"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.
Dr Marie Stopes is a key figure in the foundation myth of the British birth-control movement. The established narrative of a woman acting selflessly to give her poorer sisters reproductive rights has, in recent years, been undermined as her eugenic beliefs and advocacy of compulsory sterilisation have come to light. On the 99th anniversary of the Mothers’ Clinic opening its doors for the first time, Mark Sutherland comments on the efforts made to preserve her legacy.
I hadn’t planned to write this article so soon after the last one (Burying Galton to save Eugenics). What prompted this article was, firstly, a Coronavirus-related cancellation that gave me more time to write and, secondly, my reading the excerpts from the book Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in 11 Fights, published last month.
Difficult Women was written by Helen Lewis and has received good reviews, including descriptions that it is a fascinating and engaging book. My intent in this article is not to review the book per se, but to comment on some of the issues it raises as they relate to Dr. Halliday Sutherland and the Stopes v Sutherland libel trial of 1923.
“In 1923 [Stopes] brought a libel case against an obscure Catholic doctor who accused her of obscenity, and the resulting publicity saw birth control mentioned in the same newspapers which had refused to take adverts for her clinics.”Difficult Women: A history of Feminism in 11 Fights by Helen Lewis.
Contrary to what Lewis wrote, Dr. Halliday Sutherland well-known in his field, tuberculosis, and was the creator Britain’s first public health cinema film and had contributed to and edited a book on the disease by international experts. He was not as famous as Stopes, but “obscure” is an exaggeration. Moreover, ten years after the trial that he became internationally famous as a writer with the publication of his best-selling book, Arches of the Years.
The phrase “who accused her of obscenity” uses the lazy shorthand that has been used to misrepresent the dispute between Stopes and Sutherland since the trial itself. Indeed, it was Stopes’ barrister, Patrick Hastings K.C., who in his opening speech in the trial on 21st February 1923, said that Sutherland had described Married Love “as a criminal and obscene publication.” The assertion was immediately challenged by Ernst Charles K.C. (Sutherland’s barrister) and, while Mr Charles was right, it nonetheless stuck.
For the record, in Birth Control: A Statement of Christian Doctrine Against the Neo-Malthusians Dr Sutherland wrote:
“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 — all for the single purpose of bringing healthy children into our midst, 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.”Birth Control: A Statement of Christian Doctrine Against the Neo-Malthusians by Dr Halliday Sutherland.
There are two parts: the first is that efforts “to bring healthy children into our midst” were being thwarted. The second was that “Charles Bradlaugh was condemned to jail for a less serious crime.” Charles Bradlaugh was imprisoned for criminal obscenity when he reprinted The Fruits of Philosophy (a Malthusian tract) though he was later released when the charges were dismissed.
In the Stopes v Sutherland libel trial, Sutherland used a defence known as “Justification” (sometimes know as the defence of “truth”). The law at the time was that:
“No action will lie for the publication of a defamatory statement if the defendant pleads and proves that it is true. For the law will not permit a man to recover damages in respect of an injury to a character which he either does not or ought not to possess.Salmond, J. W. (1916). The Law of Torts: A Treatise on the English Law of Liability for Civil Injuries (Fourth ed.). Temple Bar: Stevens and Haynes. Page 464.
During the trial, the defence argued, successfully, that the crime Bradlaugh had committed (in relation to criminal obscenity and for which he had been jailed) was less serious than what Stopes had done. While this level of detail is not appropriate for Lewis’s book, her summary should nonetheless have been accurate.
Why writers continue to use this hackneyed shorthand, I don’t know. Perhaps it has been repeated so often that they believe it is true. I suspect, however, that the reason might have once been something to do with framing of Stopes as a birth control educator, Sutherland as a Catholic patriarch, and suggesting that obscenity was being used to shut her down. As a battle for the “hearts and minds” of public opinion, it works. What’s more, it excludes the aspects of Sutherland’s arguments opposing the exploitation of the poor and eugenics which, were they better known, would be very damaging to Stopes and her fellow eugenicists:
“If, instead of bearing children, women practice birth control, and if children are to be denied to the poor as a privilege of the rich, then it would be very easy to exploit the women of the poorer classes. If women have no young children why should not be exempt from the economic pressure that is applied to men? And indeed, where birth control is practised women tend more and more to supplant men, especially in ill-paid grades of work. One of the birth controllers has suggested that young couples, who otherwise could not afford to marry, should marry but have no children, and thus continue to work at their respective employments during the day. As the girl would have little time for cooking and other domestic duties, this immoralist is practically is subverting the very idea of a home. 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 artificial control is generally masked by falsehood, but the urging of this policy on the poor points unmistakably to the to the Servile State.”Birth Control: A Statement of Christian Doctrine Against the Neo-Malthusians by Dr Halliday Sutherland.
“In a more paternalistic age, the idea that other people’s fertility was the business of an educated elite was seen as a respectable position. There was also a certain naïvety about where such ideas would lead before the 1930s, when it became clear that Nazi Germany was sterilising those with learning difficulties, epileptics, schizophrenics, gay men, lesbians and other ‘degenerates’ as part of an Aryan ‘master race’. The regime copied the sterilisation programme from a similar initiative in California.”Difficult Women: A history of Feminism in 11 Fights by Helen Lewis.
While no doubt there were those who were naïve (including, incredibly, the authors of Die Freigabe der Vernichtung Lebensunwerten Lebens (Allowing the Destruction of Life Unworthy of Life)), there were many who were not. These included Sir James Barr, the vice-President of the CBC who testified for Stopes on the first day of the libel trial, and Dr. Norman Haire the doctor who ran the Malthusian Leagues’ birth control clinic in Walworth.
In 1918, Barr made a speech on The Future of the Medical Profession in which he said that tuberculosis “forms a rough, but on the whole very serviceable check, on the survival and propagation of the unfit,” and that its disappearance “would be nothing short of a national calamity.” In 1925, Haire advocated infanticide saying that it “… must come to be practiced on those who at birth are obviously below a (variable) minimum standard…” These men were not speaking in abstract terms. As doctors, they would have been acquainted with death, and both identified sentimentalism as the chief obstacle to their aims. Neither Barr nor Haire were naïve as to where their ideas would lead, given they explicitly refer to the death of defectives as a desirable goal and, indeed, the naïve people are those who think that these ideas required the advent of Nazism to indicate that such ideas are evil.
If you accept Lewis’s statement as true, you accept that naïvety ended shortly after the war ended. Yet Lewis doesn’t offer any excuses for Stopes’ lifelong enthusiasm for eugenics up to the date of her death in 1958.
“The biggest blight on her [ie. Stopes’] legacy was her interest in eugenics.”Difficult Women: A history of Feminism in 11 Fights by Helen Lewis.
Stopes’ eugenic beliefs were not adjacent to her birth-control agenda, they were central to it. Eugenics was not merely an interest of the person who set up the Mothers’ Clinic, it was in the mission statement of the Clinic itself. The evidence includes the brand of contraceptives, the Tenets of the CBC which stated her aims and beliefs, Stopes’ testimony to the High Court, her public pronouncements and the logo of the Clinic:
Lewis quotes one of the foremost experts of Dr Marie Stopes, Lesley Hall:
“As a researcher, Lesley Hall does not acquit Stopes of the charge of being a eugenicist — and does not feel the need to do so, in order to find her worth studying. But she does place Stopes within the context of her time, when families of ten or more were crammed into a couple of rooms. “Movements to control reproduction do fall into two halves,” she told me. “One is people who are telling other people you should wither be having more babies of the right kind, or we should be stopping those people having babies… [The other is] people who are trying to empower people to have the children they want, in the numbers they want. And Marie is on that side.””Difficult Women: A history of Feminism in 11 Fights by Helen Lewis.
This surprised me because Stopes was not “on that side” (i.e. trying to empower people to have the children they want, in the numbers they want). At best, and it is stretching the facts, she was on both sides: for instance items 1 to 8 of the Tenets of the CBC place her in the former category while tenets 9 to 11 (specifying that certain people should be “prevented from procreating children at all”) place her in the latter, as does her reference to the children of the poor “the spawn of drunkards” and the other hateful terms with which she referred to those she considered inferior.
In Radiant Motherhood Stopes’ urged Parliament to pass laws for the compulsorily sterilisation of a wide range of people including “the miserable” and “parasites” and she sent the book to the private secretary of Prime Minister Lloyd George urging her to get him to read the book. Just in case there is any doubt: compulsory sterilisation is not empowerment, it is disempowerment.
“[Stopes] was at ease with casual anti-Semitism… “Difficult Women: A history of Feminism in 11 Fights by Helen Lewis.
Before dealing with the specific issues, I would like to make a more general point: in my experience, it is common for writers about Stopes to make a big damaging allegation and then provide the weakest evidence to back it up, which serves the purpose of undermining the allegation. It’s like saying “X was the most evil person who ever walked the earth… when he was five years old, he stole sweets from a supermarket.”
The ‘set piece’ used by other writers (though not Lewis) to support Stopes’ anti-semitism, is a piece of unpublished doggerel that she wrote in 1942:
“Catholics, Prussians,Marie Stopes and the Sexual Revolution by June Rose. Page 219.
The Jews and the Russians,
All are a curse,
Or something worse.”
An interview published in The Independent gave another example of Stopes’ anti-Semitism:
“During the Second World War, for example, friends whom [Stopes] invited to lunch, asked if they could bring along a child they were caring for — a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany. Dr Stopes responded: certainly not; it would offend her other guests.”The monster and the master race: She altered women’s lives for ever. But a new book reveals that Marie Stopes’s motives were distinctly dubious by Cal McCrystal. The Independent 23 August 1992.
This evidence did not make it into Rose’s book; according to the article, it was “too distasteful”. It is hardly “casual anti-Semitism” for not only was Stopes inconveniencing and offending her friends, but she didn’t even bother to disguise the reason that a Jewish refugee would not be welcome in her house. It would be interesting to know the identities of “her other guests” who would have been offended.
“… and sent a volume of her poetry to Hitler in 1939 with a fawning cover letter saying ‘love is the greatest thing in the world’.”Difficult Women: A history of Feminism in 11 Fights by Helen Lewis.
Like an old car in the garage that needs to be driven from time to time to keep it running, Stopes’ biographers reprise her letter to Hitler. Lewis follows this form. Dated 12th August 1939, Stopes’ letter read:
“Dear Herr Hitler,Marie Stopes and the Sexual Revolution by June Rose. Page 219.
“Love is the greatest thing in the world: so will you accept from me these Love Songs for Young Lovers that you may allow the young people of your nation to have them?
“The young must learn love from the particular ‘till they are wise enough for the universal.
“I hope too that you yourself may find something to enjoy in the book.”
On the grounds that within one month of the letter, Germany and Britain were at war, it was a bad gaffe. As evidence that Stopes supported Nazism — as some critics of Stopes have presented it — it is a non-starter.
Of more interest, though, is the reason why Stopes wrote to Hitler at all. One possibility is that she acted on her own initiative, and wanted to promote Love Songs, albeit five months after its publication and to a man who had, shall we say, other priorities.
Interestingly, Mollie Hiscox, the girlfriend of British Union of Fascists street fighter Richard “Jock” Houston, wrote a similarly vacuous letter to Hitler on 31st August 1939. It read:
“As an Englishwoman who was very often in Germany, I wish you to know that I have unlimited trust in you.”The Red Book: The Membership List of the Right Club (2010) edited and introduced by Robin Saikia, Foxley Books. Page 12.
Given both letters are content free, one can presume that the medium was the message, and the message was one of support. It would be interesting to know who or what influenced Stopes and Hiscox to write at that time, whether any other letters of this kind exist and, if so, who wrote them.
“What they [Stopes and Sanger] believed has nothing to do with the modern reproductive justice movement. The organisation which now bears Marie’s name was founded in 1976, after her own clinics folded a year earlier.”Difficult Women: A history of Feminism in 11 Fights by Helen Lewis.
I don’t know about Sanger, but in relation to Stopes, there are many points I could raise but in the interests of space, I would direct the reader to the penultimate chapter of my book: 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). In it, I describe how Stopes bequeathed her Whitfield Street clinic to the Eugenics Society in 1958 and how, in 1960, the Society adopted a policy of crypto-eugenics. In case this sounds like a crazy conspiracy theory, I would point out that the source of my information is staid and solid: The Eugenics Review (September 1968 , pages 142-161. Activities of the Eugenics Society by Faith Schenk and A.S. Parkes).
To cut a long story short, compare an excerpt from The Task of Social Hygiene (1912) by Havelock Ellis with the story of Dr Tim Black published on MSI’s website. Firstly, The Task of Social Hygiene (1912):
“The superficially sympathetic man flings a coin to the beggar; the more deeply sympathetic man builds an alms-house for him so that he need no longer beg; but perhaps the most radically sympathetic of all is the man who arranges that the beggar shall not be born.”The Task of Social Hygiene (1912). Havelock Ellis. Page 401.
Now read the story of how Dr Tim Black became a population controller:
“In the late 1960s, Tim Black was working as a district health officer in the Sepik district of New Guinea, and it was around that time that he began to reassess his focus on trying to cure or save lives as a matter of course. After saving the life of a three-month old girl, he was shocked that her widowed mother — who already had five children and no steady income — didn’t want her to survive.
“‘My shock was absolute. My immediate reaction was one of utter indignation. The gulf separating my life experience and that of this poor woman was complete. She had wanted the baby to die — not live — during the operation.
“‘I suddenly realised that I had presented her, not only with her baby, but with another mouth to feed, another dependent human being to whom she could offer nothing: no father, no education, no future.
“‘It was at that point that I began to realise that preventing a birth could be as important as saving a life.’”See: https://www.mariestopes.org/about-us/our-history/
It is clear that Dr Black was indeed one of the “radically sympathetic” men envisaged by Ellis in 1912, and he founded MSI to spread the radical sympathy around the world by providing contraception, sterilisation and abortion services in 37 countries.
“Modern reproductive justice movement” sounds like something we would all like to get behind… its modern… and it achieves justice. In contrast to this sophistry, the reality is that each year MSI facilitate millions of abortions (4.8 million in 2018  and 4.6 million in 2019 ).
Nothing to do with the modern reproductive justice movement? Or continuing and expanding Stopes’ and Sanger’s work on an industrial scale across the world?
Lewis ends the section on Stopes with these words:
At this point I am in agreement with Lewis. On the other hand though, if she really did believe that, why does she continue the careful curation of Stopes’ image that has persisted over the last 99 years or so, including downplaying Stopes’ eugenic beliefs as “a blight on her legacy”?
I can understand that a great deal has been invested in the Stopes name and the attachment that people have to the foundation story of the British birth control movement. All that said, though, it should be a true account. The obfuscation, concealment and downplaying of Stopes’ eugenic motives continues to this day, despite the evidence provided by Stopes herself.
Why does it continue? Why do the modern disciples refuse to acknowledge the evidence? Why do they use the outdated playbook, repeating the old hackneyed, trivial stories when they are well beyond their use-by date?
It is remarkable that these efforts persist, particularly when so much effort is being made to uncover the racism of historic figures. Stopes’ eugenic views were the epitome of Scientific Racism; her aims discriminatory and the language she used to describe those she considered defective downright nasty.
My last article on this site explained how Galton and Pearson were being buried so that eugenics could be saved. In the case of Stopes, it would appear that it is Eugenics that is being buried so that her legacy can be saved.
Though why this is the case is beyond me.
Curator, hallidaysutherland.com and exterminatingpoverty.com
 “Providing access to safe abortion and post-abortion care is at the core of our mission. In 2018, MSI provided more than 4.8 million services to women and girls who turned to us for safe abortion and post-abortion care services.” Source: https://www.msichoices.org/resources/financial-statement-and-annual-report-2018/ (viewed on 11 January 2020) pages 14 and 50.
 Source: https://www.msichoices.org/resources/financial-statements-and-annual-report-2019/ (viewed on 11 January 2020) pages 16 and 18. The target for
[This article was updated on 11 January 2021].