The eugenic roots of abortion in Britain

March 17, 2021 will mark the centenary of the opening of Britain’s first family planning clinic at 61 Marlborough Road, Holloway, London.

The Mothers’ Clinic gave poor and working-class women ready access to contraceptives for the first time. Funded by Dr Marie Stopes and her second husband, Humphrey Roe, it provided instruction in birth control and supplied contraceptive devices free of charge to the women who went there.

If previous anniversaries are anything to go by, there will be celebratory events, promotional films and paid “advertorial” in British national newspapers. Speeches will praise Stopes and Roe for paving “the way to our reproductive freedom, seven years before women were given the vote.” In addition, and with righteous indignation, they may call out the Catholic opponents of Stopes’ work.

I became caught up in this story because I am a grandson of one of those Catholic opponents, Dr Halliday Sutherland, and was named in his memory. I used to wonder why he opposed the clinic so vehemently -- indeed, in a 1922 book he had accused Stopes of “Exposing the Poor to Experiment”. Stopes sued him for libel and the case opened in the High Court in February 1923.

When I researched the matter, I found that the accepted narrative behind Stopes’ clinic was false and, in conjunction with my brother Neil Sutherland, wrote Exterminating Poverty to correct the historical record. For behind the celebratory language of women’s rights and reproductive freedom lies one of the most ignominious movements in British history.

The opening of the Mothers’ Clinic was the first step of an attempt to impose eugenic breeding in Britain. As the manifesto of the clinic’s support organisation, The Society for Constructive Birth Control and Racial Progress (“CBC”) put it:

AS REGARDS THE POPULATION AT PRESENT. We say that there are unfortunately many men and women who should be prevented from procreating children at all, because of their individual ill-health, or the diseased and degenerate nature of the offspring that they may be expected to produce. These considerations would not apply to a better and healthier world.”

While the in-house “Prorace” (and later “Racial”) brand devices were dispensed to the poor women who attended the Mothers’ Clinic, Stopes campaigned for laws to compulsorily sterilise those who did not. For all the talk of giving women “choice”, had the laws for compulsory sterilisation that Stopes advocated been passed, that choice would have been made by the state.

In the absence of such laws, Stopes advocated the use of the Gold Pin, an experimental and dangerous device which was, she wrote:

“… the one and only method (apart from actual sterilisation) which is applicable, and of real help to the lowest and most negligent strata of society. It is therefore a method of the greatest possible racial and social value, and should become widely known and practised.”

During the trial, physicians on both sides differed as to the impact that the Gold Pin would have. Some said it would enhance conception, others that it would prevent conception, and yet others that it was an abortifacient. A leading birth controller, Dr Norman Haire, testified that if conception did take place, the presence of the Gold Pin would lead to a dangerous septic abortion. Another doctor described it as “a barbarous instrument”.

The CBC was supported by some of the most eminent Britons of that era. They included: John Maynard Keynes, the Lady Constance Lytton, Bertrand Russell, George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells. One of them, Sir James Barr, an eminent physician and ex-president of the British Medical Association, congratulated Stopes on her achievement:

You and your husband have inaugurated a great movement which I hope will eventually get rid of our C3 [defective] population and exterminate poverty. The only way to raise an A1 [superior] population is to breed them.”

Like other eugenicists, Stopes and Roe had worried about the “differential birth rate”. While Britain’s overall birth rate had been falling since 1876, the reduction was not evenly spread across all social classes and the poorest people in Britain were the most prolific. As one historian put it:

“… [one-] half of each succeeding generation was produced by no more than a quarter of its married predecessor, and that the prolific quarter was disproportionately located among the dregs of society.”

Eugenicists spoke of “degeneration”, “national deterioration” and even “race suicide”.

Dr Stopes had alerted the readers of the Daily Mail to the problem in a column a few years earlier:

“Are these puny-faced, gaunt, blotchy, ill-balanced, feeble, ungainly, withered children the young of an imperial race? Why has Mrs Jones had nine children six died, one defective? Nor it is for Mrs Jones to take the initiative, Isn’t it for the leisured, the wise, to go to her and tell her what are the facts of life, the meaning of what she is doing, and what she ought to do? … Mrs Jones is destroying the race!”

Testifying on the second day of the High Court trial in 1923, Stopes confirmed that she had opened the clinic:

"... to counteract the steady evil which has been growing for a good many years of the reduction of the birth rate just on the part of the thrifty, wise, well-contented, and the generally sound members of our community, and the reckless breeding from the C3 end, and the semi-feebleminded, the careless, who are proportionately increasing in our community because of the slowing of the birth rate at the other end of the social scale. Statistics show that every year the birth rate from the worst end of our community is increasing in proportion to the birth rate at the better end, and it was in order to try to right that grave social danger that I embarked upon this work."

Stopes was a doctor of science, but her scientific credentials were in sharp contrast to the vituperative (and unscientific) language she used to describe those to be sterilised and their offspring: “hopelessly bad cases, bad through inherent disease, or drunkenness or character” “wastrels, the diseased… the miserable [and] the criminal” the “degenerate, feeble minded and unbalanced”, “parasites”, “hordes of defectives” and “the spawn of drunkards”. Such language led Guardian columnist Zoe Williams -- a journalist not known to be unsympathetic to contraception and feminism -- to remark that “her eugenics programme was actually slightly to the right of Hitler's just because her definition of defective is so broad.”

Dr Sutherland had become involved in opposition to eugenics in 1910, long before his 1919 conversion to Catholicism. He was a medical doctor who specialised in tuberculosis, a disease of poverty that killed 70,000 and disabled 150,000 Britons each year at that time. When the breadwinner was struck down, whole families became destitute. Of the deaths, 50,000 were caused by consumption or tuberculosis of the lungs.

At the time, consumption was believed to be an inherited condition. In 1911, Sir James Barr had written:

Everyone knows that the tubercle bacillus is not, except perhaps on extremely rare occasions, transmitted in the germ plasm, but in the long narrow flat chest and delicate lungs [that] are undoubtedly inherited…”

Sutherland became the Medical Officer at the St Marylebone Dispensary for the Prevention of Consumption that same year. His work and research led him to conclude that tuberculosis was primarily an infectious disease and, when he produced Britain’s first public health cinema film in 1911, the opening caption stated:

“… not only is tuberculosis CURABLE in its earlier stages, but above all it is PREVENTABLE.”

In 1912, Sutherland rebutted Barr’s “inheritance is all” views in the British Medical Journal. Despite his opposition, eugenic thought occupied the pinnacle of British society as well as the medical and scientific establishments, so his arguments had little impact. Sutherland’s opposition evolved from a medical and scientific stance to a moral stance, and in 1917 speech, he attacked them as “race-breeders with the souls of cattle breeders”:

They say the efficiency of the State is based upon what they call ‘the survival of the fittest.’ This war has smashed their rhetorical phrase. Who talks now about survival of the fittest, or thinks himself fit because he survives? I don’t know what they mean. I do know that in preventing disease you are not preserving the weak, but conserving the strong.”

While the First World War interrupted the march of eugenics, the war was viewed as dysgenic so that, with the onset of peace, it returned with greater intensity. In a 1918 speech, Sir James Barr revealed that, given the choice between a high death rate from TB and the deterioration of the British Imperial race, he thought the former was the lesser of the two evils:

Until we have some restriction in the marriage of undesirables the elimination of the tubercle bacillus is not worth aiming at. It forms a rough, but on the whole very serviceable check, on the survival and propagation of the unfit. This world is not a hothouse; a race which owed its survival to the fact that the tubercle bacillus had ceased to exist would, on the whole, be a race hardly worth surviving. Personally, I am of opinion… that if to-morrow the tubercle bacillus were non-existent, it would be nothing short of a national calamity. We are not yet ready for its disappearance.”

Stopes’ Marlborough Road clinic provided the restriction of undesirables that Barr had sought. He became a vice-president of the CBC and, when the Stopes v Sutherland libel trial opened in the High Court on 21st February 1923, he testified for the plaintiff on the first day.

Exterminating Poverty is my first published book. Given I am the grandson of Dr Sutherland, I perceived that readers would perceive a bias in his favour. For this reason I have cited the sources for all of my assertions in the book, which come variously from the transcript of the trial, Stopes’ papers in the British and Wellcome libraries, the archive of the Archdiocese of Westminster, Dr Sutherland’s personal papers as well as other sources.

One of the reasons I wrote the book was to correct the portrayal of Dr Sutherland as a Catholic zealot who wanted to chain women to the kitchen sink. While the “Exposing the Poor to Experiment” passage from his 1922 book is almost always quoted, the paragraph that followed shows that he sought to avoid the creation of a British slave state in which the poor had no societal role other than as workers:

“… if children are to be denied to the poor as a privilege of the rich, then it would be very easy to exploit the women of the poorer classes. If women have no young children why should they be exempt of the economic pressure that is applied to men? And indeed, where birth control is practised women tend more and more to supplant men, especially in ill-paid grades of work. One of the birth controllers has suggested that young couples, who otherwise could not afford to marry, should marry but have no children, and thus continue to work at their respective employments during the day. As the girl would have little time for cooking and other domestic duties, this immoralist is practically subverting the very idea of a home! The English poor have already lost even the meaning of the word ‘property,’ and if the birth controllers had their way the meaning of the word ‘home’ would soon follow. The aim of birth control is generally masked by falsehood, but the urging of this policy on the poor points unmistakenly to the Servile State.”

I have yet to see this passage quoted or acknowledged in a biography of Dr Stopes.

Exterminating Poverty sets out to provide an interesting narrative history that a general reader would enjoy, but which would be of value to the serious historian as well. While the book is densely referenced with around 700 citations, it is done unobtrusively and does not interfere with the story. Those who expect a legal contest as a dry esoteric affair will be pleasantly surprised to witness the drama and viciousness of the proceedings in the High Court, the Court of Appeal and the House of Lords (at that time, Britain’s highest court).

For too long, this important episode in British history has been represented by historians and biographers of Stopes as a battle between secular modernity fighting and backwards-looking religion. Exterminating Poverty corrects the record for the first time, shines a bright light on the dark eugenic intent underlying Stopes’ work and confirms the timelessness of the teachings of the Catholic Church.

The story of the Stopes v Sutherland libel trial of 1923 is of contemporary relevance because, contrary to popular belief, eugenic thought did not end in 1945. Instead, post-1945 eugenicists adapted their approach and their language to make it acceptable to a modern audience. While contemporary eugenicists have tools that their predecessors could only have dreamed of, they have replaced the nasty language of the 1920s with the soothing reassurance of medical terminology. It makes little difference to the outcome for, as Dr Sutherland wrote in 1922:

“Moral catastrophes inevitably lead to physical catastrophes.”

Whether Exterminating Poverty manages to shift the triumphal progressive narrative of Stopes and her disciples remains to be seen. The centenary of the opening of the Mothers’ Clinic in Holloway on 17 March 2021, and the narratives that accompany it, will show to what extent the truth has won out.


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