same procedure one goes through during adopting a child before they are allowed to give birth to and rear children. 

Other staunch supporters may argue that antinatalism doesn’t care about people’s parenting abilities at all, it just disapproves of human procreation. Some even so boldly speak in favour of universal human extinction, claiming that essentially all of humanity’s problems would be eradicated if there were no humans to experience these problems in the first place.

Whether or not we’re in favour of being fruitful and multiplying as a species, or insistent supporters of fetus rights, we can all benefit from a notion that would discourage the exaggerated birth rate our country faces today, be it environmentally, economically, mentally, or philosophically.


Koushin is a certified bruh girl with the emotional capacity of a brick. Rattle on about schools of philosophy or film theory to her at [email protected]


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