Herbivore Clothing Company used to sell a shirt that said “Vegan means I’m trying to suck less.”
The idea is that being vegan is about doing less harm. It’s about doing less harm to animals by not eating or wearing them, causing less suffering and death. It’s about doing less harm to the environment by eating lower on “the food chain,” reducing our ecological footprint. It’s about doing less harm to human health by improving both individual health shifting a diet toward fruits and vegetables and also public health by discouraging overuse of antibiotics, overuse of chemical pesticides and production of hazardous waste that pollutes air and water.
Herbivore Clothing also sells clothing for children and babies. That is what this article is about: Veganism and Family Planning.
This article is the first in a series on the topic. I plan to cover three main areas: living child-free, procreation, and adoption. This first article is about choosing to live child-free. Before I go any further, I must admit my bias. I am an adoptive mother.
This series will address some of the ethical issues surrounding these topics but it will not cover many of the ethical issues surrounding family planning. For example, concerning adoption I could write about domestic or international, private or state, open or closed, race-matching or transracial, infant or older child, the Hague Convention, family law and contract law, sibling and grandparent issues, adult adoptees rights to citizenship and birth records, attachment theory, the financial aspects of adoption and who profits, state regulation or lack thereof, children orphaned by deportation, and more. I could go on.
Likewise, I will not delve into many of the ethical issues of creating or not creating a biological child, such as genetic counseling, fertility treatments, embryo adoption, surrogacy, abortion, maternal healthcare, and more. There are too many ethical issues surrounding family planning to tackle all of them here.
This is a vegan blog. So let’s consider the vegan principle of ‘doing less harm’ when it comes to family planning. This is the basis on which many child-free people in the vegan community have made their family planning decisions. They argue that procreating puts undue strain on the environment, consuming resources and harming animals. Thus, it conflicts with a ‘do less harm’paradigm. Vegan writer Piper Hoffman explains:
“To house and feed ourselves, we flatten, burn, flood, or dry out the habitats of countless species who, bereft of homes and food, disappear. Our sheer numbers are killing non-human animals. Making more of us makes this problem bigger.”
Should vegans have children then? If we agree with Ms. Hoffman then no, we shouldn’t. Her argument certainly has appeal. Refraining from reproducing would prevent any harm a future child might cause to the environment or to other sentient beings, human and non-human.
But stop and think about it for a second. This approach to problems – to do less harm – can easily be taken to absurdity: the most certain way to do the least harm is suicide. Few would argue that we should all kill ourselves, but the logical absurdity highlights the issue with following the ‘do less harm’ principle. There is nothing productive about ‘doing less harm.’ A ‘do less harm’ perspective will never solve the problems of the world, it merely reduces the potential for damage. It’s not productive (and predictably, it’s not reproductive either).
Think of all the corn and soy that is grown just to be fed to animals to be slaughtered. If we eat fewer animals, then there is more corn and soy to feed to hungry humans. If food becomes more affordable and available to humans, haven’t we used our veganism not just to do less harm, but also to do more good? These two ways of thinking about veganism are often (but not always) compatible.
If we accept the theory that human population growth poses significant danger to animals, the environment, and future humans (which is debatable) then perhaps it’s time to take a more productive approach. Instead of guilt-tripping individual people who want to have biological children, why not advocate for social reforms that naturally tend to reduce human population. These social reforms would be good all by themselves, and their effect on slowing population growth would be a proven side-benefit.
What reforms are these?
- Education for everyone, particularly for girls and women
- Access to free or low cost birth control
- Community/ political support for women to make their own life decisions, particularly reproductive decisions.
Ms. Hoffman demanded that people who want to become parents perform “deep introspection” before heading down the parenting path but she herself failed to investigate the issues. (See my list of ethical issues surrounding family planning above for fodder for your own ”deep introspection.”) Ms. Hoffman offered adoption (all adoption) as an alternative to reproducing biologically as though the experience of becoming a parent through adoption is perfectly equivalent to the experience of becoming a parent biologically. In her mind it seems you can just go down to the baby pound, take a few prospective babies for a test crawl, fall in love with one, pay the adoption fee, and voila, insta-family.
Ms Hoffman conveniently ignores the significant differences. The biological experiences of pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding an adoptive mother may never know. The adoptive experience of having a birthmother, adoption worker, judge, or even the child themselves choose you to parent. The community reactions to either option… to name a few differences.
Perhaps the time of advocates of a child-free lifestyle is better spent providing practical aid to women who don’t want to become mothers rather than demanding that people who do want to become parents adopt.
And if child-free advocates are going to promote adoption, then they would be well-served to educate themselves about the issues involved in the family planning route they’re advocating. A more productive approach would be to learn about adoption options and provide actual positive support to birthmothers, prospective adoptive parents, and adoptive families. Don’t just toss out the word “adoption” and make assumptions about all adoptions without doing any real research. It’s incredibly insulting to those of us who have dealt with the complexities of adoption first-hand.
Some people who choose to live child-free are simply using these rationales in order to shift the responsibility of children – all children, all the time – over to people who are parents. This subsegment of antinatalists usually don’t like children, want nothing to do with children, and often segregate themselves from families with children. For example, Ms. Hoffman said that she “hated babysitting when she was in high school, [...] loves her career, and finds she prefers spending time with other adults.” But instead of treating her decision to be child-free as a personal one, she has written an article about how it’s THE RIGHT WAY.
This anti-child thinking sometimes also becomes a rationalization for child-free people to take no responsibility toward the young among us.
But don’t we all have a responsibility to one another in order to maintain a just, fair, equitable society? Doesn’t the group of humans who literally have the least rights – children – deserve protection from all of us, not just those of us who want children of our “own”?
If we are to do more good, wouldn’t it behoove all of us to work with children so that they grow up to be more responsible Earthly inhabitants than many of our generation have been? Here we merge the concept of ‘doing less harm’ with the concept of ‘doing more good.’ The choice to refrain from reproducing shouldn’t end with a shrug. Whether vegan or not, child-free or not, ask yourself how much good can you do?
In the next articles I plan to discuss vegan family creation through biology and through adoption. Part two is: For Vegans Who Want Children.
(This article has undergone minor edits since the original was published.)