Why choosing to live child-free and becoming a parent should be equally respected decisions
I am 33 years old and recently had a vasectomy. The reactions of those around me: many questions, little understanding.
By Marc Fehr
October 2020, I’m sitting in a hospital bed, parked in a ward at Kingsbury Hospital in Cape Town. “This procedure is considered a permanent sterilisation, there is no guarantee that it can be reversed,” the urologist explains to me earnestly. “Do you consent?” After my firm “yes”, the doctor shifts his focus to filling in the final blank spaces on his form. “Well then, I’ll see you in the theatre [operating room] shortly.”
I lean back in my bed and use the waiting time for a few minutes of self-reflection. I remember the many conversations in which I remarked: “No, I really don’t want any children”, and how I often was advised condescendingly: “Oh, you’re still young” or “Just wait, that will come”. Even when intentions are good, it’s the general assumption that people make that bothers me — that the romantic idea of one’s own offspring is simply a question of time, not one that can be based on one’s personal ideals. So many people see the decision to have children as a marker of social maturity, the climax of life, a decision that one cannot, will not, regret. The reality is that I have never wanted children — and soon I won’t be able to reproduce myself anymore.
There are various factors that drove this decision, to name a few: I like my independence and active lifestyle; I believe that the planet is already overpopulated, and doesn’t need more humans added to it; I am concerned about the environment and climate change, and while I choose to eat meat, and take the occasional flight, I believe that not having children has a big impact on my environmental footprint.
Questioning is not permitted
The first ultrasound image of a foetus, shared between family and friends, is usually followed by reactions like: “Congratulations, I’m so happy for you!” or “… oh my gosh how exciting …”. The great, collective excitement begins.
I have rarely heard reactions such as “Are you really sure you want this?”, “Have you considered what this means for your future?”, or “Oh wow, are you feeling ok about this?” . If you announce a pregnancy, delight and goodwill are required. It is not socially acceptable to openly question this this decision, and demand a justification for it — and that bothers me.
Although I perceive parenthood to be a difficult and exhausting journey, everyone seems to generally equate pregnancy with happiness. Life. Joy. Determination. As parents, it’s socially taboo to speak openly about your parenting struggles, and about how challenging everyday life with children can be. If you deliberately decide to forego biological offspring, as I did, you are constantly expected to justify your decision. The traditional “family path” is firmly rooted in our basic social values. The question is: how appropriate is it today?
“Why is it believed that the decision to have children might one day not be equally regretted as the decision not to?”
For me, it’s increasingly inappropriate as I consider ways my personal decisions impact the future of our planet and society. As a measure to limit one’s own CO2 emissions, a consciously chosen child-free life is often frowned upon, classified as morally questionable or offensive. A pragmatic thought experiment: if I have a child, I cannot predict how many children will result from it. Thus, for every child I conceive, an unknown number of offspring could one day grow up, which is why I, in purely theoretical terms, have to attribute their emissions to myself. It is my responsibility.
If it comes to personal sacrifice for protecting the environment, we all set ourselves different priorities: some forgo animal products, many renounce fossil fuels, others may recycle as much as they can. The intrinsic motivation to keep a human habitat that is worth living in available to our offspring is noble. I am happy to join the mothers and fathers of this world in this: Let us take care of the planet. My biggest contribution: a life without biological children.
There is a charge of egoism
At age 33 I decided to give up the possibility of biological offspring. Here I am now, a couple of minutes away from my vasectomy, with no children, without ever having frozen or donated semen.
Years ago I decided to live a child-free life, but I was always advised (“You might regret that one day”) against a surgical procedure. Why is it believed that the decision to have children might one day not be equally regretted? Hardly anyone said “What a good idea” or “Thank you, that’s very considerate of you”. On the contrary, I have been accused of selfishness and misanthropy for my attitude. Is it really selfish when I openly and honestly speak out and say that I don’t want to spend my life raising children? That I can give my existence a meaning even without offspring?
Conversely, I ask myself: Is it less selfish to insist on one’s right to have children, even though there are already too many people in the world? Does such a right even exist? I am thinking of same-sex couples, for example. For obvious biological reasons they are unable to reproduce through sexual intercourse. However, according to Swiss law, my home country, they are still not allowed to adopt children.
It’s different in South Africa, my chosen country of residence. It seems a common thing for same-sex couples to adopt children. This may be related to the fact that the social inequality and the number of children available for adoption here are much higher than in Switzerland, but I also believe that people here seem to think about this topic less conservatively.
Pregnancy is a risk
I like children and I am good with them. As a teenager, I loved the Swiss “Youth+Sports” mountaineering guide courses, I looked after children in skiing camps and later financed my studies as a ski instructor with great pleasure. The carefree and inquisitive energy of children and young people inspires me. Although I’ve made a conscious decision to not become a parent at all, it had already been already clear by then: if children, then adoption.Firstly, because pregnancies involve great risks. They mean physical and mental strain for everyone involved. Will childbirth lead to complications? Will my baby be healthy?
Secondly, because I like the thought of being a father to a child who might otherwise not have the opportunities that I would be able to provide it with. And, thirdly, because a child not conceived by me would not have a negative impact on my own ecological footprint.
“I wish that a ‘no’ to procreation will find more social acceptance”
This topic may well always remain purely theoretical for me, as I currently have no plans to adopt children either. I must admit, the right question at the right time in my life might have altered that decision in earlier years. But today I am very satisfied with the path I have chosen. My partner and I feel comfortable with our decisions and enjoy our child-free life together.
In my mind I can hear the beer-fuelled discussions amongst the male peers of my youth: “A real man doesn’t get himself sterilised” or “Why would I care, I’m not the one who gets pregnant!”. But the amount of time and stress our female partners take on to ensure reliable contraception is often ignored. Taking hormonal drugs for years, for example, hardly seems to be a comparable alternative to me — after all, a vasectomy is such a small and in most cases even reversible procedure. The attack on the male ego seems much more dramatic to me, which is why vasectomy is rarely considered as a contraceptive.
I would like to emphasize, however, that I do not condemn those who have a heartfelt desire to have children or those who oppose children altogether. Nor do I judge the decisions of vegans, animal rights advocates, or climate activists. I only wish that we as individuals in this society are encouraged to make these big decisions in life more consciously. That the pressure to conform to a social norm, be it from parents, friends, or acquaintances, disappears. That choosing a life path without our own offspring will become less judged and more acceptable.
When, at the age of 27, I explained to my mother that I did not want to bring children into this world, she made it clear that she fully understood. My parents never put pressure on me. I was always allowed to be who I was and to become what I wanted. That, dear parents, is extraordinary and wonderful — I wish this freedom to choose to become a reality for all of your children and grandchildren.
I am now in the hospital theatre. “We’ll be injecting the local anesthetic, this will burn a bit,” the doctor explains to me calmly. The procedure itself is a bit like a visit to the dentist: First there is an injection, then, for half an hour, you don’t know exactly what is happening, and then it’s all over. “That’s it, please don’t ejaculate for the next ten days, and I’ll see you for a semen analysis in about two months time.”
Today I cannot say whether I will ever regret this half hour. What I do know, however, is that my ecological footprint will not outlive me. And that means a lot to me.