Doing Less Harm Or Doing More Good?

Doing Less Harm Or Doing More Good?

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.)

9 Responses to Doing Less Harm Or Doing More Good?

  1. Ms. Hoffman should stay out of my family planning. My guaranteed constitutional reproductive rights are not her business.

  2. I’ve often wondered at those vegans who insist that having children is somehow against the vegan lifestyle–when we’ve all passed on and have not left any vegan children–BORN AND RAISED VEGAN–behind us, won’t our movement DIE? I know the argument–well, your vegan child could grow up and choose to eat meat. I don’t agree with this. Children are the only ones in this world who are sane and don’t see animals as things. It’s easy to teach a child why animals matter–it’s so very much harder to teach adults. Once a child internalizes it and understands it, I doubt very much that they’d decide to eat meat when they grow up. There’s always that chance–just like there’s always a chance that a vegan will give up veganism. I just don’t get it, and I want to have a child someday–a vegan child. I resent how other vegans try to make me feel like I should not do this.

  3. I often hear fellow vegans say that if vegans don’t reproduce then our movement won’t grow. I find this to be extremely unethical. It’s as if the child isn’t an agent at all. Fetuses can’t consent to being brought into existence. All humans suffer illness, stress, pain, death of loved ones, etc. Reproduction forces those harms upon a child. A person’s autonomy is not violated by neglecting to do more good for them, it is violated by imposing harms. I can’t reconcile the fact that reproduction necessarily means imposing harm on agents who otherwise wouldn’t exist, and thus not suffer ever. I do take issue with the stereotype that anti-natalists like myself just don’t like children. I happen to love children. Deciding to go against our biology/evolution and not reproduce is a difficult decision for many, not just some riff on “I don’t like kids” or “kids are expensive/a hassle/etc.”

  4. Aubrey, if you love children I hope you reconsider your decision. While there is suffering in the world, there is also much innocence, love, and joy. I agree with you that having a child to propagate a movement is not a good idea or fair to the child.
    The desire to have a child is much more than biological. I find nurturing the next generation humbling and an amazing honor.

  5. Aubrey, I understand your perspective. Although I view birth more neutrally than you do I support genetic counseling in order to prevent the conception and/or birth of children destined to suffer significantly, for example children born with preventable genetic diseases.

    However, I value reproductive freedom too much to demand that other people engage in genetic counseling. Likewise, I value reproductive freedom too much to believe there is benefit in promoting an antinatalist perspective. In other words, it’s a fine personal choice but because it conflicts with reproductive freedom, I reject it as a moral imperative for all of society. I would never try to convince someone who has decided to be child-free to change their mind about their own reproduction. That is your decision and I understand that it may have been difficult. I value your reproductive freedom too much to try to change your mind about it.

    That said, if you honestly love kids then I hope you will do something with that – for example, become a teacher or mentor, a foster parent or child advocate. That is what I meant when I said “The choice to refrain from reproducing shouldn’t end there. How much good could you do?”

  6. While life is surely filled with grief and pain, I’d bet the vast majority of humans on earth, even those in the poorest conditions, would say that they are glad to have been born.

    To not want to have a child because you don’t want a child to experience the human condition… pardon my pun but it strikes me as throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

  7. After years of struggling with weight issues and blood sugar levels, I found a diet that works for me – vegan. The website is all about reversing diabetes type 1 – take a look at the testimonials! About reproductive freedom – all freedoms are abused, misused and sometimes become about me-me-me-me. The line must me drawn, but how to do this – on a planet earth basis? Overpopulation can be most easily defined as our race exceeding the carrying capacity of our planet. Today’s generation sees a harsh outlook on the future of farming. As farmers age and eventually retire, there are fewer people willing to farm land, which could condemn our survival to a very limited window. At present, hunger and malnutrition already kill millions of people each year. Without an intervention from world leaders, we can expect to see additional lives claimed as a result of hunger. Another key component the world must also face is the future of our water supply. As more water is needed, less is easily available. So you see that the me-me-me approach is ridiculous – if you care about the human race.


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