Halliday Sutherland

"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.

A double standard

On Monday, 17th February 2020, British media reported the resignation of Mr Andrew Sabisky, an adviser to the British government. Newspaper reports, such as this one in The Guardian, attributed the resignation to his “past writings on genetics” as well as his views on race and eugenics.

Tuesday, 17th March 2020 will mark the 99th anniversary of Dr Marie Stopes’ Holloway birth control clinic opening its doors to the public for the first time.

If you compare the views on race and eugenics attributed to Mr Sabisky with those of Dr Stopes, he appears to be the more moderate of the two… by a long way! Yet, while Mr Sabisky was condemned, Dr Stopes is celebrated and even, according to this report in The Guardian, “deserves to be called a Great Briton.”

According to this article in The Guardian, Sabisky wrote:

“One way to get around the problems of unplanned pregnancies, creating a permanent underclass would be to legally enforce universal uptake of long-term contraception [at] the onset of puberty… Vaccination laws give it a precedent, I would argue.”

“Calls for Tory aide to be sacked over ‘enforced contraception’ remarks”. The Guardian, 16th February 2020.

Another article asserted that, in a book review, Sabisky:

“… argued that benefit claimants ‘tend to be less conscientious and agreeable’ and should be encouraged to have fewer children than people in work with more ‘pro-social personalities'”.

“Boris Johnson adviser quits over race and eugenics controversy”. The Guardian, 17th February 2020.

Dr Stopes was more forthright. In the case she brought against Dr Halliday Sutherland in 1923, she testified that her aim was:

“… 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.”

The Trial of Marie Stopes, Muriel Box (editor) Femina Books, 1968, page 76.

Outside the Court, Dr Stopes’ language was at best unscientific (especially for a scientist!) and, at worst, downright nasty. For example, in her book Radiant Motherhood, she described poor and working class people as “inferior, depraved and feeble-minded” and their children as “low grade mental deficients, the spawn of drunkards” (John Bull magazine, 2nd February 1924, page 13). She campaigned for laws to compulsorily sterilise those she considered inferior, and urged the use of untested and dangerous methods to achieve her ends, such as the Gold Spring contraceptive — described by one expert in the 1923 trial as “a barbarous instrument” — and the use of X-Rays to sterilise people.

So why is it that Mr Sabisky is condemned while Dr Stopes is celebrated?

I can understand that the views attributed to Mr Sabisky are less acceptable today than they were back in the 1920s, and that sometimes the excuse is made that in Stopes’ time, everyone was a eugenicist. Yet it does not explain the difference. The reactions that your contemporaries have to your views are a measure of how commonly those views are held, not whether they are inherently right (or wrong). Stopes’ views were not a passing phase, but ones she held for all of her life until her death in 1958, even after eugenics became, shall we say, less fashionable after 1945. Further, it simply isn’t correct to say that everyone was a eugenicist back then, as regular readers of this site will know.

There are those who say that they both acclaim Stopes (for making contraceptives widely available to poor and working class women) while they condemn her eugenic beliefs. Leaving aside the fact that the two are inseparable (as they would discover if they did some research), can we presume that these people will support Mr Sabisky’s continued employment with the British government while condemining the views attributed to him?

We will have to wait for 17th March 2020 to find out. Will The Guardian (and other newspapers) mark the 99th anniversary of the Holloway Mothers’ Clinic by condemning it as a eugenic project, which was part of a wider plan “get rid” of the poor? Will it condemn Dr Stopes’ views on eugenics and race? Will it celebrate Dr Halliday Sutherland’s brave stand against eugenics in Britain? Or, as a minimum, will it explain the double standard?

17th March 1921 and 17th February 2020.* What a difference one month makes… give or take 99 years!

Mark H. Sutherland, Curator, hallidaysutherland.com and author of Exterminating Poverty: The incredible true story of the eugenic plan to get rid of the poor, and the Scottish doctor who fought against it (in conjunction with Neil Sutherland).

* Amended on 20/12/22, before which it read: “17th February and 17th March 2020”.

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This entry was posted on 20 February 2020 by in "Exterminating Poverty" Book, Eugenics, Opposition to eugenics, Stopes v Sutherland.

Stopes v Sutherland libel trial 1922-24

Centenary of the Court of Appeal's judgment7 July 2023
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