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.

Neo-Malthusian Conference

The Fifth International Neo-Malthusian and Birth Control Conference was held in Kingsway Hall, London from 11-14 July 1922. The Conference played a a crucial, though indirect, role in the Stopes v Sutherland libel trial.

To understand why, it is useful to look at the context: Stopes (and Humphrey Roe) had opened the Mothers’ Clinic on 17th March 1921. While this had won for them the accolade of Britain’s first birth control clinic, it had not had a significant impact in terms of customer numbers and only around two to three women attended each day in its first year of operation. Stopes bolstered her position by setting up her Society for Constructive Birth Control and Racial Progress (C.B.C.) and attracting eminent people to serve as vice-presidents. The visitors book for the Mothers’ Clinic at this time records the names of the prominent people who visited the clinic to view the prototype.

At the end of 1921 (and as I wrote in Exterminating Poverty) it may have seemed to Stopes that the Malthusian League were trying to re-establish themselves as the pre-eminent organisation in contraception and birth control. In November 1921, the Malthusian League opened its Walworth Women’s Welfare Centre, launched the New Generation magazine and wrote to members of the C.B.C. to garner support. When this marketing came to Stopes’ attention, she was indignant.

Also at around this time, Stopes was being attacked and criticised in the press. She was in constant touch with her solicitor, Mr. Percy Braby, itching to sue various parties including The Tablet, New Generation magazine, Stella Browne, Dr. Courtenay Beale, John Bull magazine and Father Vincent McNabb. In each case Braby urged caution and advised her not to sue.

Further, unscrupulous merchants were using her name to promote their wares, for instance, displaying sale copies of Married Love in proximity to pornographic titles or slipping advertisements for abortifacients between the pages.

Her efforts to engage Cardinal Bourne to a public debate faltered when at first he ignored and then declined her invitation.

With all this in mind, it is not hard to imagine that at the beginning of 1922 Stopes felt that she was under pressure from her enemies and her detractors, as well as those who wanted to steal the mantle of the foremost name in birth control. At some point, she learned that the Malthusian League was going to host an International Congress for Birth Control in July of that year.[1]

The Congress would attract publicity for the League. Internationally famous names were presiding over the different aspects (including J.M. Keynes and Margaret Sanger) or were serving as vice-presidents (including Sir James Barr, Sir William Arbuthnot Lane, Sir Archdall Reid and H.G. Wells who were vice-presidents of the C.B.C. as well). Stopes herself had not been invited; while she had been a member of the League, she had fallen out with its leadership. Norman Haire, the doctor responsible for setting up the Walworth Women’s Welfare Centre, was presiding over the section on contraceptives. It is not hard to imagine that the lead up to the Congress intensified Stopes desire to put herself at the centre of attention once more.

Dr. Sutherland’s book Birth Control: A Statement of Christian Doctrine Against the Neo-Malthusians was published on 27 March 1922 and it appeared to provide many of the things she was looking for:

  • arguably defamatory material that would enable a suit to take place,
  • a public trial which would attract publicity to her as the defender of contraception and birth control,
  • a successful outcome that would enable her to publicly defeat and silence her Catholic critics.

The timing of the writ meant that, if all went to plan, the Stopes v Sutherland libel trial would have coincided with, or followed shortly after, the Neo-Malthusian Congress.

To clarify, I am not saying that the Malthusian Conference led to the Stopes v Sutherland libel trial so much as it intensified Stopes emotions and perception of pressure, and that it was these that overcame the caution urged on her by her legal advisers.

At the conference, Dr. Norman Haire gave a talk in which he surveyed all of the contraceptive devices and methods then in use. He praised the Mesinga pessary, the device used at the Walworth Clinic, claiming:

I myself have used it in nearly 200 cases in the past year without a single failure, either among my private patients or among the less intelligent patients at the welfare centres.

Page 278 of the proceedings of the Fifth International Neo-Malthusian and Birth Control Conference https://archive.org/details/cu31924055373900/page/n293/mode/2up

Haire criticised the device used at the Mothers’ Clinic (“in my experience the majority of women find it extremely difficult to apply correctly”), and the device in which Stopes saw great potential, the gold pin (“It is not a reliable contraceptive; it often acts as an abortifacient, and in my opinion is a dangerous instrument”).

These criticisms led Stopes to write to The Lancet on 12th August 1922 in which she contradicted Haire and boasted of 1,000 successful cases with the cervical cap. Haire reply on 19th August referred to Stopes as a “non-medical woman” and added:

“… her ignorance of medical matters had led her to advocate, in her books, at her clinic, and elsewhere, the use of the Gold Pin pessary, which had been condemned by British medical men as indisputably dangerous, giving rise to sepsis and abortions.”

Exterminating Poverty (2020) Mark Sutherland (in conjunction with Neil Sutherland) page 67-8.

It was possibly this public disclosure of the advocacy of the pin “at her clinic and elsewhere” that made the defendants aware of the use of the pin and to make enquiries along these lines. Dr. Haire appeared under subpoena in the trial. Haire’s testimony and the featuring of the gold pin in the case was very damaging to the plaintiff’s cause.

Did the Neo-Malthusian Conference cause the Stopes v Sutherland libel trial? Maybe… maybe not… It is impossible to say, but certainly it did exert some influence on the decision that Stopes made to sue, and likely it influenced the outcome of the trial as well.

[1] It isn’t clear precisely when Stopes found out. The agenda for the Executive Committee of the C.B.C. on 26th April 1922 (circulated on 14th April 1922) included: “Rumours of International Congress for Birth Control arranged by the Malthusian League in London this Summer, of which we have not been informed.”

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This entry was posted on 2 May 2022 by in London, Malthusianism, Marie Stopes, Norman Haire, Sir James Barr, Stopes v Sutherland.

Stopes v Sutherland libel trial 1922-24

Centenary of the House of Lords judgment21 November 2024
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