Halliday Sutherland

"Dr. Halliday Sutherland is 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

“…the government preventing you from having children”

W.I.P. Is it correct to assert that, had eugenists achieved their aims, the government would have prevented people from having children on account of their low social status?


The evidence for this assertion is set out below.

There are two parts to the assertion:

  • firstly, that eugenists promoted a social program that would operate at the government level;
  • secondly, that if the eugenists urged the government would have prevented a person from having children based on their low social status.

Eugenists promoted a social program that would operate at the government level

From the origins of eugenics, it is clear that it was to operate at the state level.

The founder of modern eugenics, Sir Francis Galton, clearly indicated that the state would be involved. For example, in Frasers Magazine in January 1873 he indicated the involvement of the state when he wrote:

“I do not see why any insolence of caste should prevent the gifted class, when they had the power, from treating their compatriots with all kindness, so long as they maintained celibacy.  But if these continued to procreate children, inferior in moral, intellectual and physical qualities, it is easy to believe the time may come when such persons would be considered as enemies of the State, and to have forfeited all claims to kindness.” (Galton, 1873) [emphasis added]

In Kantsaywhere, Galton’s utopian fiction, he wrote of “a society ruled by a Eugenic College that followed a eugenic religion designed to breed fitter, more intelligent humans.” (Brignell, 2010)

Many eugenists thought should that it should be implemented at the state level. Given that the quality of the British “race” was so fundamentally important that it transcended mere politics.

“…many of its advocates, especially the scientists, viewed it rather as a message which transcended what ordinary people meant by politics, so overwhelmingly was it, conventional political issues must pale into insignificance by comparison.” (Searle, 1976. Page 67.)

And therein lay the problem for eugenists: “politicians were a timid group of people, who shied away from anything unusual or controversial.” (Searle, 1976. Page 68.)

Karl Pearson compared the situation to a gardener being directed by the weeds:

“We might as successfully ask the weeds in the garden to make way of their own accord for the flowering plants whose development they choke. Let my readers think what a gardener could achieve, if his tenure of office depended on the consent of the weeds!” (Searle, 1976. Page 68.)

According to Searle:

“Inevitably, then, many eugenists were carried away by the logic of their arguments to advocate some authoritarian form of government in which ‘experts’ could attend to racial issues, undistracted by the clamour of the mob.”

In the 1910 election, the Eugenics Education Society (E.E.S.) had started to act as a pressure group and in 1911 set up a committee “with the task of watching all bills going through Parliament that were of interest to eugenists.” (Searle, 1976. Page 72.)

In October 1910, a deputation of the E.E.S. and the National Association for the After-Care of the Feeble-Minded met the Prime Minister. “The work of the two organisations overlapped, and many of those prominent in the agitation belonged to them both.” (Searle, 1976. Page 108). A Bill was prepared and reached the second reading before being steadfastly opposed by “persistent hostility from a small but determined group of backbenchers, unsatisfactory drafting…and lack of Parliamentary time.” (Searle, 1976. Page 108)

Isaiah Wedgwood, MP:

“…the most persistent critic, was particularly aghast at Clause 17, which permitted feeble-minded persons to be placed in custodial care when ‘it [was] desirable in the interests of the community that they should be deprived of the opportunity of procreating children’, and hinted that the sponsors of the Bill wished to sterilise defectives. A clause making it a misdemeanour to marry a defective was additional proof, to men like Wedgwood, that the  whole agitation was tainted with the ‘spirit of the horrible Eugenics Society which is setting out to breed up the working classes as though they were cattle'” (Searle, 1976. Page 110)

Searle mentions other opponents “outside Parliament, G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc” who, “through his paper The Eye Witness, were making similar allegations.”

The Parliamentary opponents succeeded in having the Clause 17 removed, as well as the prohibition of marriage with a defective. It was the author of The Fertility of the Unfit who was not a Liberal MP, who sought to have the eugenic aspects of the bill reintroduced. A watered down version of The Mental Deficiency Act passed its second reading in June 1913 and received Royal Assent on 15 August. (Searle, 1976. Page 111)

Searle quotes the Eugenics Review as stating that the Act was “the only piece of English social law extant, in which the influence of heredity has been treated as a practical factor in determining its provisions.” (Searle, 1976. Page 111)

The First World War interrupted life in Britain, including the Eugenics Education Society, and it was not until the early 1930s that they sought legislation to sterilise those deemed “feeble minded”.

If eugenists had won the day, that the government would have prevented a person from having children based on their low social status.

“Bertrand Russell proposed that the state should issue colour-coded “procreation tickets” to prevent the gene pool of the elite being diluted by inferior human beings. Those who decided to have children with holders of a different-coloured ticket would be punished with a heavy fine.”


Works Cited

Brignell, V., 2010. The eugenics movement Britain wants to forget. “New Statesman”, 9 December 2010. Retreived online from: http://www.newstatesman.com/society/2010/12/british-eugenics-disabled on 7 July 2016.

Freedland, J. Eugenics: the skeleton that rattles loudest in the left’s closet. “The Guardian”, 18 February 2012. Retrieved online from: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/feb/17/eugenics-skeleton-rattles-loudest-closet-left on 30 June 2016.

Galton, F., 1873. Hereditary Improvement. “Fraser’s Magazine”, January, Volume 7, pp. 116-30.  Retrieved online from: http://galton.org/essays/1870-1879/galton-1873-frazers-mag-hereditary-improvement.pdf on 26 June 2016.

Kevles, D. J., 1995. In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. (Paperback edition).

MacKenzie, D., 1975. Eugenics in Britain. Social Studies of Science, 6 (3/4).

Searle, G., 1976. Eugenics and Politics in Britain 1900-1914. Leyden: Noordhoff International Publishing.

Williams, Z. Marie Stopes: a turbo-Darwinist ranter, but right about birth control. “The Guardian”, 3 September 2011. Retrieved online from: https://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/2011/sep/02/marie-stopes-right-birth-control on 30 June 2016.

Get updates on the adventures of Halliday Sutherland straight to your inbox.

Join 28 other followers

Centenary of the Stopes v. Sutherland libel trial

February 21st, 2023
5.7 years to go.