“Life is full of suffering” is a sentiment that resonates with many. The doctrines of most of the major religions of the world concede or assert it, while the Abrahamic faiths and Dharmic faiths explicitly promise a suffering-free existence, or even non-existence, in either the afterlife, reincarnation in a higher plane, coalescence in a cosmic super-consciousness, or in the transcendence of the soul. Almost everyone, religious or not, has likely experienced a point in their lives where they have reflected on this idea.

But if life is full of suffering, and suffering is avoidable, a simple syllogistic conclusion that follows is “life is avoidable”. Obviously, this stand has few takers. But that is changing, all over the world. The idea is often seen as a trait of highly-developed societies who have achieved relative stability and prosperity in terms of living standards, and can focus on finer ethical and lifestyle issues and concerns. Declining fertility rates in developed nations testify towards the growing global popularity of anti-natalism as a useful practical tool if not as a systematic ideology or moral observance. And now it is also gaining traction in metropolitan centres of developing nations such as in India.

Antinatalism as a compassion-motivated ethical doctrine has spread in recent years through online fora, most notably the r/antinatalism subreddit community on Reddit, whose membership more than doubled in a single year from August 2019 to August 2020. Antinatalist awareness groups and pages have blossomed on Facebook in the past few years. Google Trends Analytics indicates that “antinatalism” as a search term has steadily grown in search volume in this decade.

Readers might be familiar with the argument that parents should not be entitled to the custody of their children. Parents both subconsciously and consciously pass on their beliefs and biases to their offspring, even the most wary and liberal ones. Given that the child is not mature enough to exert their own will, how can consent be achieved?

The ethical premise of anti-natalism runs along similar lines. An embryo’s consent cannot be sought. The human life being produced did not consent to be brought into existence. Add to this the very real and considerable prospect of the baby suffering some form of disorder, disability or impairment. The bane of existence must be borne even in extreme cases of disability because of the overwhelming stigma and lack of choice enshrouding the wish not to live and unavailability of euthanasia.

To sum it up, living is painful but dying is more so. The anti-natalist argues that it is thus humane to not materialise a consciousness, only for it to painfully disappear into the nil of the void again. We are so tied to life (obviously), that it’s hard to detach and look at it from a third-person perspective, questioning whether the romanticisation, glorification and aestheticisation of life as a beautiful gift, or even a moral duty, is always justified. Maybe having a child is akin to sculpting a sentient snowman on the last night of winter, or creating the ginger-bread man in a kitchen full of rats and mould?

The rise in anti-natalist belief appears to have coincided with growing awareness of climate change and the alarming growth of the probability of the near-future devastation of our planet. Now there’s the Covid-19 pandemic to contend with, accompanied by its own losses, dangers and threats. Just as Renaissance astronomers humbled humanity with their proof of heliocentrism, Covid-19 has caused us to bid adieu to our faith in individual as well as collective human exceptionalism. Early victims of the disease included notable politicians, celebrities and faith leaders.

The virus also has a more direct effect on reproduction. Going to a hospital to deliver a baby may jeopardise two lives, if not more. Childbirth and motherhood also puts disproportionate pressure on women, already the worst hit of groups during the pandemic. They have also, even in developed nations, had to shoulder the burden of domestic activities and childcare during the various lockdown periods.

Moreover, Covid-19 is expected to effectively roll back a couple decades of our global developmental progress, from spheres of social justice and disparity reduction to healthcare. At a time when the gap between rich and poor is already expanding fast, with the top 1 per cent acquiring more than half of the world’s wealth, the struggle for resources is unlikely to be alleviated by the current global trajectory.

Many arbitrary notions have been established as historical or traditional norms by our civilisation, not least a mechanical sense of accountability to pass on our genes and legacy. Anti-natalism rejects this subconscious assumption. While passing on our genes might be supported as an evolutionary mission, it is worth remembering how few of our instincts we have failed to manipulate over the centuries. Sex is a means towards reproduction, but by inventing contraceptives, humankind has empowered itself to exploit the means as an end in itself. Similarly, anti-natalist ideas, although dating back to Buddha, seem to be a mark of civilisational maturation. Their emphasis on morality is a testimony to our metacognition as a collective-species.

Anti-natalism is often seen as a sensationalist stance, a fringe ideology assumed by desensitised, misanthropic radicals seeking the limelight. But it is perhaps the most empathy-driven and considerate of philosophical theories, with a simple yet profound insight. It is based in human experience and the heroic desire of not letting another go through the same suffering as yourself. If a disruptive force like Covid-19 is determining new habits, rhythms and patterns of life, nothing should prevent us from unlearning or at least questioning our belief in an inherent purpose and value of life itself, whether biological or deontological.

Perhaps it is time to reconsider our accountability towards our own species, whose unsustainable continuation we are conditioned to undertake as a duty. We are already exercising utmost caution to not pass on one potentially fatal, agonising ailment to another human. What’s keeping us from preventing the communication of another: the most common and universal one?