"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.
I read an interesting article on the site Media Diversified. It’s called Exhibition review: The white washing of Marie Stopes’ eugenicist beliefs by Dana Khalil Ahmad. As the title suggests, it was a reflection on the author’s visit to the Wellcome Collection’s ‘Institute of Sexology’ exhibition. You can read the article here.
The article caught my attention when the author expressed surprise that “The BBC’s historical figures page dedicated to Stopes does not even mention her eugenicist beliefs.” It’s something that I have raised with the BBC, because they airbrushed eugenics from their record and one of the main reasons that Sutherland criticised Stopes in his 1922 book: Birth Control. I had written to the BBC to ask that they correct the record, without avail. You can read the correspondence with the BBC here.
I added a comment on the Media Diversified site which you can read with the article, and my comments have been developed into this month’s post, shown below:
I enjoyed your post about an exhibition that I did not get to see. I was interested to read your remark that “I risk, in my critique, coming dangerously close to aligning myself with conservative critics of Stopes.”
I don’t know which critic you meant in particular, but I thought you might be interested in the story of Dr Halliday Sutherland. He criticised Stopes in his 1922 book “Birth Control”. She sued him for libel and the case opened in the High Court in 21 February 1923.
Biographers of Stopes’ invariably portray Sutherland as motivated solely by his Roman Catholic beliefs, but is this portrayal an accurate picture? I would argue not.
In 1911, Sutherland was in the forefront of the fight against tuberculosis, a disease which at that time killed and disabled around 220,000 people each year in Britain. He ran the St Marylebone Tuberculosis Clinic, edited and contributed to a book on tuberculosis, produced Britain’s first cinema public health education film and established an “open air” school for tuberculous children in a bandstand in Regent’s Park. His work took him into the slums of London, because tuberculosis was more prevalent among the urban poor than among better-off groups. [Note: In the comment, I stated that tuberculosis killed and disabled around 120,000 people in Britain in around 1911. It should have read 220,000 (50,000 killed by consumption, 20,000 by other manifestations of the disease and 150,000 disabled. Source: Consumption: Its Cause and Cure, a speech by Halliday Sutherland).]
In 1910, Karl Pearson F.R.S. and Professor of Eugenics at London University gave a speech (Nature and Nurture: The Problem of the Future) in which he said that he thought it “safe to say…that the influence of environment is not one-fifth of heredity, and quite possibly not one-tenth of it.” In other words, a person’s genes were greatly more significant in determining their personality, strengths and weaknesses, and so on.
In Tuberculosis, Heredity and Environment, a 1912 public lecture, Pearson gave withering criticism of the work of doctors. Doctors focussed on infection and the environment and, repeating that a person’s genetic inheritance was were far more influential than their environment. In doing so, doctors were addressing the insignificant factor in the cause of tuberculosis. Towards the end of the lecture, Pearson outlined the political implications of his eugenic beliefs as they related to tuberculosis:
“The large proportion of tuberculous members—occasionally the tuberculous man is a brilliant member of our race—but the bulk of the tuberculous belong to stocks which we want ab initio [from the beginning] to discourage. Everything which tends to check the multiplication of the unfit, to emphasize that the fertility of the physically and mentally healthy, will pro tanto [to that extent] aid Nature’s method of reducing the phthisical death-rate.” [Note: Emphasis added]
In other words, the cure for the disease would be achieved by checking the multiplication of “the unfit”. Sutherland rebutted Pearson’s views on the basis of science and statistics in a 1912 article in the British Medical Journal: The Soil and the Seed in Tuberculosis. By 1917, his opposition to eugenics was on moral and ethical grounds as well.
The evidence is a speech he delivered in September 1917 on Consumption: Its Cause and Cure. In it, he said that the obstacle to curing tuberculosis was not the disease itself, but the attitudes of men. He singled out eugenists, describing them as “race breeders with the souls of cattle breeders.” He mocked their doctrines: “This war has smashed their rhetorical phrase. Who talks now about survival of the fittest, or thinks himself fit because he survives?” He added that the improvement of living conditions and medical services for the urban poor was “not preserving the weak, but conserving the strong.”
Biographers of Stopes cite Sutherland’s conversion to Catholicism in 1919 as being the reason he criticised Stopes’ birth control clinic in 1922. An examination of the facts show that this is very unlikely:
Sutherland had been baptised a Presbyterian, and was an atheist by 1906. Both of the episodes above occurred well before his conversion to Catholicism. The better argument is that Sutherland—nominally a Presbyterian and an atheist in beliefs—was drawn to the Catholic Church by his distaste for eugenics, because the church had consistently opposed eugenics.
Given his background it was perhaps inevitable that, when Stopes set up her eugenic clinic in 1921, Sutherland would speak out again.
Stopes believed that contraceptives was the most effective way to check the multiplication of the unfit. She urged the Eugenics Education Society to make contraception a central part of its campaign and, when it did not, she left the organisation in 1921.
What evidence is there that the Stopes had a eugenic agenda?
Firstly, it was reflected in the name of the organisation running the clinic: The Society for Constructive Birth Control and Racial Progress.
Secondly, Stopes herself said she did. Under oath in the High Court during the Stopes v. Sutherland libel trial in 1923, she said:
“The object of the Society is, if possible, to counteract the steady evil which has been growing for a good many years of the reduction of the birth rate just on the part of the thrifty, wise, well-contented, and the generally sound members of our community, and the reckless breeding from the C.3 end, and the semi-feebleminded, the careless, who are proportionately increasing in our community because of the slowing of the birth rate at the other end of the social scale. Statistics show that every year the birth rate from the worst end of our community is increasing in proportion to the birth rate at the better end, and it was in order to try to right that grave social danger that I embarked upon this work.” [Note: C.3 was jargon used by the army at the time to designate those deemed to be physically or mentally unfit for recruitment]
Thirdly, Stopes proposed that defectives be compulsorily sterilised. For instance at the National Birth Rate Commission on Monday, 28th October 1918, she advocated sterilising “hopelessly bad cases, bad through inherent disease, or drunkenness or character.” (a copy of the Commission’s report is shown below—you can view an online copy of the report here)
Fourthly, in Chapter 20 of her book Radiant Motherhood she advocated the compulsory sterilisation of the “degenerate, feeble minded and unbalanced”. At least one biographer has downplayed what she wrote in Radiant Motherhood on the basis that it comprised only one half of a chapter in a book. Given that she sent a copy of “Radiant Motherhood” to the Prime Minister’s private secretary, had highlighted Chapter 20, and had urged the secretary to get Lloyd George to read it, this argument is weak. Surely the length of this part of the book made it more likely that it would be read. (You can read the Chapter 20 A New and Irradiated Race here).
Fifthly, when Stopes addressing the Voluntary Parenthood League, she advocated that the candidates for compulsory sterilisation were “wastrels, the diseased…the miserable [and] the criminal” (See picture below. You can read an online report of Stopes’ speech here).
I should be clear that I don’t write “eugenics” or “eugenic” in a pejorative sense. I would add that there were some positive benefits of the clinic, such as improving the health of mothers by spacing pregnancies and giving women choice. Further, it appears to have been staffed by nurses who were wedded to the idea of helping other women, rather than bringing about a eugenic utopia.
I should also state that, like many eugenists, Sutherland disapproved of contraceptives concerned at the impact that their ready availability would have on public morality.
But, all that said, the negative eugenic agenda of Stopes’ activities are undeniable.
Sutherland’s criticism of Stopes took great courage. Not only was eugenics fashionable among the Establishment, the intelligentsia and politicians, but also, at the time of the case, he was married with three children under five years old. The case threatened to ruin him, particularly were he to lose, a situation alleviated when friends set up a legal “fighting fund”.
When Stopes opened her clinic in 1921, Sutherland saw it as the practical application of eugenics here-and-now. To his, it wasn’t history. He didn’t have the luxury of time for quiet academic research and access to Stopes’ personal papers to tease out the issues.
Sutherland knew where eugenics would lead. He knew that it would involve the inhumane and unethical treatment of society’s poor. He didn’t like eugenics. He had spoken out against it before, and he spoke out against Stopes.
Writers sometimes acknowledge Stopes eugenic beliefs, and sometimes profess to deplore them (example here). Given that Dr. Sutherland also deplored her eugenic beliefs, and acted against them, one might imagine that would show greater understanding of his actions and motivations. Alas not: the imperative to disconnect Stopes and her work from the doctrine of eugenics trumps all else, so writers do not mention Sutherland’s work in fighting tuberculosis, or his earlier opposition of eugenics and eugenists.
They present him as a religious bigot—a Roman Catholic convert—trying to curry favour with his new spiritual masters.
That biographers of Stopes do this—and have consistently done so since the events of 1923—leads me to doubt their sincerity when they deplore eugenics. Either that, or because it’s not about the principle, but about which side you are on.
Next post: 1st December 2015