Doctor. Tuberculosis pioneer. Best-selling author. Convert to Catholicism. Enemy of eugenics, and eugenicists.
I set up this blog to recall the life and work of Halliday Sutherland and to provide a resource for historians and researchers. It has meant that I have conducted my own research and, from time to time, I have found articles concerning Halliday Sutherland, some which are significantly inaccurate.
One such article was Marie Stopes’s Victory from Libel Defeat in the Scottish Review on 23rd September 2013. Below is a copy of an e-mail to Kennedy Wilson (author of the article) sent to the Review on 7th February 2014. To date, I have not received a reply.
Dear Mr Wilson,
I read your article Marie Stopes’s Victory from Libel Defeat in the Scottish Review dated 23rd September 2013 with interest.
To a modern mind, it’s a mystery why anyone would oppose someone who sought to give women information about the control of conception. It is hard for us to understand. For this reason it is worth examining the Stopes v Sutherland case in the context of the times.
Professor Jane Carey of Monash University has written: “in the inter-war years birth control and eugenics were so intertwined as to be synonymous” (see: Jane Carey, The Racial Imperatives of Sex: Birth Control and Eugenics in Britain, the United States and Australia in the Interwar Years Women’s History Review 21, no.5(2012): 753-552 Monash University. It is available, free-of-charge, on the Internet). The connection of birth control and eugenics has been lost in the modern use of the term “birth control”. Indeed, many people would be unaware of what “eugenics” was. As you are no doubt aware, the eugenics movement was interested in eliminating “defects” from the race. It was a broad church and its followers differed, often widely, in how the elimination of defects was to be achieved. Some, like Marie Stopes, advocated artificial contraception to achieve it. Others, such as HG Wells, disagreed with her in this regard.
As June Rose wrote in Marie Stopes and the Sexual Revolution, Stopes had met the founder of eugenics, Sir Francis Galton, as a child. She joined the Eugenics Education Society in 1912 and became a life fellow in 1921. Stopes set up the Society for Constructive Birth Control and Racial Progress in 1921, in part because she felt that the Eugenics Education Society did not give enough support to artificial contraception as a way to achieve eugenic aims (See Prof. Jane Carey’s essay).
Stopes’ eugenic vision was outlined in Chapter XX of her 1920 book Radiant Motherhood: A Book for those Who Are Creating the Future, in which she wrote that it was her “ardent dream” of “human stock represented only by well-formed, desired and well-endowed beautiful men and women”. An obstacle to its accomplishment was, she said, the “inborn incapacity” which lay “in the vast and ever increasing stock of degenerate, feeble-minded, and unbalanced who are now in our midst”, a class of people who were “appallingly prolific”. The solution was, she said, “a few very simple Acts of Parliament” for the compulsory sterilization of “the miserable, the degenerate [and] the utterly wretched in mind and body”. This book is available to read free-of-charge on the Internet.
Stopes set up her clinic in the east-end of London in March 1921. Her advocacy of eugenics preceded the establishment of the clinic by nine years and she remained committed to the movement until her death in 1958. This is important, because the provision of artificial contraception information and devices to the poor was motivated, to some degree, by her eugenic aims.
Stopes’ advocacy of eugenics made her one of many: in the early part of the 20th century it was an idea that some of the finest minds and writers of the time found attractive. I have focused on her views and activities because she was the plaintiff in the trial and the subject of your article.
The full title of Sutherland’s 1922 book was Birth Control: A Statement of Christian Doctrine Against the Neo-Malthusians (this book is also available to read free-of-charge on the Internet). The title confirms his often-cited christian approach. What is rarely cited is that he was not attacking Stopes per se, but two much bigger targets: the Eugenicists and Malthusians.
In the book, Sutherland attacked “the essential fallacies of Malthusian teaching”. He said there was “no evidence whatever to prove that the population is pressing on the soil. On the contrary, we find ample physical resources sufficient to support the entire population, and we also find evidence of human injustice, incapacity, and corruption sufficient to account for the poverty and misery that exist”.
What he called “organised poverty” had arisen in the sixteenth century when “the greater part of the land, including common land belonging to the poor, had been seized by the rich”. These events included the Parliamentary Acts for the enclosure of common land between 1714 and 1820 and the Highland clearances. Where else could displaced peasants go but to the cities?
In Birth Control, Sutherland argued that to improve the lot of the poor was not through teachings of Galton and Malthus, but on improving the conditions of the poor and working classes. Sutherland was well aware of the conditions in which the poor lived, having grown up in Glasgow and being a renowned expert on the prevention and treatment of tuberculosis.
In modern parlance, this debate was not about pessaries or condoms, but about social justice and the living conditions of the poor and lower classes of society. One of the problems of eugenics to a modern observer is that many of the “heritable” undesirable aspects that they sought to eliminate were no more than a middle-class abhorrence of the customs of working class people.
Birth Control: A Statement of Christian Doctrine Against the Neo-Malthusians referred to Stopes twice. In the first instance, he reproduced a letter Stopes had written (as President of the Society for Constructive Birth Control and Racial Progress) to the Sussex Daily News and which had appeared in the paper on 17th November and which read: “That there may be medical men who do not approve of birth control is natural when one remembers that a doctor has to make his living, and can do so more easily when women are ailing with incessant pregnancies than when they maintain themselves in good health by only having children when fitted to do so. Opinions of medicals, therefore must be sifted. The best doctors are with us; the self-seeking and the biased may be against us.” Sutherland said this was a “malignant attack” on the medical profession.
In the second instance, under the headings “Specially Hurtful to the Poor” and “Exposing the Poor to Experiment”, Sutherland wrote: “In the midst of a London slum a woman, who is a doctor of German philosophy (Munich), has opened a Birth Control Clinic, where working women are instructed in a method of contraception described by Professor McIlroy as ‘The most harmful method of which I have had experience’. 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 – 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.”
Charles Bradlaugh (and Annie Besant) had been tried in 1877 for publishing ‘obscene literature’. They had published an American Malthusian tract in Britain. The original document was The Fruits of Philosophy which “advocated and gave explicit information about contraceptive methods”. For the British version, Bradlaugh and Besant had added a subtitle: An Essay on the Population Question and a preface “we believe, with the Rev. Mr. Malthus,that population has a tendency to increase faster than the means of existence, and that some checks must therefore exercise control over population” (see Professor Jane Carey’s essay). I need say no more about the outcome of the case as I can see from your article that you are aware of what happened.
I have raised all these points to revive the forgotten aspects of the Stopes v Sutherland case. I did not, nor do not, intend re-fight the battle, nor to advocate a christian, pro-life, anti-contraceptive view.
My point is this: ideas have consequences and need to be understood and debated widely if we are to avoid the disastrous consequences they might bring. Eugenic ideas, in an extreme form, led to “racial purification” in Germany with the extermination of Jews, homosexuals, and mental defectives. It also led to the compulsory sterilization of tens of thousands of people in the United States and other countries. If we forget our history by removing Stopes v Sutherland from its historical context, we turn it into a tale of religious zealots against a progressive feminist. And when we do this, future opposition to “progressive” ideas will be discounted and the arguments against will not be heard.
These issues have not gone away. Al Gore and Bill Gates’ address on population control at the recent Davos Conference is the latest iteration of Malthusianism. Before taking action we need to ensure that we have a thorough debate and to do this we need to remember, accurately, our history in order to prevent the repetition of past (disastrous) mistakes.