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The Voluntary Human Extinction Movement: Rethinking the right to reproduce

02/08/2013 14:48 BST | Updated 29/09/2013 10:12 BST

Extrapolating from the roughly 78 million increase in global population each year - some five additional babies per second - it might appear as if our right to procreate were a universal, unquestioned truth to which women of a certain age in possession of good sense must almost always revert. If one wishes to breed and develop progeny, there are few obstacles in the way (maybe even fewer than if one doesn't wish to do so). And more often than not, when one does make the decision to reproduce, it is celebrated with wholesome cheer as we revel in both our own fertility and often that of distant acquaintances we barely know as well.

As I discovered in my recent interview with him, Les Knight, founder of the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement (VHEMT, pronounced "vehement"), is not one who ascribes to such received wisdom. In fact, he rejects it out of hand, much to the dismay of the vast majority of the breeding age population. Knight's organisation hasn't so much rethought breeding rights as entirely overhauled our standard perceptions of them. VHEMT actually argue the case for the natural attrition of the human race to the point of extinction by ceasing procreation entirely in order that the earth's biosphere can be preserved.

"There are already organisations: Population Connection in the United States, Population Matters in the UK, and various others around the world, which are advocating accessible contraceptives and suggesting people stop at two" Knight explains. But VHEMT's uncompromising derision of the right to breed can be seen as more radical that each of these peer organisations combined. Whether they are a group of 'baby-haters' as some have labeled them is up for discussion. What is beyond doubt is that they are one of the most extreme environmental groups in the world.

"The right to breed is fiercely defended in all of our international agreements on human rights, but the right to not breed is ignored." Knight says of the philosophical underpinning of VHEMT. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, one of the agreements to which Knight is presumably referring, does include the following Article: "Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family" (My emphasis).

The question is why procreation rights seem so entrenched in society, whilst the right to not breed doesn't share an equivalent position. Knight identifies several key factors, starting with the religious. "Churches, of course, like lots of organisations, want lots of adherents. So they generally encourage breeding. Those who don't tend not to last very long, they die out". He gives the example of Christian Scientists in the United States, which he says are haemorrhaging members because they have failed to adopt the same natalist mindset as other churches.

Knight doesn't wish to claim that all religions or all churches preach procreation out of an egoistic desire to boost membership, making the distinction between religions as a whole and the churches within them as he goes: "There are objections of course from the Vatican and more extreme sects of Islam and Judaism which oppose preventing procreation. They oppose reproductive freedom and they have been very successful because of that power. But I don't think that it's religion that's the problem; it's the churches. They misinterpret or selectively interpret the texts to serve their own purposes".

Subsumed under VHEMT's anti-procreation philosophy is the importance of gender equality, for Knight the number one factor stopping people from abstaining from the creation of progeny. But despite improvements in gender equality, birth rates remain inflated beyond what many consider sustainable and as the global environment worsens Knight believes that "the idea that creating more of us is an unquestioned good is going to start being questioned".

He may well be right in this prediction. When it seems like Malthusian mechanisms are still failing to reign us in, perhaps ideologically leveling the playing field between the right to and the right not to procreate will be what curbs population growth in a relatively painless way. It may not come quickly or easily, but Knight seems pretty confident our apparent obsession with fostering more descendants can be superseded by a culture that doesn't encourage the population growth entailed by such widespread breeding: "It doesn't take a whole lot of thinking. What it takes is rethinking. It takes overcoming the natalist mindset of society".

True, Knight has certainly taken a step too far by calling for the eventual eradication of the Homo sapien. It's a bonkers proposition, let's face it, to have this happen voluntarily, even if it was a desirable end. But this doesn't mean the social givens concerning reproduction shouldn't be challenged at all. There is a necessary flip side to having the right to bare a child that is also having the right to not bare one. This includes the right to abortion, contraception, family planning services and all the rest.

Ideally, there should be no pressure at all to take either path other than the convictions of the individual concerned. But alas, a counter to the natalism of society is rarely considered as an alternative policy to combat the potential pitfalls that population growth may bring in the future.