Tuberculosis pioneer. Best-selling author. Convert to Catholicism. Enemy of eugenics, and eugenicists.
Marie Stopes biography is an article on the Biography Online website. This article, on the other hand, is about Dr Halliday Sutherland and in it, I comment on how Dr Sutherland is depicted in the Marie Stopes Biography article.
There are three parts in particular on which I have comments to make:
“She also became very well known for her work in family planning which made her a national figure of some controversy. In 1921, she opened the UK’s first family planning clinic in Holloway, London.”
“In 1922, a Roman Catholic doctor Halliday Sutherland wrote a book Birth Control attacking Stopes for her support of the cervical cap…”
“In the 1930s, she was also involved in the Eugenics movement arguing for the forcible sterilisation of those totally unfit for parenthood…”
Here they are:
“Family planning” is presented in the modern sense which would appear to be quite innocuous to a modern reader. Men and women become educated about sex and reproduction and such like—what could be controversial about that? The modern reader is left wondering how any reasonable person could object to such a thing.
Yet it was not just about “family planning” in the modern sense. Stopes was an ardent eugenist. Having joined the Eugenics Education Society in 1912, she left in 1921 to set up her Mothers’ Clinic in Holloway. As Professor Jane Carey explained, Stopes left it because she was “annoyed that the Society refused to place birth control prominently on its platform” so she “founded her own organisations to promote eugenic birth control.”(Carey, 2012)
To be clear, I do not use the term “eugenist” in a pejorative, so much as in a factual, sense. Some of the measures in Stopes’ clinic were beneficial, such as the spacing of pregnancies to ensure a healthy mother and child. On the other hand, the location of a free clinic in a poor part of London was aimed to ensure that:
“…many men and women…should be prevented from procreating children at all, because of their individual ill-health, or the diseased and degenerate nature of the offspring that they may be expected to produce” (The Galton Institute, 1996. Page 61.)
At the time of Stopes’ clinic, knowledge of heredity and genetics was considerably less than it is today. Mendelism was not properly understood. Many conditions then considered as genetic disease, such as alcoholism and tuberculosis, are not today. While there may be a heritable element, the condition is not (as mainstream eugenists believed) primarily inherited. Further, mainstream British eugenists considered that social status was a proxy for the genetic worth of the individual, a belief which would appear ridiculous today.
Stopes’ work became controversial when she lobbied Parliament for “selective breeding” (Rose, 1993. Page 161.) and the Prime Minister for the compulsory sterilisation of those she considered as unsuited for parenthood (Rose, 1993. Page 138). At various times Stopes described these people as “parasites”; “hopelessly bad cases, bad through inherent disease, or drunkenness or character”; “wastrels, the diseased…the miserable [and] the criminal”; and “degenerate, feeble minded and unbalanced”.
When these aspects of Stopes work are explained, the true nature of the so-called “family planning” clinic becomes clear: It was established to reduce the birth rate of the lower classes. As Stopes herself put it, on the second day of the libel suit she brought against Sutherland, she aimed for:
“Not reduction in the total birth rate, but reduction of the birth rate at the wrong part and increase of the birth rate at the right end of the social scale.”
While there were those who were shocked by frank talk about sex, and who worried about the impact that the ready availability of contraceptives would have on public morality, there were aspects to Stopes’ work that even a modern reader would find disturbing. I suspect that this is the reason why these issues are not canvassed in many of the articles that discuss her work.
Stating that “Roman Catholic doctor Halliday Sutherland wrote a book Birth Control attacking Stopes for her support of the cervical cap” is a simplification. Yes, Sutherland was a “Roman Catholic” and he did attack the use of the cervical cap. That said, “Roman Catholic doctor” is a tired old trope, which I have dealt with previously, such in this article.
In Birth Control Sutherland did describe the cervical cap as:
“a method of contraception described as Professor McIlroy as “the most harmful method of which I have had experience”
But his book also attacked Stopes’ eugenic agenda, arguing that it 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.”
Sutherland borrowed the “Servile State” from Hilaire Belloc. It was a state in which the poor were prevented from having children and had no societal role other than to work.
Below I show extracts from the text of Birth Control which occur on consecutive pages. Surely anyone interested in the historical facts would have read these pages as part of their research. Yet time and again it is omitted, despite the fact that the accusation that Stopes’ work would lead to the Servile State is on the next page.
Why this is the case? My opinion is that if you support Stopes point of view and want to promote her work, a “Roman Catholic doctor” is a good opponent to have: the modern reader will view him as a crusty, unsympathetic patriarch, what modern parlance would describe as “a member of the religious right”.
Yet this is the opposite of the truth: if anything Sutherland’s attacks Stopes work came from the left. For instance when Sutherland attacked Malthusianism and Eugenics (Stopes had been a member of the Malthusian League) he wrote:
“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.” (Sutherland, 1922, Chapter 2, Section 2)
So why is Sutherland’s politically charged writing not mentioned? I suspect that it is that authors who purport to relate historical facts either do not know about it, or that they choose to ignore it.
In the latter case, I suspect that it is because Sutherland becomes a person whom many modern readers would identify with, and I would go so far as to say that the modern reader might even sympathise with Sutherland more than Stopes! Presumably that is not the intention of the hagiographer.
I have three point to make in regard to this statement. Firstly, the article gives the impression that her involvement in eugenics came some ten years after the establishment of her Mothers’ Clinic, whereas the fact is that she was involved in eugenics at least eight years beforehand. Secondly, her eugenic beliefs motivated the establishment of the Mothers’ Clinic, meaning that it was central, and not peripheral to, that project. Thirdly Stopes did not argue for the forcible sterilisation of those totally unfit for parenthood, but of those she considered totally unfit for parenthood. There is a considerable difference between the two groups because the latter category had wider scope.
On the first point, Stopes joined the Eugenics Education Society on 26th July 1912 (Searle, 1976. Pages 102 and 137.), which means that her eugenic activities preceded her birth control clinic by around ten years.
More to the point, Stopes’ eugenic views were central and gave rise to the establishment of her Mothers’ Clinic in 1921. This has been documented by the Galton Institute, the modern-day successor of the Eugenics Education Society. At its 1996 conference, Richard Soloway delivered the Galton Memorial Lecture in which he said that Stopes:
“described as one of the “bedrock” tenets of the [SCBC] as the belief “that the haphazard production of children by ignorant, coerced, or diseased mothers is profoundly detrimental to the race.” Another was the conviction that “many men and women…should be prevented from procreating children at all, because of their individual ill health, or the diseased and degenerate nature of the offspring that they may be expected to produce.” At the same time, the SCBC regretted “the relatively small families of those best fitted to care for children.” In accordance with its motto, “Babies in the right place,” it was as much an aim of the SCBC “to secure conception” to those couples, as it was “to furnish security from conception to those who are racially diseased, already overburdened with children, or in any specific way unfitted for parenthood.” (The Galton Institute, 1996, p. 61)
Thirdly her argument for forcible sterilisation applied to those she considered as totally unfit for parenthood, including:
“parasites”; “hopelessly bad cases, bad through inherent disease, or drunkenness or character”; “wastrels, the diseased…the miserable [and] the criminal”; and “degenerate, feeble minded and unbalanced”
These are by no means measured and scientifically objective terms, but the vituperative language of Edwardian class-based eugenist who wanted to eradicate the poor.
That is the extent of my comments and I hope that these corrections are as easily discoverable on the Internet as the false assertions.
Carey, J., 2012. The Racial Imperatives of Sex: Birth Control and Eugenics in Britain, the United States and Australia in the Interwar Years. Women’s History Review 21, No.5, pp. 733-752.
Rose, J., 1993. Marie Stopes and the Sexual Revolution. London: Faber and Faber Limited.
Searle, G., 1976. Eugenics and Politics in Britain 1900-1914. Leyden: Noordhoff Inernational Publishing.
Sutherland, H., 1922. Birth Control: An Statement of Christian Doctrine Against the Neo-Malthusians. London: Harding and More.
The Galton Institute, 1996. The Galton Lecture 1996: Marie Stopes, Eugenics and the Birth Control Movement by Richard A. Soloway. London, The Galton Institute (formerly the Eugenics Society), p. 113.