"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.
Seen through contemporary eyes, the birth control debate of 100-years ago was primarily about contraception, and it features religious patriarchs opposing the liberation of women. Yet a November 1936 debate at the Cambridge Union on the “control of parenthood” reveals that the agenda was more wide-ranging than it is perceived today.
The motion “that the control of parenthood by contraception or sterelization is not in the interest of social welfare” saw Mr. J.M.W. Vyse (Corpus Christi College) and Dr. Halliday Sutherland arguing for pitted against Mr. F. Singleton (Emmanuel College) and Lord Dawson of Penn.
A report in the Cambridge Daily News described the scene on 17th November 1936:
“The House was crowded. Undergraduates were sitting on window ledges, on the steps, round the speaker’s chair, and on the floor of the gangway leading to it. Others stood at the doors.”“Lord Dawson Defends Modern Mothers” Cambridge Daily News 18th November 1936
The issues raised in the debate included:
It can be readily seen that these issues were more wide-ranging than they are framed today. The defeat of the motion – 185 to 466 – reveal that the excesses of the United States and Germany were not as exceptional as we might like to think, but were merely national expressions in a wider international movement.
Malthusianism and its derivatives (neo-malthusianism, eugenics and euthasasia) have been constants in establishment thought for over 200 years and they continue to this day albeit changed to suit the mores of our times. The misrepresentation of the history of these ideas, presenting the proponents as “good” and the opponents as “bad” condemns us – as the cliché says – to repeat the mistakes of the past.
Photo credit: Mike B at Pexels.