Tuberculosis pioneer. Best-selling author. Convert to Catholicism. Enemy of eugenics, and eugenicists.
“After the book [Married Love] came out, one Roman Catholic doctor accused Stopes of using poor women as lab rats for birth control experiments, and Stopes was engaged in a long libel trial, which only boosted book sales and her presence as a public figure.”
Here are my comments:
Little information is provided about the doctor. No name, just a profession and a religion. The doctor was, of course, Dr Halliday Sutherland.
The designation “Roman Catholic doctor” suggests that the doctor’s primary, and probably only, motivation was religious. This is not correct. While Sutherland’s Catholicism did play an important part in his life, it was a supporting role. The reason that Sutherland opposed Stopes’ clinic was because it was a eugenic project.
The evidence that Catholicism played a supporting role is that Sutherland’s opposition to eugenics began at least seven years before he became a Catholic. At the time, he was a Presbyterian in name and possibly an atheist in belief. He was a recognised expert in tuberculosis, a disease that killed and disabled around 220,000 people each year in Britain at that time.
While doctors focussed on infection and environment, eugenic “scientists” focussed on heredity. A leading eugenist, Karl Pearson (Professor of Eugenics at London University and Fellow of the Royal Society), suggested an alternative to the medical cure: breed out the poor.
Pearson mocked the doctors treating tuberculosis as unscientific. He asserted that the disease was a primarily a hereditary condition. Observing that:
“the bulk of the tuberculous belong to stocks which we want ab initio to discourage”
he proposed this “solution”
“everything which tends to check the multiplication of the unfit, to emphasize that the fertility of the physically and mentally healthy, will pro tanto aid Nature’s method of reducing the phthisical death-rate” [Note: phthisis = pulmonary tuberculosis]
Given that doctors try to heal the sick and save lives, it’s not difficult to see why a doctor might object to the suggestion that a cure be effected through “Nature’s method”. In 1912, Sutherland refuted Pearson’s assertions in relation to tuberculosis in the British Medical Journal.
In 1917, he gave a speech about tuberculosis in which he singled out eugenists as a major obstacle to the cure of the disease. He described them as “race breeders with the souls of cattle breeders”.
As historian Ann Farmer has argued, it is likely that Sutherland was drawn to Catholicism because of its opposition to eugenics, rather than he opposed eugenics because of his Catholicism.
Wirth’s statement that Sutherland’s criticism occurred after the publication of Married Love is correct. The coupling of these events though suggests that the one led to the other. This is not correct.
Some of the many things that happened between the publication of Married Love and Sutherland’s “accusation” (I’ll get to that later) are shown below. I would suggest that these might indicate why Stopes and Sutherland clashed.
September—Sutherland gives a speech Consumption: Its Cause and Cure on 4th September 1917, in which he speaks out against eugenics. He said “that in preventing disease you are not preserving the weak, but conserving the strong”.
March—Married Love by Marie Stopes published in March 1918. The book makes Stopes nationally famous.
October—Stopes speaks at the National Birth Rate Commission on 28th October. She urges the compulsory sterilisation of people who are:
“hopelessly bad cases, bad through inherent disease, or drunkenness or character”.
Inherent disease means would likely have included tuberculosis, a disease in which Dr. Sutherland was a recognised expert. There is a transcript of the proceedings of the Commission here (the quote above is shown on page 133).
Sutherland became a Catholic.
August—Stopes’ book Radiant Motherhood published on 9th August. All of her books contained eugenic aspects, and this one was the most explicitly eugenic of them all. In Chapter 20, she described people she considered unfit for parenthood as “parasites” and urged Parliament to pass laws for the compulsory sterilisation of:
“wastrels, the diseased…the miserable [and] the criminal”.
September—According to biographer June Rose, Stopes sent a copy of her new book Radiant Motherhood and a copy of Married Love to Frances Stevenson, secretary to then Prime Minister Lloyd George on 30th September. According to Rose:
“In the new book, she drew attention to the chapter on eugenics and commented on the tens of thousands of ‘stunted, warped and inferior infants, who would invariably drain the resources of those with a sense of responsibility,’ knowing that Lloyd George was privately sympathetic to the eugenists arguments. ‘I hope so much you get Mr George to read the books and get him to realize that they can do an immense deal to help him to get this country fit for heroes to live in, and bring along the crop of actual heroes too.'”
November—Wise Parenthood, a “practical sequel to Married Love” is published on 18th November 1920.
Stopes becomes a Life Fellow of the Eugenics Education Society (she had joined in 1912).
March—Stopes’ birth control clinic opened in a poor part of London on 17th March 1921. From here, advice about contraception was given, free of charge, to married women and the “Pro-Race” brand cervical cap was supplied and fitted at cost.
July—At a meeting of the Medico-Legal Society on 7th July, Anne Louise McIlroy, the first female Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the Royal Free Hospital described the cervical cap dispensed at Stopes’ Mothers’ Clinic as:
“the most harmful method of which I have had experience”
Sutherland listen to McIlroy’s talk, and following the meeting, he wrote Birth Control in which he wrote the remarks that were to lead to a writ for libel from Stopes.
August—The inaugural meeting of the Society for Constructive Birth Control and Racial Progress was held. The society was established by Stopes to support the Mothers’ Clinic.
Sutherland’s book “Birth Control: A Statement of Christian Doctrine Against the Neo-Malthusians” was published. In the part of the book that concerned Stopes’ clinic, he argued that eugenics would lead to the further impoverishment and exploitation of the poorer classes:
“…if children are to be denied to the poor as a privilege of the rich, then it would be easy to exploit the women of the poorer classes. If women have no young children why should they be exempt from the economic pressure applied to men?”
“The English poor have already lost even the meaning of the word “property,” and if the birth controllers had their way the meaning of the word “home” would soon follow. The aim of birth control is generally masked by falsehood, but the urging of this policy on the poor points unmistakenly to the Servile State.”
The “Servile State”, a concept that Sutherland borrowed from Hilaire Belloc, was a state in which the poor were legally prevented from having children and had no societal role other than to work.
Stopes received an advance copy. Following publication, her husband Humphrey Roe wrote to Sutherland challenging him to a debate. One month later, when no reply had been received from Sutherland, Stopes issued a writ for libel.
November—Stoped lobbies parliamentary candidates for the upcoming national election. She sends them a letter and asks them to sign a declaration that:
“I agree that the present position of breeding chiefly from the C3 population and burdening and discouraging the A1 is nationally deplorable, and if I am elected to Parliament I will press the Ministry of Health to give such scientific information through the Ante-natal Clinics, Welfare Centres and other institutions in its control as will curtail the C3 and increase the A1”. [Note: “C3” and “A1” was the military jargon used at the time to describe the suitability of recruits presenting themselves to recruitment offices. A1 were the best; C3 were the worst and unfit for military service. It came into popular use at the turn of the 20th Century]
According to Stopes’ biographer, June Rose: “she received 150 replies” adding “by no means all of them approved of the ‘selective breeding’ she proposed”.
February—On 21 February 2021, the Stopes v. Sutherland “Birth Control Libel Trial” opens in the High Court. On the second day, under oath, Stopes explained that the clinic aimed to achieve a:
“reduction of the birth rate at the wrong part and increase of the birth rate at the right end of the social scale”
A few moments later, she said:
“The object of the Society [the Society of Constructive Birth Control and Racial Progress] 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 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.”
At the conclusion of the case, the judge found for Sutherland and his co-defendant (his publisher). In other words, they won.
No doubt other things could have been included in this timeline and, it should be recognised that the actors did not have had perfect knowledge as to what their contemporaries were up to. That said, it does show that:
A conflict was by no means inevitable. Sutherland’s book Birth Control’s only sold a few hundred copies and, Stopes, who was after all a national celebrity, might have ignored him.
When an action for libel is brought, the case focusses on the words that are considered to be defamatory. This is an important point because the words that may have stung may not give rise to a legal action.
Anyway the point is that the words at the centre of the Stopes v. Sutherland case provide only the legal part of the picture. They were:
Exposing the Poor to Experiment…
“…In the midst of a London slum a woman, who is a doctor of German philosophy (Munich), has opened a Birth Control Clinic, where working women are instructed in a method of contraception described by Professor McIlroy as ‘The most harmful method of which I have had experience’. When we remember that millions are being spent by the Ministry of Health and by Local Authorities – on pure milk for necessitous expectant and nursing mothers, on Maternity Clinics to guard the health of mothers before and after childbirth, for the provision of skilled midwives, and on Infant Welfare Centres – it is truly amazing that this monstrous campaign of birth control should be tolerated by the Home Secretary. Charles Bradlaugh was condemned to jail for a less serious crime.”
And from these words, Jennifer Wirth concludes that Sutherland “accused Stopes of using poor women as lab rats for birth control experiments.”
When cross-examined during the Stopes v. Sutherland libel trial, Dr. Sutherland said that he:
“…did not mean experiments, if you mean by experiments, a surgical experiment”
and later explained that he believed that Stopes work was a social experiment:
“The distribution of this knowledge and these contraceptives among the poor is an attempt to redistribute the birth rate. I say that this is a social experiment, and I think it is a harmful one.”
Now I understand if you read that and thought “well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?” Fair enough, you are entitled to your view. In reply, I would ask for evidence is to support the assertion that Sutherland had “accused Stopes of using poor women as lab rats for birth control experiments”? It is a powerful metaphor and provides great copy, but is nonetheless false.
My opinion is that “experiment” was the insult de jour at the beginning of the Twentieth Century.
For instance, when criticising doctors in Tuberculosis, Heredity and Environment in 1912, Karl Pearson criticised doctors on the basis that their work to treat and cure tuberculosis was an experiment:
“I have no hesitation in asserting that every one of them must be wrong morally…for this simple reason, that they were propounded and widely taught without adequate investigation of the facts. Being right is no excuse whatever for holding an opinion which has not been based on any adequate consideration of the facts involved in it. Admit that sanatorium treatment is purely experimental, admit that dispensaries are another experiment, and that tuberculin is still another and perhaps more hazardous one, and there is nothing more to be said than the words: ‘Experiment, but record your observations in such manner that the trained mind can ultimately measure their bearing on human welfare.’ But experiment on human beings is held in itself to be reprehensible. This does not mean that it is not being made day by day; it means simply that it is screened, and the experimental treatment is described as the most efficient and certain cure for human ills. Such description not only disguises its experimental character, but often hides its true nature from the experimenter, who forgets the necessity for adequate records to test the value of his work. That has been largely the case in the modern treatment of phthisis.” (emphasis added) Note: “Phthisis” means pulmonary tuberculosis or a similar wasting disease.
Pearson did well, clocking up seven uses of word “experiment” or its derivatives in a single paragraph (eight if you include the reference to “one”).
My point is this: Sutherland intended his book to be controversial, and to describe someone’s project as an “experiment” was not new. Stating that Sutherland “accused Stopes of using poor women as lab rats for birth control experiments” exaggerates what he wrote by a country mile.
Wirth does recognise that Stopes was a strong supporter of eugenics, but explains it away with: “there were few sex researchers in the early 1900s that didn’t support eugenics in one form or another, and her work still nudged the doors of sexual liberation open”.
The popularity of a view affects the ease with which you can hold and express it. It does not reflect on the ethical or moral standing of the view. And while Wirth can argue that “her work still nudged the doors of sexual liberation open” consider this: had Stopes got her way, her program would have entailed more than mere “liberation”, including laws for the compulsory sterilisation of the lower classes and for “selective breeding” and possibly even the “Servile State”.
If Stopes gets recognition from the author for nudging “the doors of sexual liberation open”, surely some credit should go to those who prevented the full negative eugenic program that lay behind the push. That list of names would include Dr Halliday Sutherland among others.
The distorted “Roman Catholic doctor” story has been repeated, as has the “feminist pioneer against a religious patriarch” trope. I suspect that it will not be for the last time.
I am a grandson of Dr Sutherland and I started hallidaysutherland.com because I became fed up with the false information that has been written about him. I think that instead of being vilified as a religious patriarch, his opposition to eugenics should be recognised. Remember that in his era eugenics was popular among influential and powerful people. Opposing them took courage, particularly when facing an action for libel in the High Court.
Of course, the author is free to write as she likes. She isn’t obliged to mention Dr Sutherland by name, nor to provide any information other than the information she gave in her article. On the other hand, I am free to write my commentary and I did want to enlighten the author about Dr Sutherland. If the author would like evidence for any of the assertions I have made above, I would be happy to provide it.
Thanks to pexels.com for the use of the picture of a cave in France. I chose the picture because I feel that the story of Halliday Sutherland has been calcified. As mineral deposits build up, they cover and distort the underlying shape to the point of making it unrecognisable. Sometimes this creates something beautiful like the cave at the beginning of the article. And sometimes, as in this story of a “Roman Catholic doctor,” not.