Driving around Portland in recent months you may have spotted four peculiar billboards containing the messages: “A Lot of Humans Wish They Were Never Born” or “Stop Having Kids” written in bold text. The billboards were erected between January and February of 2022, in three locations across Portland and one location near Salem, Oregon. Created by the little known anti-natalist organization Stop Having Kids (SHK), and paid for by an anonymous donor, the mysterious billboards have raised questions, and sparked controversy among residents.
The term anti-natalism refers to the ethical stance against human reproduction, while natalism (or pro-natalism) refers to the belief that the choice to have children is morally correct. While neither term is common, their real world applications are perhaps more prevalent than many realize. For example, pro-natalism can look like anti-abortion lobbyist groups, or laws which encourage child-bearing through tax break incentives. Alternatively, China’s previous one-child policy is a political example of anti-natalism, or even the expansion of access to contraceptives within schools could be considered an example as well. Understanding the real world applications of these definitions may shift the debate over the billboards from abstract to personal.
Despite a recent rise in popularity of anti-natalism in internet spaces, Stop Having Kids is one of very few organizations of its kind. The organization began in March of 2021 when the founder, who goes by the name of Dietz, sought to create a mask with a provocative message stitched on in hope of sparking conversation. He chose to create a mask that said “Stop Having Kids” and was overwhelmed by the positive reactions he received wearing it. From there, the organization grew into a website and hosted regular outreach demonstrations, under the mission “To Normalize Antinatalism, Childfreedom, & Caring For Already Existing Life.”
The Stop Having Kids Website lists a plethora of reasons why they view procreation as immoral, including “Birth Defects,” “Eternal Dissatisfaction” and “Existing Life In Need of Help.” Alex, a volunteer and organizer at SHK who coordinates demonstrations and helps run their social media page, explains that she is an anti-natalist because anti-natalism offers a solution to all of the issues she cares about. “I would like to reduce as much suffering in the world as possible and one of the easiest ways to do that is by not bringing another person into the world who would have to endure a lifetime of existence, which can never be guaranteed to be positive…anti-natalism definitely is one of the best ways to reduce suffering on all fronts.”
While the recent billboards are the most visible element of SHK, they only represent a fraction of the work the organization engages in. Alex explains that they also organize “outreach, demonstrations, houseless feedings, and garbage pickups,” as well as donating a portion of the proceeds they make selling merch to nonprofit organizations, including farm sanctuaries, and those which seek to support victims of human trafficking.
Reactions to the billboards and outreach events have been extremely varied. For some Portlanders, the billboards have been a symbol of positive radical activism and a beacon of hope for the future, with one anonymous resident describing them as “bold, a little ambitious or even crazy, but ultimately correct.” In stark contrast, others view them as a shocking and disturbing addition to their neighborhoods, with another anonymous resident describing them as “thinly veiled eugenics.”
This comparison of anti-natalism to eugenics is not an uncommon response for the organization to receive. Franklin High School Biology teacher Anne McHugh explains the intricacy of the accusations: “They’re not saying that a particular group of people shouldn’t have kids, they’re saying that no one should have kids because kids themselves can’t choose to be born. But I do think that the choice of whether or not to have children is often not left up to people, based on education levels and access to birth control.”
According to the data site Niche.com, two of the three neighborhoods that the Portland Billboards are located within (Woodlawn, Powellhurst-Gilbert) fall significantly below Portland’s Median Family Income, as well as ranking higher than the Portland Average for Diversity. Alex responds to these numbers by explaining that there was no effort from SHK to locate the billboards in neighborhoods of a certain demographic. “We honestly just picked three locations, we didn’t look into any of them, they were just available and within the price range we were looking for.”
In the future, Stop Having Kids has plans to broaden its scope of reach, according to Alex, by “improving and building upon the website, [creating] more billboards and helping develop more outreach groups in North America and beyond. As well as encouraging and creating long lasting community outreach programs which focus on helping already existing life like houseless feedings, volunteering etc.” In response to recent vandalism of the Division street billboard, which has changed the message from “Stop Having Kids” to “Start Loving Kids,” SHK responds: “This isn’t about hating kids at all, we encourage people to help kids who are already here.”