Doctors carry a newborn baby in a hospital (Javier Valenzuela/EyeEm)


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Birth is humanity’s greatest under-explored subject. I had that thought over thirteen years ago, when I first gave birth and realized how very little in my upbringing and education had prepared me for the experience. I believe it still, although I have come to see how birth has been explored more extensively than I first imagined. Humans have thought about and written about birth from the beginning of recorded history, from ancient creation stories to medieval theological tracts, from philosophic manuals to obstetrics textbooks, and from nineteenth-century novels to twenty-first-century memoirs.

Look back at the earliest written sources and there birth is. In creation myths from ancient Egypt to ancient Greece, and from ancient India, Africa, and the Arctic to Indigenous communities in the Americas, the mystery of human birth was probed as a sub-​narrative in the creation of the cosmos. Where did humans come from? How and why were they born? What is this creation they are a part of? The range and creativity of the answers people have come up with are astounding. The first humans are born from dismembered gods (Greek) or from the earth (Israelite). They emerged out of an ear of corn (Maya) or they were vomited out of a lonely god’s mouth (Congolese). They are born by sex or without sex, with mothers or, more often, without any women at all.

But despite birth’s recurring presence in the written record, and despite rumors of some long-​lost matriarchal age and society that privileged a feminine divine and saw birth as the primary axis of imaginative, political, and social power, there is little evidence that birth was ever the foundational experience that any culture organized itself around. Just as women have been seen, in Simone de Beauvoir’s phrasing, as “the second sex,” birth has a sense of secondariness about it; it has long hovered in death’s shadow, quietly performing its under-​recognized labor. Death has been humanity’s central defining experience, its deepest existential theme, more authoritative somehow than birth, and certainly more final. It is a given that humans are mortal creatures who must wrestle with their mortality, that death is the horizon no one can avoid, despite constant attempts at evasion and postponement and despite the recurring fantasy of immortality. Birth, meanwhile, is what recedes into a hazy background, slipping back past the limits of memory, existing in that forgotten realm where uteruses, blood, sex, pain, pleasure, and infancy constellate.

Perhaps it’s a survival instinct: from the time one is born, death becomes the most pressing concern. How to avoid death, how to deal with it as an inevitability—​these are urgent questions. Different traditions have defined a range of ways of confronting death and integrating that encounter into one’s daily life. Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca spoke of death’s omnipresence in our lives: “From the time you are born, you are being led to death.” Our deaths are a point fixed by Fate; we cannot predict that point and we cannot control it. Accepting death and learning how to die were hailed by Seneca as paths to ultimate freedom. It is our love of life, he believed, our attachment to living, that holds us in bondage. “Study death always,” he instructed. “It takes an entire lifetime to learn how to die.”

Those who philosophize properly, Plato asserted centuries before Seneca, are those who practice death and dying. In the Christianity that matured alongside such Greek and Roman influences, the crucifix would overshadow the manger as the central symbol of liturgical worship, with Christ’s death and resurrection accruing more theological significance in most communities than Mary’s miraculous birthing. Celibacy and an otherworldly asceticism would be recommended for those on the fast track to salvation; the end was imminent, many early Christians believed, and true seekers should seek not to perpetuate the human race, but to be reborn into God’s kingdom. “Remember to keep death daily before your eyes,” St. Benedict advised a faithful flock of celibate monastics in the medieval period.

Just as women have been seen, in Simone de Beauvoir’s phrasing, as “the second sex,” birth has a sense of secondariness about it.

Or, as Buddhists have insisted for millennia: to be born is to be chained to endless rounds of human suffering. The consequence of birth is death, a Buddhist maxim asserts, and the renunciant’s goal is to escape from this hellish cycle, to gain enough insight into the nature of reality so that at death he or she is freed from birth once and for all. One ancient Buddhist text, the Sūtra on Entry into the Womb, describes the uterus as a place where a body is trapped “amidst a mud of feces and urine…unable to breathe.” The text is unambiguous in its perspective on birth: “I do not extol the production of a new existence even a little bit; nor do I extol the production of a new existence for even a moment. Why? The production of a new existence is suffering.”

By the twentieth century, these philosophic and theological traditions would be reimagined by artists like Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, who believed that “the aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul.” And by the twenty-​first century, death was “having a moment,” an Atlantic reporter declared, as millennials joined forces with aging baby boomers in the global death-acceptance movement, creating “death cafés” and “death salons” where people could gather to discuss their mortality while sipping craft beers, eating cupcakes decorated with tombstones, and listening to presentations by hipster morticians.

But where are the birth cafés? And what hipster would ever be seen there? Faced with the resounding, final clap of death, what claims can birth have to existential, theological, or moral significance? To artistic or imaginative grandeur? To political importance? Does it really matter that, or how, we were born, that someone carried us in a uterus and then ejected us into the world through a tight canal headed downward toward the earth, or that we emerged from an abdomen, or that we grew in some test tube? What was that process? Where did it begin and where did it end? How did it shape us and how did it transform the people and places we were born into? What is the place of birth in the widest and deepest human story one might tell? And what does it mean that the greatest power humans have had—​the power to create another human being—​has been relegated in nearly all time periods and all places to a secondary status, a task to be performed by an underclass defined by their gender?

I’ve asked these questions obsessively for over a decade. Birth often felt so huge and untamed, so morally dense and so imaginatively rich, that it continually overwhelmed all human attempts at describing or controlling it. But I’ve wondered what human life would look like if the poets, sages, intellectuals, and political leaders had made statements more like these: “From the time we are born, we are being shaped by birth.” “Study birth always; it takes an entire lifetime to come to terms with our having been born.” “Keep birth daily before your eyes.” “Birth is evidence of our freedom.” “The fundamental purpose of art is to process the strange, painful, and miraculous experience of childbirth.” Imagine what the world would look like if we humans understood ourselves as natal creatures who throughout our lives, whether we like it or not, need to wrestle with our own natality.


I came across the word “natality” shortly after my first child was born. I was in my early thirties working as an editor at a university press about an hour up the coast from where I lived. Each morning I’d drop my daughter off at a small, cramped daycare, passing her into the arms of another woman. She’d wail as I walked down a corridor lined with finger-​paint smudges on colorful paper, out through the heavy double doors and into the crowded parking lot. Fresh from the rapture, alive with birth’s dizzying intensities, I’d drive alone up I-​95, past factories and smokestacks, supermarkets and fast-​food chains, hugging the coast and gripping the wheel with a silent maternal fury. A limb was missing. Who was she, back there with that other woman? And who was I now? What had just happened? I wasn’t the person I had been. I thought the things that many new mothers think after giving birth: Why did no one tell me what this was like? Why did no one prepare me? Where was birth in all those books I’ve read so voraciously since childhood? An hour up the coast I’d go, into the outer world of meetings, conferences, opinions, and ideas. I’d park my car and walk to my office, sit down, and begin reading submissions from the world’s leading experts on various subjects. There were books on just about everything, it seemed. Everything except birth.

And then, there it was: “natality.” One strange word, suddenly appearing in a book proposal I received from a philosopher who was writing on childhood. The term, the philosopher said, had been coined by Hannah Arendt, one of the most celebrated and controversial thinkers of the twentieth century. “Natality” conveys the idea that birth as a beginning represents, in Arendt’s words, “the supreme capacity of man,” a capacity inherent in human life that is the “miracle that saves the world, the realm of human affairs, from its normal, ‘natural’ ruin.” Because we all were born, Arendt believed, we are always all capable of beginning again, of starting something new through each human action—​the most prized of capabilities, in Arendt’s estimation. These definitions had an immediate, powerful resonance, the philosopher said, because Arendt articulated them after fleeing Nazi Germany as a childless Jew.

The author casually mentioned natality and then moved on. But the word stuck with me. Natality? Familiar words lurked within it—​“natal,” “native,” “nature,” “nativity,” “nation”—​and yet “natality” itself had an alien ring. “Natality” is in the dictionary, I discovered, but usually with a definition as brief as “1. birthrate.” But Arendt wasn’t speaking about statistics. Her natality planted itself in my imagination with all its foreignness and stayed with me, flowering in unexpected ways over the next thirteen years. In a world bedeviled by destructive tendencies, Arendt’s creative and democratic approach to birth, her entirely worldly and simultaneously miraculous understanding of natality, had a strong, subversive appeal. In her own life, Arendt chose not to have children; natality was not pro-​natalism, not an argument for why women should give birth or become mothers. But she understood that while we may not choose birth, birth has already chosen us.

“Natality” conveys the idea that birth as a beginning represents, in Arendt’s words, “the supreme capacity of man,” a capacity inherent in human life that is the “miracle that saves the world, the realm of human affairs, from its normal, ‘natural’ ruin.”

I clung particularly to this challenging insight of hers: that it is not enlightened wisdom to doubt human natality, or to argue against birth’s crucial role in human life. It’s a sign, rather, that one is ripe for totalitarian control. Today, celebrating birth can seem like an oblivious denial of just how dire our political, social, and ecological reality is. But Arendt saw birth and our engagement with it as a deep, direct encounter with reality in all its materiality, rather than as an evasion of it. Totalitarian leaders, she wrote, know neither birth nor death and “do not care whether they themselves are alive or dead, if they ever lived or never were born.” They take power when their subjects have stopped caring too. Totalitarianism thrives “when the most elementary form of human creativity, which is the capacity to add something of one’s own to the common world, is destroyed.” Each new thing we add to the world is another birth; our having been born is what guarantees us the ability to act, to work as agents in our societies. Once that creativity, as she defined it—​birth, politics, action, people coming together to create new lives and new realities—​had been completely extinguished, you had a mass society of atomized individuals who could be completely coerced into doing anything their leaders ordered. They had lost touch with reality, a reality that included the fact that they had all once been born and that this birth was evidence of their inherent, miraculous creativity. “Ideologies,” she wrote, “are never interested in the miracle of being.”


Despite Arendt’s fame, “natality” never made it far outside academia. It was virtually ignored by everyone other than specialists, and there is still no single, alternative word to express for birth what “mortality” expresses for death: how birth shapes all human life, defining its limits and its possibilities. Medical advancements have revolutionized birth over the past century, and a simultaneous explosion of writing and research about childbirth has been published in novels, poems, academic studies, how-​to books, and memoirs across the globe. But birth remains a niche topic, a singular event relevant only to those experiencing it immediately.

Most people who have spent time with birth admit its seismic power, either positive or negative. But they often lack the language to articulate what it is or how it works. Birth is beyond language, people tell me, ​too mysterious and contradictory to be captured fully in words. Even as birth is ubiquitous now—​splashed on the covers of magazines, dramatized in reality TV shows, and graced with its own product lines—​it remains somehow shrouded in silence, exiled at the farthest reaches of what can acceptably be talked about in polite company. And so I witness them, mothers gathered in private, sharing birth stories the way veterans share war stories, like a secret upon which a society depends but which lingers in its shadows.

In the twenty-​first century, birth remains unspeakable not only because of its graphic physicality, but also because of its thorough domestication—its reputed role in conserving a mainstream, normative order, one controlled largely by men. Feminism grew up in the twentieth century partially through various women’s radical disavowal of a traditional sexual politics that used birth as the key engine for women’s subordination. A woman who wanted to do anything of significance in this life needed a “room of one’s own,” as Virginia Woolf famously put it, not a house overrun with children. Simone de Beauvoir went further, writing, “Woman has ovaries and a uterus; such are the particular conditions that lock her in her subjectivity.”

Brilliant, radical, second-wave feminist Shulamith Firestone agreed with this point, arguing that women live “at the continual mercy of their biology—​menstruation, menopause, and ‘female ills,’ constant painful childbirth, wetnursing and care of infants, all of which made them dependent on males…​for physical survival.” It wasn’t just men who were to blame. It was nature itself. The biological division of labor had turned women into birthers and that division marked the beginnings of all class and caste systems. It was the first inequality, and it led to “psychosexual distortions” that humanity is still wrestling with. Firestone imagined a cybernetic future in which technology would take over childbearing and the work of raising children would be distributed across a society’s members. Artificial wombs would release women from the tyranny of nature.

Birth was understood as a problem by many leading voices in the movement, and sometimes their critiques of birth have overshadowed the complex and even unparalleled richness in birth found by many self-​described feminists. The feminist critiques came as a needed corrective, and they deserved to be heard. Many women, after all, had died in childbirth since time immemorial. Women were given little agency or credit when it came to birth, but they were forced to deal with the full weight of its consequences. Expectations about birth had essentialized women according to a set of often oppressive ideas about gender, leaving childless women at the margins.

The easiest way around birth’s many conundrums was to avoid it altogether. Other twentieth-century movements made the same recommendation on different grounds, adding fuel to the flames of feminist critiques of birth. A global population-control movement, for instance, sounded the alarm about humanity’s increasing numbers. There are just too many people, Paul R. Ehrlich argued in his bestselling book The Population Bomb (1968). He believed we were birthing our way into extinction. Mass famine was on the near horizon. “Hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death,” he anxiously predicted. And not only people. As environmental scientists have painfully illustrated, humankind is a destructive species, a threat to biodiversity. One of the major ways individuals can limit their carbon imprint, protecting other species, is by not reproducing.

By the twenty-​first century, giving birth was not looking like a great option in many parts of the world. Having a child would limit one’s career opportunities and drain one’s finances. Birth would hurt the environment and might entail one’s participation in gender inequalities. It would be a selfish act, some argued, in a world with millions of orphans. Self-​described “BirthStrikers” gathered into a small movement, refusing to have children and expressing their terror at the apocalyptic future any children might face.

It is not enlightened wisdom to doubt human natality, or to argue against birth’s crucial role in human life. It’s a sign, rather, that one is ripe for totalitarian control.

Natality rates are now at record lows. About 44 percent of Americans between the ages of eighteen and forty-​nine who don’t already have children say they don’t plan on having children at any point in the future; most of them simply don’t want kids, they report, while about a quarter of them cite medical reasons and about 14 percent cite financial concerns. Rates have fallen across classes and age groups, among the native-​born and immigrants alike. In the United Kingdom, fertility rates in 2020 dropped to about a child and a half per woman, a record low. Global fertility rates likewise plummeted from the 1950s on, with wealthy G7 nations Canada, France, Germany, Italy, and Japan joining the United States and the United Kingdom at the head of the pack.

The declines may be a natural response to positive developments, including the fact that people in these countries are living longer and exercising more control over their reproductive lives. But they are accompanied by troubling and not unrelated trends: growing inequality and loneliness, rising suicide rates, fewer social services, greater political polarization, the spread of false narratives and propaganda campaigns, political setbacks for women, the stalled campaigns for racial justice, and the erosion of democratic norms. These phenomena all point to a profound isolation at the heart of modern life, a pulling back from a shared, embodied, and committed life with other people. Birth, like democratic politics, challenges us with otherness, with the putting aside of oneself to make room for another person, and with the challenges of difference and plurality.

The critiques of birth are not easily dismissed; without them, it is hard to imagine a different and more just social order. The negativity toward birth has had costs, however. It has historically alienated many ordinary women from the feminist movement and stymied a more systematic reappraisal of gender relations by emphasizing the priorities of individuals against the needs of the collective. Declaring birth barbaric or retrograde means undermining many people’s experiences and diminishing the role that women and caretakers have played in the history of human civilization. The aversion to birth that is articulated as an open rebellion against a patriarchal tradition often directly echoes the shame and disgust expressed about birth in that tradition itself.

A barrenness haunts these visions of life beyond birth, but it also haunts the fetishizations of birth that can seem at first like affirmations of it. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, for instance, birth has been used as a powerful moral prop by political movements otherwise deleterious to human life. In terms of political priorities, various pro-natal groups have valued the fetus’s life more highly than that of the struggling mother or the hungry child, the first-grader about to be gunned down in her classroom in a senseless mass shooting, or the species on the brink of extinction. In so exclusively sanctifying the unborn, these groups often approach birth as an unforgivable degradation.

What is missing in the culture war’s heated, polarized debates are the voices that imagine other possibilities, those who intuit a freedom in birth, not from birth. Take American novelist Toni Morrison, a single mom of two boys, who described becoming a mother not as the nail in the coffin of her oppression but as “the most liberating thing that ever happened to me.” She believed that we specifically asked to be born. “That’s why we’re here,” she said. “We have to do something nurturing that we respect before we go. We must. It is more interesting, more complicated, more intellectually demanding and more morally demanding to love somebody. To take care of somebody.”

Minimizing birth means diminishing one of the greatest powers humans have had: the creation and sustenance of life itself, the bringing forth of a next generation that might live better, imagine more, suffer less, and create a more lasting world. This doesn’t mean we need a specified number of people, or that it’s necessary to stay at replacement levels. Maybe we should dial back and hold our own viral spread in check until we’ve found more sustainable ways to live on our planet. But I stop far short of extinction, alarmed by descriptions of our species as a scourge that must be wiped from the earth, formulations all too similar to those used to justify ethnic cleansing.


It remains an open question for me: Are our attempts to rein ourselves in by controlling birth entirely responsible, or are they too tainted by the same destructive and even eliminationist mindset that has made possible genocide and environmental degradation? We, of course, are not separable from nature, hovering above or outside of it, protecting or destroying it. We are nature. Could our tendency to see ourselves as distinct from the rest of creation be part of the problem? These questions are some of the most complex and urgent we can ask in the twenty-first century, and the history of birthing we can draw in wrestling with them doesn’t provide easy answers.

My husband, for instance, was born in 1972 in a small town in Gujarat, India, in the years when a Western-​led campaign to limit the number of children born to poor, untouchable people like his parents reached its apogee. Despite having the youngest and the second-largest population on earth, India also has one of the world’s longest-​standing official family-planning programs. In the early 1950s, not long after the nation gained independence, and while Western countries were experiencing their postwar baby booms, India adopted the world’s first national policy aimed at shrinking its domestic population. Contraceptives, sex education, and, eventually, sterilization were aggressively offered to both men and women. Technologies that Western feminists had celebrated for furthering the crucial cause of reproductive choice were taken up by neo-​Malthusians and eugenicists who saw in birth control, sterilization, and family planning a way to shrink burgeoning populations in other countries. India was a point of particular focus. The Western population controllers who went there and were welcomed by Indian leaders came home horrified by the country’s crowds and by what they saw as its people’s impoverished, unmitigated misery. Their concern was sometimes an expression of genuine humanitarian impulses, but very often it was also infused with nationalistic, eugenicist, and exploitative ambitions and driven by fears of marauding, non​white hordes. Controlling human populations became in the twentieth century an alternative to outright warfare, with other countries kept in check not by the military occupation of their land but by strategic social-engineering schemes targeting their people’s fertility.

Are our attempts to rein ourselves in by controlling birth entirely responsible, or are they too tainted by the same destructive and even eliminationist mindset that has made possible genocide and environmental degradation?

In 1975, three years after my husband was born, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi imposed a state of emergency, giving herself the power to rule by decree. Among the human-rights violations that occurred during the Emergency was a campaign directed by Gandhi’s sons that resulted in the forced sterilization of more than eight million people in a single year—​many more people than were sterilized by the Nazis. The effort, bankrolled by American taxpayers, mandated that men with two or more children have vasectomies, and it also led to the sterilization of many men who were political opponents of the Gandhis, and of men who were poor, uneducated, or disabled. Botched operations killed thousands. The Indian people, still organized in loosely connected states distinguished by different languages, identities, and traditions, generally resisted this centralized government program. Many of the family-planning efforts in subsequent years shifted to the sterilization of women, who seemingly had less power to resist. Still, the campaign has been widely perceived as an abject failure. For a complex set of reasons, not all of them liberatory, many people in India kept giving birth, even when incentivized not to, and even when that birthing was an act of civil disobedience.

My husband’s parents had no more children after he was born. As a Dalit man, was his father subject to forced sterilization? Was his mother targeted? If so, my husband suspects they would have welcomed the sterilizations, burdened as they already were with three children and limited resources. He was glad they limited their family to three children; he grew up knowing how hard it had been for his grandparents to have large families, how difficult it was for his parents even to raise him and his two siblings. But he also grew up seeing the signs that read “Hum Do Hamare Do,” meaning “We Two Our Two.” The message was clear: two parents should have only two children. But there he was, growing up as a third child who violated the generational symmetry; he was the human surplus the posters warned against. This background has fostered my husband’s discomfort with group names like BirthStrikers.

The reality is that pro-​natal norms have rarely been promoted evenly across populations. There have always been groups of people—​the poor, disabled, religious or racial minorities, women on welfare, the gender-​nonconforming, the sick—​whom no government or powerful interests want to reproduce. People in these groups can come to birth with different baggage, histories that ironically help them see in birth opportunities denied to them in the broader culture: familial intimacies, self-​definition, life affirmations, love, continuity with and respect for their ancestors, creativity, and the creation of a better world.

The pressure to procreate may feel very real to many people, and motherhood can be presented as an idealized state, but most mothers can attest to the fact that while motherhood may be superficially championed, at a deeper level it is often undermined by their culture. Motherhood is venerated in places like the United States except when it comes time to pay the bill from the maternity ward, offer maternity leave, feed a mother’s children, or come up with solutions to the child-care conundrum. Birth goes against widespread cultural values in the West: to accumulate and hoard capital, to seek one’s own individuation and success, to create and maintain one’s own private space, to avoid discomfort, and to eschew risk. Birth breaks down most of the dualisms humans use to structure reality: man/woman, mind/body, thought/experience, destruction/creation, self/other, creator/created, birth/death. In challenging those binaries, birth can be an act of resistance and motherhood an expression of alterity. Therein lies the difficulty of talking about birth today: birth is both the norm and its transgression.

And so maybe the twenty-first century is a time to think more carefully and deeply about birth, about what it has been throughout history, is today, and could be in our future. Maybe it is time for all people, and not just new mothers, to wrestle with human natality—to think anew about how birth has shaped our lives and societies, and how it has altered the course of our planet’s history. Can our reckoning with birth’s ubiquity and magnitude, its private and public significance, re-attune us not only to its difficulties but also to what Hannah Arendt called a “shocked wonder at the miracle of Being”? Can it remind us of our innate capacity to always begin again?

Jennifer Banks is senior executive editor at Yale University Press, where she has acquired books on literature, religion, and philosophy since 2007. This essay has been adapted from her forthcoming book Natality: Toward a Philosophy of Birth. Copyright © 2023 by Jennifer Banks. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

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