“Where there is only one real option and no genuine choice there is no autonomy” (Diana Tietjens Meyers)
As feminists we often speak of reproductive choice and freedom. Most would agree that reproductive rights are central to the advancement of women’s rights. Of course, the issue of women’s reproductive rights are by no means a neatly sewn up issue—whether we cast our eyes West or East—but most people would, in principle, support the idea of choosing not to have children (in Westernised contexts at least). Yet, when presented with the idea, most seem to be incredulous and defensive, some even hostile. Examples of these kinds of reactions appear in the Facebook posts below, responding to a link from my research group’s blog and an article about the normality of not wanting children.
[A] I think that with the way the world is at the moment, bearing a child into the world does not rely on “want” but on can you afford it…
[B] If the desire to become parents is regarded as “unhealthy” and becomes accepted on a grand scale, goodbye the human species. This leans a bit into the direction of eugenics and all that goes with it.
[C] Be fruitful and multiply!
[D] Even trying to explain to people that you chose to have only one child is hectic. Apparently it’s selfish to only have one child, I am repeatedly told!
[E] Having or not having children is a choice. We are all entitled to make our own personal choices in life, as we have to live with them. I myself love children and like my house and my life, full of laughter. I loved watching my children grow up, loved to see how they all had their own peculiarities, their likes and dislikes, even growing up in the same house. Today, in my so called old age, I love to watch and see how my grandchildren make choices. I myself would never change my life, or regret the choices I made about having children. They, my children, grandchildren and great grandchildren is a joy to me, they complete me. I have friends my age that has never had kids, they all say they regret it, their husbands are dead and they are alone, nobody to visit or send a card or call them. I am so sad for them. As my children and grandchildren will call me and chat daily.Make your choices; do not let people bother you. If you want only one or if you want 10, you have to provide for them. Have a wonderful forever!!!
[F] I also agree with [E], it would be so terrible to not have my kids, I love them so much and have enjoyed them so much, the challenging times and also the fun times, and would change nothing except maybe, have another because they have brought me so much joy and have fulfilled my life so much. There is always the choice of course, and it is neither right nor wrong to want or not want to have children. As long as we don’t try to convince one another that there is no choice, just like you said ♥
As these responses show, having children is often defended as biological imperative (species continuation), a godly mandate and, as a result, is often seen as something altruistic. As some of these responses show, people often see not wanting to have (several) children as threatening, as eugenicist, for example, or as an indictment of their own preferences or choices. I’ll return to the idea of ‘choice’ later, but first I want to point out two central issues that repeatedly crop up in this discussion. People support the idea of being voluntarily childless in principle, but then go on to say (1) having children is wonderful (the glorification of parenthood) and (2) not having children will have negative consequences (loneliness, regret etc. – the denigration of non-reproduction). These are really two sides of the same coin in that they dismiss child freedom as a truly viable alternative.
Research, including my own, suggests that parenthood choices are motivated as much by fears of the consequences of not having children, as the perceived benefits of parenthood. We can see this in the cautionary tale in bold in post [E]. If this is the case—that non-reproduction means not only missing out on the joys of parenthood, but ending up sad and lonely—then not having children is not really a viable option. How autonomous are parenthood choices then really? Although parenthood is usually surrounded by highly voluntaristic rhetoric, choices about childbearing do not appear to be freely chosen as they could be.
What is unacknowledged in the responses is that some regret or don’t enjoy parenthood. Gasp! No, not sociopaths, but people honest enough to admit, “I love my kids, but if I could go back, I’d make a different choice” (albeit usually via the anonymity of the internet). In The Baby Matrix, Laura Carroll discusses the harm of pronatalist assumptions, causing everyone to believe that they should have children and, I would add, making childfreedom a non-choice.
Of course, we must be aware of the limitations of understanding procreation solely in terms of choice. As the quotes above show, the idea of personal choice can easily be used as a ‘whatever works for you’ justification but nobody would “have a wonderful forever” if we all chose to have 10 children. Choice also assumes that everyone has equal access to contraception and reproductive health services and is equally able to refuse sex. Perhaps the idea of ‘reproductive justice’ might be more useful as it acknowledges issues of unequal access and power and allows for the right not to have a child in addition to the right to do so. And this is the point: until both reproduction and non-reproduction are seen as legitimate choices, then no choice is freely made.