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.

The National Birth-rate Commission

At the beginning of the Twentieth Century in Britain, there was great concern in many quarters at the dramatic decline in the birth rate, particularly in prosperous, educated, middle class homes.

According to Richard Solway “decades of high fertility averaging around thirty-four births per thousand” which peaked at “36.3 in 1876”, the birth-rate “dropped some twenty-one percent by the end of 1901, and nearly thirty-four percent by the outbreak of the war in 1914”. (See Neo-Malthusians, Eugenists, and the Declining Birth-Rate in England, 1900-1918 by Richard Allen Solway in Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies, Vol.10, No. 3 (Autumn, 1978) pp.264-286 – available on JSTOR).

Of course, the advent of the Great War made the problem more alarming.

The National Birth Rate Commission sought answers to these challenges it presented. The second report Problems of Population and Parenthood contained the chief evidence taken by the Commission 1918-20. A copy is available here.

Two particular contributions are pertinent to the Stopes v Sutherland trial:

  • the submission of Major Leonard Darwin of the Eugenics Education Society on page 126. Darwin advocates the eugenic belief that part of the answer lies in “diminishing the number of children produced in bad homes” (i.e. overcrowded dwellings occupied by the working classes).
  • the submission of Marie Stopes on page 242 in general and, in particular, page 133, where she suggests “a very simple solution in regard to the hopelessly bad cases, bad through inherent disease, or drunkenness or character.” The solution was compulsory sterilization.

These submissions are indicative of eugenic and Neo-Malthusian beliefs at the time. To contemporaries, such views were not shocking as they were fashionable among the intelligentsia, who believed that national salvation would be achieved by improving the “race”. Improvement would be achieved by reducing the birth-rate among poor and working class people.

Dr. Sutherland’s work as a doctor fighting tuberculosis (believed by eugenists to be an “inherent disease”) brought him into daily contact with poor and working class people. He believed that tuberculosis could be prevented by improving living conditions and reducing overcrowding. It was abhorrent to him that social relief be limited for eugenic or Neo-Malthusian purposes.

The views of Darwin and Stopes were shared by those what we might colloquially call the “movers and shakers” of that generation: John Maynard Keynes, HG Wells, Julian Huxley, Winston Churchill, David Lloyd-George, George Bernard Shaw, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, Marie Stopes and others (though it should be added that they were not united in how to achieve these aims). Given the influence of the supporters of eugenics and Malthus, it was not inconceivable that their political agenda might be achieved.

Sutherland’s reaction was to write a book attacking eugenists and Neo-Malthusians: Birth Control.

The title today is understood in a limited sense that “birth control” equals “contraception”. This is a misunderstanding of its meaning in the context of those times. Back then, “birth control” had a broader meaning that encompassed population control, racial hygiene, eugenics, Neo-Malthusianism and contraception.

Sutherland’s book Birth Control included strong criticism of Stopes who had established her clinic for women in Holloway under the auspices of the eugenic organisation she set up: The Society for Constructive Birth Control and Racial Progress.

As we now know, Britain avoided the excesses of eugenic programs in countries which enthusiastically introduced programs to reduce and eliminate the “unfit”. That it did so is owing to the opposition of Halliday Sutherland, and others like him, who had the courage to speak out against it.

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Stopes v Sutherland libel trial 1922-24

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