"A born writer, especially a born story-teller. Dr. Sutherland, who is distinguished in medicine, is an amateur in the sense that he only writes when he has nothing better to do. But when he does, it could hardly be done better." G.K. Chesterton.
Let’s start with a recap on Malthusian ideas:
Malthus believed that without direct checks on the poor, such as famine, disease, and war, population growth would outstrip food supplies. His ideas inspired the creation of the fearsome workhouses that segregated poor families along gender lines to prevent the birth of more children.∗
Halliday Sutherland’s book Birth Control: A Statement of Christian Doctrine against the Neo-Malthusians was published in 1921. From the first page, Sutherland rejected Malthusianism and Neo-Malthusianism, asserting:
…that Malthusian teaching is contrary to reason and to act; that Neo-Malthusian practices are disastrous alike to nations and to individuals; and that these practices are in themselves an offence against the Law of Nature, whereby the Divine Will is expressed in creation.
Sutherland’s rejection was based on what he saw as the false logic of Malthusian ideas as well as the harm that they caused, such as it being the intellectual foundation for the inadequate British response during the Irish famines of 1845-52 (Ireland was a British colony at that time). In Birth Control, Sutherland rejected the general principle that overpopulation led to famine:
The prevalence of famines is quoted as a proof of reckless overpopulation. Now a famine may occur from several different causes, some within and others beyond the control of man, but a failure of crops has never yet been caused by pressure on the soil. On the contrary, famine is less likely to arise in a country whose soil is intensively cultivated, because intensive cultivation means a variety of crops, and therefore less risk of crops failing. Moreover, during the past century famine has occurred in Bengal, where population is dense; in Ireland, where population is moderate, and in Eastern Russia, where the population is scanty. The existence of famine is therefore no proof that a country is overpopulated, although it may indicate that a country is badly governed or under-developed. [Page 24 “Birth Control”]
On page 27, he argued that over-population was not the cause of poverty in Britain. There was sufficient injustice, incapacity and corruption to cause it.
(a) Under-development. Even if the theory of birth controllers, that a high birth-rate increases poverty, were as true as it is false, it could not possibly apply to Great Britain or to any other country open to commercial intercourse with the world; because there is no evidence that the supply of food in the world either cannot or will not be increased to meet any actual or possible demand. Within the British Empire alone there was an increase of 75 per cent. in the production of wheat between 1901 and 1911. In Great Britain there has been not only an increase of population but also an increased consumption of various foods per head of the population. Moreover, if Britain were as well cultivated as is Flanders we could produce all or nearly all of our own food.
The truth is that in countries such as England, Belgium and Bengal, usually cited by Malthusians, as illustrating the misery that results from over-population, there is no evidence whatsoever to prove that the population is pressing on the soil.
On the contrary, we find ample physical resources sufficient to support the entire population, and we also find evidence of human injustice, incapacity, and corruption to account for the poverty and misery that exist in these countries. This was especially so in Ireland during the first half of the nineteenth century. Moreover, do far from high birth-rates being the cause of poverty, we shall find that poverty is one of the causes of a high birth-rate.
Sutherland then outlined how poverty had been caused by the seizure of land and wealth during the Reformation, subsequent Acts of enclosure which transferred land to private ownership and use.
(b) Severance of the Inhabitants from the Soil. It was not a high birth-rate that established organised poverty in England. In the sixteenth century the greater part of the land, including common land belonging to the poor, was seized by the rich. They began robbing the Catholic Church, and they ended by robbing the people. Once machinery was introduced in the eighteenth century, the total wealth of England was enormously increased; but the vast majority of the people had little share in this increase of wealth that accrued from machinery, because only a small portion of the people possessed capital. More children came, but they came to conditions of poverty and of child-labour in the mills. In countries where more natural and stable social conditions exist, and where there are many small owners of land, large families, so far from being a cause of poverty, are of the greatest assistance to their parents and to themselves. There are means whereby poverty could be reduced, but artificial birth control would only increase the total poverty of the State, and therefore of the individual.
From early down to Tudor times, the majority of the inhabitants lived on small holdings. For example, in the fifteenth century there were twenty-one small holdings on a particular area measuring 160 acres. During the sixteenth century the number of holdings on this area had fallen to six, and in the seventeenth century the 160 acres became one farm. Occasionally an effort was made to check this process, and by a statute of Elizabeth penalties were enacted against building any cottages “without laying four acres of land thereto.” On the other hand, acres upon acres were given to the larger landowners by a series of Acts for the enclosure of common land, whereby many labourers were deprived of their land. From the reign of George I to that of George III nearly four thousand enclosure bills were passed. These wrongs have not been righted.
In his 1936 book Laws of Life, Sutherland revisited the theme of the causes of the Irish famine:
When Malthusians cite the Irish famines as proof of over-population, the falsity of their argument is revealed. In 1727 the population of Ireland was about two millions, and the birth rate about 50 per thousand, and the people were in abject misery. It was then that Swift, master of satire, proposed, as a remedy for the over-population or Ireland, that the English people should cultivate a taste for roasted Irish babies, and thus bring delicacies to England and prosperity to Ireland. In 1838, when the population of Ireland was about eight millions, McCulloch stated that the poverty of the Irish people was due to the density of population and that the population was more than double that which the country “with its existing means of production” could support in comfort.
Sutherland rejected the arguments that a high population and over-reliance on a single crop—the potato—was the cause of the Irish famine, pointing out that most of the food was exported:
“Even during her famine, grain and meat and butter and cheese were carted for exportation along roads lined with the starving, and past trenches into which the dead were piled.”
There is one other thing to be said. These wrongs live in the memory of the Irish people, and English Neo-Malthusians are merely prolonging the bitterness between two nations who might be friends when, in place of admitting a wrong, they seek to twist what was at best a most damnable mistake into an argument for contraceptives.
It was later in the book that Sutherland criticised the Birth Control clinic set up by Marie Stopes, an erstwhile Malthusian and an enthusiastic eugenist. It was this criticism that led to the writ for libel.
∗ From “By Their Fruits” by Ann Farmer. In the first footnote of the book, Farmer revealed that her knowledge of the workhouse was deeper than merely academic:
Malthus (1766-1834) marked the beginning of the modern population control movement (An Essay on the Principle of Population ). Workhouses existed in the eighteenth century, but the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act directed English and Welsh parishes to form a Poor Law Union with its own workhouse. Thousands were erected in the late 1830s; some were burned down in riots; they were specially designed to segregate, e.g., men, women, and children, and the infirm from the able-bodied, and this still pertained when the author’s father and brothers were separated from their mother and sisters on entering the Shoreditch workhouse in East London in the 1920s; his younger sister Joan died there aged three.
“Birth Control: A Statement of Christian Doctrine against the Neo-Malthusians” by Halliday Sutherland. Online copy available here.
“By Their Fruits: Eugenics, Population Control, and the Abortion Campaign” by Ann Farmer. The Catholic University of America Press, Washington D.C. 2008.
“Laws of Life” by Halliday Sutherland. Sheed & Ward. New York, 1936.