Tackling Pronatalism in Pursuit of Reproductive Liberation 

By Nandita Bajaj, Executive Director, Population Balance 

As a young girl growing up in a traditional patriarchal culture in India, I had a surprising proclivity toward unconventional interests: airplanes, mechanical toys and comfortable practical clothes—a quality that, thanks to my family, was lovingly nourished. My family moved to Canada when I was 16-years-old, and even through the process of acclimating to the new environment, my confidence in my ability to choose my own paths—non-traditional as some of those were—remained intact. From aerospace engineering to teaching, and from solo traveling to being in an interracial relationship, I felt that I was afforded a high degree of autonomy to choose a path that was meaningful for me.  

But through this unique journey into my late twenties, the one path that I believed was an inevitability was that of motherhood.  

I had never given it any thought because it’s just what I knew I had to do, even though I had never felt any inkling toward that path. It’s what I had grown up learning and seeing all around me—in school, in books, in movies, and at work—the narrative that having children was a natural rite of passage into adulthood. It wasn’t until my partner (now, husband) and I started discussing our future plans that the subject of kids came up. We were both minimalists and environmentally conscious, and he asked me how I would feel about not having children. I told him I didn’t understand what he meant! “Don’t we have to?” He told me it was up to us whatever we chose to do in alignment with our values. I was 28-years-old. To learn that I could choose not to have children was the most joyful and liberating thing I had ever heard; it was a moment of profound awakening for me, one that determined the path for the rest of my life. 

Fast forward 10 years; I decided to take a sabbatical to pursue my graduate studies at the Institute for Humane Education at Antioch University. This degree was my opportunity to dive more deeply into pronatalism, a set of social, cultural, patriarchal, religious, political, and economic pressures placed on people to have children, regardless of what we truly desire. My research revealed to me that pronatalist pressures are the water in which we swim, so ubiquitous that for many of us, myself among them, it’s difficult to even discern what we truly desire.  

Pronatalist discourse ranges from pressures for children or grandchildren exerted by family members, to religious messaging that greatly influences family size decisions while stigmatizing the single, childfree and childless, to political restrictions on contraceptive use and abortion bans. Reproductive decision making is powerfully shaped by conformity with pronatalist social norms most often upheld by patriarchal religious and community leaders, as well as by politicians with economic, nationalist, or military interests in the foreground. Whatever the reason, pronatalism’s chief characteristic is that it reduces people to reproductive vessels for external demographic goals. Reproductive control through coercion, whether to limit reproduction or promote it, is a violation of reproductive autonomy and has no place in our sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) work. Pronatalism, as I was uncovering in my research, is also at the heart of our unchecked population growth, growth that relies on those with the least degree of personal or reproductive autonomy. In addition to undermining reproductive agency, pronatalism plays a tremendous role in jeopardizing planetary health, including all the incredible plant and animal species that exist along with us. 

Three years of research gave birth to what is now the only course of its kind in the world that draws the connection between pronatalism, anthropocentrism, and overpopulation. Pronatalism and Overpopulation: The Personal, Cultural, and Global Implications of Having a Child is an online, discussion-based, graduate course open to anyone in the world interested in exploring these intersectional and multi-faceted global issues. There’s nothing more gratifying than to see the sense of liberation that young people express when given the opportunity to make free and informed family choices for themselves, their families, and the planet—including how they define ‘family.’ As one student noted, “This course was paradigm-shifting: unpacking pronatalism has given me a revolutionary lens through which to consider my own life choices, but also to understand everything going on in the world, from overpopulation, to climate change, to the oppression of women and other marginalized groups.” 

Having also recently become the Executive Director of the non-profit Population Balance, I inherited The Overpopulation Podcast as one of our programs. Featuring experts covering topics ranging from mobile vasectomies and unconventional families to ecological economics and climate restoration, the podcast has now become one of our top-performing offerings, ranking in the top two percent out of all podcasts globally. Our brilliant interview with Thailand’s ‘Condom King’ Mechai Viravaidya was not only a career highlight for me, but also what inspired me to attend and present at the ICFP2022 conference to meet one of my heroes in person. 

For more information about these initiatives and more, go to www.populationbalance.org.  

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Nandita Bajaj is the Executive Director of Population Balance, where she also co-hosts The Overpopulation Podcast. As faculty with the Institute for Humane Education at Antioch University, Nandita teaches two courses – Human Rights as well as Pronatalism and Overpopulation. Previously, she worked in the areas of Aerospace Engineering and secondary school education. She was born and raised in India and has lived in Toronto, Canada for over 20 years. 

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This article is a part of PSI’s ICFP 2022 Impact Magazine. Explore the magazine here.

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