"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.
“If a wave of madness passed over our country, and this eugenic nightmare came true… ““Birth Control Exposed” (1925) by Dr Halliday Sutherland.
Dr Halliday Sutherland’s words reveal that, when he wrote them in 1925, the eugenic question of his era had not been resolved. In this article, one aspect of that nightmare is examined namely, the campaign for eugenic sterelization.
As the 1920s wore on, eugenists believed that Britain faced some bleak choices in the near future, such as those expressed in this letter to the Eugenics Review:
If Professor E. W. MacBride be correct — and there can be none familiar with the facts who would differ from him — that unless the birth rate of the mentally defective be restricted, ‘the British Nation as a virile people, is doomed,’ it appears probable that politicians and people will both have to face all three — Sterilization, Segregation, and the Lethal Chamber.Richard J.A. Berry MD FRCS FRSE. Letter to the Eugenics Review July 1930.
In 1928, the Eugenics Society published its first draft of a sterilization bill. The following year it established a Committee for Legalising Eugenic Sterelization and in July 1931, one of the committee members rose in the House of Commons to propose a bill “to enable mental defectives to undergo sterilizing operations or sterilizing treatment upon their own application, or that of their spouses or parents or guardians.”
The proposer was a Labour MP, Major Archibald Church, who admitted that the measure was “… in advance of public opinion” and if adopted, it would be “merely a first step… before bringing in a Bill for the compulsory sterilization of the unfit.”
Church’s motion was opposed by another Labour member, Dr Hyacinth Morgan, who urged the Commons to defeat “… this pagan, anti-democratic, anti-Christian, unethical Bill”. The Commons agreed with him and the motion was defeated (Ayes 89 – Noes 167).
According to C.P. Blacker, Secretary of the Eugenics Society, it was at this point that “three weighty organisations” succeeded in swinging public opinion. Their efforts led to “a concerted petition for an official inquiry [which] was submitted to the then Minister of Health” and led to the establishment of a Departmental Committee on Sterilization in June 1932.
The apparent groundswell of support for the measure was deceptive. According to historian John Macnicol, “Blacker admitted in private that the lobbying technique of the society was to make it appear as if the demand for an official enquiry emanated from these large bodies, whereas in fact it was the society that was masterminding the campaign.”
Three committee members were members of the Eugenics Society, namely, Sir Lawrence Brock (Chairman), R.A. Fisher and A.F. Tredgold. Yet another, Miss Ruth Darwin, was a daughter of a member (Horace Darwin).
According to Macnicol: “Between June 1932 and January 1934 the Brock committee held thirty-six meetings and interviewed sixty witnesses. Dominated by its chairman, who pulled every string to assist the society in its campaign (thus flagrantly violating civil service neutrality), the committee’s report recommended the legalization of voluntary sterilization for three identifiable categories of patient — mental defectives of the mentally disordered, persons suffering from a transmissable physical disability (for example, hereditary blindness), or persons likely to transmit mental disorder or defect.” Brock also met secretly with Blacker to advise him on how to improve the wording of the society’s draft sterlization bill.
While the Ministry of Health was more sympathetic to the cause, ministers and officials remained sensitive to the mood of the House of Commons and the bill was not reintroduced to the Commons. As the Nazis introduced their eugenic program, the chances of similar measures in Britain diminished.
The Voluntary Sterilization Campaign in Britain 1918-39 by John Macnicol.
Eugenic Sterelisation: Europe’s Shame by Charles Webster.
The sterilization proposals: A history of their development by C.P. Blacker (Eugenics Review 1931 Jan; 22(4): 239–247).
Photo credit: Photo by Sumner Mahaffey on Unsplash.
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