Had Toni Vernelli gone ahead with her pregnancy ten years ago, she would know at first hand what it is like to cradle her own baby, to have a pair of innocent eyes gazing up at her with unconditional love, to feel a little hand slipping into hers – and a voice calling her Mummy.
But the very thought makes her shudder with horror.
Because when Toni terminated her pregnancy, she did so in the firm belief she was helping to save the planet.
Desperate measures: Toni Vernelli was steralised at age 27 to reduce her carbon footprint
Incredibly, so determined was she that the terrible “mistake” of pregnancy should never happen again, that she begged the doctor who performed the abortion to sterilise her at the same time.
He refused, but Toni – who works for an environmental charity – “relentlessly hunted down a doctor who would perform the irreversible surgery.
Finally, eight years ago, Toni got her way.
At the age of 27 this young woman at the height of her reproductive years was sterilised to “protect the planet”.
Incredibly, instead of mourning the loss of a family that never was, her boyfriend (now husband) presented her with a congratulations card.
While some might think it strange to celebrate the reversal of nature and denial of motherhood, Toni relishes her decision with an almost religious zeal.
“Having children is selfish. It’s all about maintaining your genetic line at the expense of the planet,” says Toni, 35.
“Every person who is born uses more food, more water, more land, more fossil fuels, more trees and produces more rubbish, more pollution, more greenhouse gases, and adds to the problem of over-population.”
While most parents view their children as the ultimate miracle of nature, Toni seems to see them as a sinister threat to the future.
It’s an extreme stance which one might imagine is born from an unhappy childhood or an upbringing among parents who share similar, strong beliefs.
But nothing in Toni’s safe, middle- class upbringing gave any clues as to the views which would shape her adult life. The eldest of three daughters, she enjoyed a loving, close-knit family life.
She excelled at her Roman Catholic school, and her doting parents fully expected her to grow up, settle down and start a family of her own.
“When I finished school, I got a job in retail and at 19, I met my first husband,” says Toni.
“No sooner had we finished our wedding cake than all our relatives started to ask when they could expect a new addition to the family.
“I always told them that would never happen, but no one listened.
“When I was a child, I loved bird-watching, and in my teens that developed into a passion for the environment as well as the welfare of animals – I became a vegetarian when I was 15.
“Even my parents used to smile and say: ‘You’ll change your mind one day about babies.’
“The only person who understood how I felt was my first husband, who didn’t want children either.
“We both passionately wanted to save the planet – not produce a new life which would only add to the problem.”
So, instead of mapping out plans for a family, Toni and her husband began discussing medical options to ensure they would never reproduce.
Toni, from Taunton, Somerset, says: “When I was 21, I considered sterilisation for the first time.
“I’d been on the Pill for five years and didn’t want to take hormone-based contraception indefinitely.
“I went to my GP, but she wouldn’t even consider the idea.
“She said I was far too young and told me I could ‘absolutely not’ be sterilised, and that I was bound to change my mind one day.
“I found her attitude frustrating.
“We decided my husband would have a vasectomy instead. He was 25, just a few years older than me, but the GP allowed him to go ahead.
“I found it insulting that she thought that, just because I was a woman, I’d reach a point where an urge to breed would overcome all rational thought.”
When Toni was 23, her marriage ended. She says: “We married very young and grew apart.”
Toni found herself young, single and with a new life in London, working for an environmental charity.
But while other young women dream of marriage and babies, Toni was convinced it was her duty not to have a child.
She claims she was far from alone.
“Through my job I made many friends who, like me, were more interested in campaigning, trying to change society and save the planet rather than having families of our own.
“We used to say that if ever we did want children, we’d adopt, as there are so many children in need of a loving family.
“At least then, we’d be doing something positive for the world, rather than something negative.”
Toni was happy, at last, with fellow environmentalists who shared her philosophy. But when she was 25, disaster struck.
“I discovered that despite taking the Pill, I’d accidentally fallen pregnant by my boyfriend.
“I was horrified. I knew straight away there was no option of having the baby.
“I went to my doctor about having a termination, and asked if I could be sterilised at the same time.
“This time it was a male doctor. I remember saying to him: ‘I want to make sure this never happens again.’
“He said: ‘You may not want a child, but one day you may meet a man who does’. He refused to consider it.
“I didn’t like having a termination, but it would have been immoral to give birth to a child that I felt strongly would only be a burden to the world.
“I’ve never felt a twinge of guilt about what I did, and have honestly never wondered what might have been.
“After my abortion, I was more determined than ever to pursue sterilisation.
“By then, I had my mother’s support – she realised I wasn’t going to grow out of my beliefs, and was proud of my campaigning work.”
At the age of 27, Toni moved to Brighton, where her dream of medical intervention was realised.
Toni says: “My new GP was more forward-thinking and referred me to hospital. I couldn’t wait for the operation.”
As Toni awaited the surgery which would destroy her fertility, she met her future husband, Ed, 38, an IT consultant.
“A week before my sterilisation, I went to an animal rights demonstration and met Ed.
“I liked him immediately, and I told him what I was doing straight away – because if he wanted children then he needed to know I wasn’t the woman for him,” she says.
“But Ed was relieved when I told him how I felt and said he didn’t want children for the same reasons.”
On the morning of surgery, Ed gave Toni a card saying “Congratulations”.
Toni says: “After the operation, which is irreversible, I didn’t feel emotional – just relieved.
“I’ve never doubted that I made the right decision. Ed and I married in September 2002, and have a much nicer lifestyle as a result of not having children.
“We love walking and hiking, and we often go away for weekends.
“Every year, we also take a nice holiday – we’ve just come back from South Africa.
“We feel we can have one long-haul flight a year, as we are vegan and childless, thereby greatly reducing our carbon footprint and combating over-population.
“My only frustration is that other people are unable to accept my decision.
“When I tell people why I don’t want children, they look at me as if I was planning to commit murder.
“A woman who does not have maternal-feelings is seen as some sort of anomaly.
“And a woman like me, who is not having children in order to save the planet, is considered barking mad.
“What I consider mad are those women who ferry their children short distances in gas-guzzling cars.”
But Toni is far from alone.
When Sarah Irving, 31, was a teenager she sat down and wrote a wish-list for the future.
Sarah Irving and Mark Hudson were adamant they would live the greenest possible lives
Most young girls dream of marriage and babies. But Sarah dreamed of helping the environment – and as she agonised over the perils of climate change, the loss of animal species and destruction of wilderness, she came to the extraordinary decision never to have a child.
“I realised then that a baby would pollute the planet – and that never having a child was the most environmentally friendly thing I could do.”
Sarah’s boyfriends have been less understanding than Toni’s, with the breakdown of several relationships.
“I’ve had boyfriends who wanted children, so I knew I couldn’t be with them long term,’ says Sarah.
“I’ve had to break up with a couple of boyfriends because I didn’t think it was fair to waste their time.
“In my early 20s I had a boyfriend who I really liked, but he wanted to start a family as soon as possible.
“I was tempted to stay with him and hope he would change his mind, but I knew I couldn’t provide him with what he wanted so I walked away.”
Sarah started work for the Ethical Consumer magazine, and seven years ago she met her fiancÈ Mark Hudson, a 37-year- old health- care worker.
When they started dating in 2003, they immediately discussed their views on children.
“To my relief, Mark was as adamant as me that he didn’t want a family. After a year of dating, we started talking about sterilisation,” says Sarah.
“I didn’t want to have an ‘accident’ if contraception didn’t work – we would be faced with the dilemma of whether to keep the baby.”
While other young couples sit down and discuss mortgages, Sarah and Mark discussed the medical options for one or the other to be sterilised.
“We realised it was a much more straightforward procedure, safer and easier, for a man to be sterilised through a vasectomy than a woman to be sterilised,” says Sarah.
“In January 2005, Mark had a vasectomy and we both felt incredibly relieved there was no chance of us having a baby.”
Ironically, the couple who have decided to deny themselves children for the sake of the planet, actively enjoy the company of young children.
Sarah says: “We both have nieces who we love dearly and I consider myself a caring, nurturing person.
“My sister recently had a little girl, and that has taken the pressure off me because my parents wanted to be grandparents.
“At first, they were surprised by my decision, but they have never criticised us.
“I’d never dream of preaching to others about having a family. It’s a very personal choice. What I do like to do is make people aware of the facts.
“When I see a mother with a large family, I don’t resent her, but I do hope she’s thought through the implications.”
Mark adds: “Sarah and I live as green a life a possible. We don’t have a car, cycle everywhere instead, and we never fly.
“We recycle, use low-energy light bulbs and eat only organic, locally produced food.
“In short, we do everything we can to reduce our carbon footprint. But all this would be undone if we had a child.
“That’s why I had a vasectomy. It would be morally wrong for me to add to climate change and the destruction of Earth.
“Sarah and I don’t need children to feel complete. What makes us happy is knowing that we are doing our bit to save our precious planet.”