Do we have an obligation to reproduce or is it okay to not want kids?

                  The choice to live your life childfree is still surprisingly taboo, even given the modern propensity for contraception and increasing reproductive freedom.  It’s got to be said, there is a clear distinction between being childless and childfree.  Whilst the former would like to have children but cannot, be it due to infertility or illness or whatever, this issue is one that deals primarily with the latter – the childfree, those who are able but choose not to procreate.  The choice to not have children often shocks people and the proclamation is, more often than not, met with insidious comments like “there must be something wrong with you,” “that’s just selfish,” “you were a child once,” and worse “you’ll change your mind when you get older/meet the right man/your biological clock starts ticking”.  It’s surprising, primarily, because in an age when we pride ourselves on freedom and choice, we still ultimately put an obligation on reproduction.

  The ‘unnaturalness’ of it all

 As anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy points out, women are associated with the ideals of nurturing and child-rearing and so, when a woman decides that she wants to remain childfree – or worse, declares that motherhood was a mistake after the fact – they are seen as unnatural[1], as though something is wrong with them.  Jessica Valenti argues that all women are separated into two distinct categories: mothers and non-mothers[2] and in this way, parenthood defines us.  Not whether we are or are going to be good parents of course, just whether or not we are parents – and the idea that we will be, and that we want to be, is still seen as our ‘default setting’. 

 A moral duty

 This is nothing new of course, this insistence that procreation is a natural duty.  In fact, the idea that we, as humans and as women, have an obligation to reproduce is a long-standing one.  In Catholicism, reproduction is considered a necessary and requisite part of human life, as “married couples should regard it as their proper mission” to procreate[3].  This belief can be found all the way back in the Old Testament, as God kills Onan for “spilling his semen on the ground” rather than impregnating his wife, as the lack of reproduction is ultimately seen as a wicked sin[4]

It’s not just a religious thing either.  The obligation to have children has been discussed through all forms of media, schools of thought, and philosophy.  Saul Smilanksy, taking God out of the equation, argues that we have a duty to reproduce because the burden that the childfree put on those that are born is simply unfair.  He calls the childfree ‘free-riders’ and claims that “those who do not do their bit are […] morally ‘parasitic’”[5].  That’s a little harsh, given that the majority of people will become parents, be it through choice or accident, and given that there are a great number of childfree people who have offered a great deal to the world.  He may even be completely wrong, at least from an environmental standpoint. 


 With one in five women in the US now being childfree, compared to one in ten in the 1970s[6], and long-term contraception usage being up by 161% since 2005[7], it’s beginning to look like the taboo of the childfree is slowly dying.  It’s not completely dead yet though.  One of the things that the childfree consistently report is the need to justify and explain their decision to other people.  Having to rationalise a thing like that may not seem so strange – we rationalise and justify other decisions in life after all, but when those who make the alternative choice, those who become parents, face no requirement to justify their decision, it starts to make no sense.  In fact, in almost every other walk of life, it is the decision to act rather than the decision to abstain that requires justification and yet, nobody asks that cooing new mother why she choose to bring another human being into this already over-crowded world.  And that, of course, is just one of the justifications for wanting to remain childfree.  Here are a few more reason:

 Our world is already massively over-crowded, with population currently sitting at over seven billion[8] - and it’s increasing rapidly.  It’s estimated that should this number ever reach 12 billion, the damage caused would be entirely irreversible.  Poverty would rise to an unmanageable level and even if food production rates were to increase by 150%, there would not be enough to go around[9].  There would be insufficient shelter, wildlife habitats would be destroyed, species’ would become extinct, and our future generations would have nothing to forage, no energy sources, little food, and a bleak life.  As horrifying, and perhaps unbelievable, as this dystopian future sounds, it may well be the justification that the childfree are looking for. 

 What about the fact that there are currently around 400,000 children in the US who are living in care system, without parents or families to love them.  With that many children in the world, craving a family, is it really justifiable to create more?  Why not offer your love to one of those children instead? 

 Or perhaps, God forbid, “parenting just isn’t for me”. 

 In fact, it seems the far more rational decision to remain childfree. 

 It’s all about choice

Of course this was never meant to be an attack on those who choose to become parents.  It was never meant to suggest that having children is wrong or that you actually have a moral obligation to abstain, given our rapidly declining world.  It was never meant to be any of those statements because those statements are simply not true.  It’s all about choice – and having respect for the choices of those around you.  Telling the childfree that they are not natural, or that they will change their mind, is patronising and belittling – not only because it’s wrong to assume that they don’t know their own minds, their own lives, but also because it’s wrong to assume that all mothers (and even fathers) are deliriously happy with the situation.  Of course, some childfree people change their minds, and of course some (if not most) parents have had their lives fulfilled by their children, but ultimately, to assume these things is wrong.  What’s right for one may not be right for another and so yes, it’s all about choice. 

[1] Cited by Jessica Valenti, 2012, Not Wanting Kids is Entirely Normal [online], Available at: [accessed 01/11/2015]

[2] Jessica Valenti, 2012, Not Wanting Kids is Entirely Normal [online], Available at: [accessed 01/11/2015]

[3] Geoffrey Chapman, 1994, Catechisms of the Catholic Church, London.  P.507

[4] Genesis, 38:9

[5] Saul Smilansky, ‘Is There an Obligation to have Children?’, The Journal of Applied Philosophy, 12:1, (41-53), p.46

[6] Alanna Vagianos, 2014, The 19 Best Things About Being Childfree [online], available at [accessed 01.13.2015]

[7] Jessica Valenti, op cit.

[8], [accessed 01/13/15]

[9] Robin Attfield, 2003, Environmental Ethics, Cambridge: Polity Press, p.138

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THE CHILDFREE LIFE by UrbanSculpt Staff Writer Victoria Froud, MA is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
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