I remember being told about a phenomenon which I’ll call “AIDS mothers” sometime in my mid-teens. (Note: I can’t make a hard factual claim that there really were such women, only that I was told of their existence; this post is meant more as moral autobiography than history.) These were (or would have been) women who knew that they were infected with the HIV virus who nonetheless chose to conceive children.
Now I should note that when I heard about these women it was the early or mid-1980s, 1985 at the latest. There were then no therapies for HIV infection; the very first anti-retroviral drug would not be approved for use until 1987. So HIV infection was usually a death sentence: a horrible death sentence, because it would often progress to full-blown AIDS. And in the case of pregnant women there was a common problem of maternal-fetal transmission of the virus (the World Health Organization now estimates that without treatment — and treatment didn’t exist in 1985 — maternal-fetal transmission rates are somewhere between 15% and 45%). So adding up the unlovely parts here, we would have examples of women who, knowing that they would likely soon be dying horribly, were conceiving children who themselves stood a significant chance of dying horribly early in life. And, if they managed to avoid dying horribly early in life, would still have to endure the prospect of being orphaned when their mothers would die, a ghastly process which they might have to witness as young children.
“Why would anyone do that?” I recall asking the interlocutor who had told me about AIDS mothers.
“These women are lonely and frightened and do not want to die alone. Having a child is a way of preventing that.”
And I recall thinking then that as much as we may pity these suffering women, as awful as we may feel for them, there seemed something just unconscionable about standing aside while they conceived children. I don’t think — though one’s memory does often dim over thirty years — that I said so out loud, because while I could not shake the thought it felt like a really asshole thing to say. (The experience was not just an early spark of antinatalist consciousness, but a good lesson in the disunity of the virtues. Intellectual honesty and good manners are generally enemies, and keeping them both in harness is, at best, difficult.)
What I did not think then, because it was too radical a thought for me to have, was that between the “AIDS mothers” and “normal” parents there would seem to be a difference more in degree than in kind. Observations like that would only happen later in life.