TOP 2019-03-28

Your Children Aren't Your Property. An Anti-Natalist Perspective

The dog was curious about a lot of the things he encountered on his walk, but just as he stopped to explore, a sharp tug on his neck pulled him away. His owner was on a tight schedule. And it was the owner’s interests that mattered, not the dog’s.

Not far away, a parent was walking with her human infant. The infant was also on a lead. Not unlike the dog, she was also curious about things around her. She tried to explore the driveway of a house, and similarly came up against the limits of her leash. She tried again to investigate what interested her, but her parent pulled her away. She cried out. Her mother grabbed onto her from behind and lifted her into her arms with the infant crying out in distress.

No doubt the mother was on a tight schedule. No doubt her interests mattered more than her child’s.

Unlike non-human animals, children are not legally considered to be private property - but maybe that doesn’t matter. Maybe what matters is the substance of the relationship itself. Slavery may have been abolished in law, but cases of human trafficking and modern slavery still happen. Women may not legally be the private property of their husbands anymore, but plenty of women in deeply patriarchal societies or families are treated almost exactly as if they were. From the victim’s point of view, it hardly matters what their status is in law. What matters is that their freedom, their individuality, is being suppressed.

The restriction and oppression of children’s autonomy and personhood comes in two categories. First, there are those that are unnecessary and reflect a pure abuse of power by parents or society in general. This includes religiously motivated circumcision, or the purely ‘cosmetic’ manipulations forced onto intersex individuals. It includes compulsory education, corporal punishment, curfews, invasions of privacy, as well as all of the physical, emotional and sexual abuse that most people would already recognise as overtly wrong. Most of these issues are a result of adultism, the institution that exactly parallels sexism, speciesism and many other forms of unjust oppression, where one group exercises power and domination over another group considered inferior.

The second category results from things that are just inherent in being an infant. This includes medically necessary treatments and vaccinations. Of course, many parents think they should have the right to refuse their children’s vaccination against potentially fatal diseases, purely because they, the parents, disagree with it. That is a clear reflection that we really are dealing with a property relation: the parents believe they own their children, and they wish to treat them that way.

In an ideal world, we would be able to seek and obtain the child’s explicit consent. But by the time the child is able to understand the concept of vaccination, it’s too late. We’re forced to violate the child’s consent; we may even cause them some pain in the process of vaccinating them. But, we reason that if they could understand the issue, they would probably agree that vaccination was in their best interest.

For all the controversy it generates, vaccination is actually one of those cases where it’s unusually easy to decide what is in the child’s best interest. But things are rarely that simple.

Infants, like non-human animal companions, are inherently dependent on adults for almost everything that is important to them. Adults decide where they are going to live, with whom and in what conditions; they decide what they’ll eat and how they’ll be dressed. Just like a non-human companion, the child can’t just satisfy their needs whenever they want. If they want to eat, go outside, play, relieve themselves or have social contact, they need someone else’s help, and they have only very crude ways of communicating their needs, wants and preferences. Just like non-humans, infants are treated like movable property - carted around without their permission when adults say it’s necessary, passed from hand to hand to be cooed by strangers. Adults arrange the hospital appointments, the babysitters and the nurseries to fit their own schedules, and the infant has no say in the matter. If the adults move house or go on holiday, the child becomes luggage.

And all too often, this initial stage of being inherently dependent evolves seamlessly into the adultism that children endure later in life, even when they are capable of giving or withholding their consent, expressing their opinions and preferences, and understanding more advanced concepts. Children get handled, moved around, caressed, hugged, kissed and fondled without their permission; they get shouted at, lied to, punished and ordered around, forced to do chores, to do homework, to look after their younger siblings. They are still not given a choice about their living arrangements, daycare arrangements or their education, and people continue trying to control what kind of company they’re allowed to keep and how much time they can spend together. The oppression continues in school and in the limited workplace arrangements they are allowed to participate in, and in most jurisdictions it is only after eighteen years of oppression, servitude and abuse that people will finally concede that this is a whole person, an individual with rights.

With all of the abuse, neglect and oppression that children actually face, can we really say that we only ever act in children’s best interests? When parents and caregivers decide what food and clothes their child will get, or where they will live, or with whom, how can we say that we made the best decision for them, knowing that we were also influenced by cost, convenience, cultural biases, personal beliefs, as well as just random chance? Unlike vaccines, when it comes to food, toys, living conditions and care arrangements, there isn’t a “best interest”; there isn’t a “right answer” and a “wrong answer”. There’s a whole continuum of choices, some of which may be better than others in one dimension, but worse in another. But the child - the one whose life will be affected the most by the outcome - will get none of the power to decide. Sometimes we’re unable to do the best we can for a child even when we want to, such as when a marriage breaks up, or a job loss forces a move into a cramped living space. Adults get to decide how they will respond to such unexpected events; a child has to just live with the consequences of the adults’ decision.

Of course you could say, “perhaps we can put an end to adultism, but when it comes to the inherent dependence of infants, well maybe that’s just too bad”. But we absolutely can prevent the inherent oppressions of infanthood, by not bringing more children into the world in the first place. In fact, some abolitionist vegans already hold this position when it comes to non-humans. That’s because the domestication of animals has created beings that are inherently unfree, doomed to have human masters for as long as they exist. Those animals are bred deliberately by humans, and we can stop doing that. Then the only animals in the world would be free-living, wild animals. That’s the position of Gary Francione, a prominent vegan abolitionist, but strangely he does not apply the same logic to human children. The treatment of children is different, in his view, just because “the overwhelming number of human children mature to become autonomous, independent beings”[1].

But should it really matter how long the oppression lasts? Is it OK to keep slaves so long as you release them in three or four years? After all, they will become “autonomous, independent beings” after their release, so why not enslave them just for a little while?

Perhaps people would object that the inherent oppression of infants is just “not that bad”. But it doesn’t take much knowledge of infants to know that it can involve a great deal of suffering. Babies cry immediately after they are born. Most parents know what it’s like to be woken in the middle of the night to the sounds of their screaming child. Children don’t just use their cries for communicative effect; they cry like everyone else because they’re suffering. It isn’t pleasant to be lying in your own excrement waiting for someone to come and help you out because you’re helpless on your own. It isn’t pleasant being restrained or pulled back from something that someone else doesn’t want you touching. It’s not nice to wake up in confinement, feeling alone and seeing that nobody is there to console you right now.

But from a moral perspective, it doesn’t even matter how much the child does or does not suffer while having the earliest, most formative part of their lives under the almost total control of somebody else. What matters is the fact of being in that situation at all. If we return to the vaccination example, it’s not enough to say that we had no choice but to act in the best interest of the child, causing them to suffer “for their own good”. That’s because someone put them in their state of incapacity in the first place. It’s not enough for parents to say that “we have no choice but to violate their consent”; they did have a choice - they could have not created a being that was incapable of consenting.

The situation is somewhat different when we didn’t cause the incapacity ourselves. If someone is in a coma, for example, because of an accident, then we generally expect hospital workers to act in their best interest. But if you deliberately caused someone to enter a coma, we would hardly say that you had behaved morally after all just because you subsequently connected the victim to a drip and started monitoring their vital signs.

Part of that is because we know that being incapacitated isn’t pleasant. We generally look on people with advanced dementia with some amount of pity and sadness[2], and people are understandably afraid of the prospect of developing such conditions when they get older. Having no autonomy and being totally dependent on someone else even for your intimate care needs is not a nice place to be. We would certainly never wish that situation on someone else. We would not say “I really hope you get advanced dementia when you’re older - won’t it be great to need someone else to feed and dress you and take care of your bowel movements for you?”

If there were people who were forced into getting dementia for five years, we would not look at the ways in which their lives are being controlled and say “it is all right because it’s in their best interest”, nor do I think Gary Francione would say “it is all right because it’s only for five years”.

Yet it is precisely when the victims are children that we are unable to recognise the crime. People wish incapacity on their children and shrug off the abuses as being just the natural order of things[3].

Anti-natalism is a philosophy that opposes bringing new people into the world. Usually the argument is that suffering is inherent in being alive, and that it’s wrong to cause someone to suffer needlessly. Or, it’s wrong because the person never consents to being born at all. The argument I’ve presented here is slightly different, focusing on the oppression that people face as children. We create a being that is inherently incapacitated, and then treat them exactly as if they were private property, controlling every aspect of their lives. While we might claim to be acting only in their interest, this is at best an impossible ideal, and at worst a pernicious lie. In practice, children and young people face one of the most intense forms of oppression of any human group, routinely denied bodily autonomy and forced into institutions and living arrangements which police the minutest aspects of their behaviour. Knowing that this oppression exists, we cannot justify creating new victims.

  1. See his website  ↩

  2. Dementia is a progressive illness. Interestingly, many elderly people with dementia end up getting treated like private property and having decisions made for them even in the early stages of the condition when a little more patience would actually allow them to have some autonomy, almost like the reverse of the situation with children.  ↩

  3. Note that we do not pity people with dementia just because they have lost their autonomy. People born with severe learning disabilities can also be in a similar state of incapacity and we often look on them with a similar sense of pity.  ↩