There are certain arguments that never seem to end. Instead they grow tired and familiar and fade away into so much white noise. In this way, the abortion debate has become almost an institution in itself, an argument apparently reduced to two sides and one question, when it is in reality much more complex.

The Reverend Thomas Malthus, in his work “Essay on the Principle of Population,” noted that when a population exceeds its environment’s carrying capacity, the result is a population crash in which natural causes (often famine, war or plague) reduce the population back to a sustainable level. For this reason, Malthus believed that it would be more responsible and more humane to intentionally control the human population rather than leaving it to nature.

This Malthusian philosophy is an early example of anti-natalism, the belief that it isn’t necessarily a good thing to be born, an ethical dilemma altogether overlooked in the abortion debate; in general, people make the assumption that it is a good thing to be born.

But being born isn’t necessarily a good thing. Modern anti-natalists such as David Benatar argue that it is unethical to have children, that we are wronged by being brought into the world. Benatar’s specific argument is built around what he calls the asymmetry of pleasure and pain. He argues that the good things a person might miss out on by not being born cannot outweigh the certainty of suffering that comes with being alive — in other words, avoiding pain is good while missing out on pleasure is, at worst, neutral.

While Benatar’s argument might seem outrageous at first glance, current abortion trends reflect his theory. The primary reasons for terminating a pregnancy are related to quality of life and financial concerns, which is to say that potential parents are taking responsibility for the sort of life their child might have.

Related to this trend, Malthus’ environmental argument is also a growing and universally applicable concern because of the imminent threats posed by climate change.

This does, however, bring us to the most significant criticism of Malthusian population control: that it lends itself to authoritarian policies a la Brave New World. This need not be the case; while under Benatar’s framework little can be done to make it better to be born, much can be done to make it better to be alive, even without the intervention of the state.

As a society, we can pursue a stable relationship with the environment in a communal and empowering way. We can support a culture of intentional reproduction, providing necessary educational and practical resources, and we can and should invest in the quality of life of all children.

Furthermore, our current system is no better than the worst and most tyrannical Malthusian state; it is still disproportionately the poor that are forced to choose between termination and indigence. That it is circumstance and not the state that forces this choice offers little consolation.

Hopefully, this piece serves to usefully complicate the issue and, at the very least, demonstrate that the choice to have a child poses as much of an ethical question as the choice not to have one.

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