The true story behind the Marie Stopes eugenics trial of 1923

In the 1920s, a legal victory against the rising eugenic tide was won by a Catholic doctor over prominent birth control advocate Marie Stopes. While Stopes is lauded today as a feminist hero, the story of the eugenics libel trial has been largely overlooked.

Marie Stopes in her laboratory in 1904. (Image via Wikipedia)

Editor’s note: This is the first of two articles on the Stopes v. Sutherland libel trial.The second article can be read here.

In 1923 in Britain, a Catholic doctor won an important victory in the battle against one of the most harmful ideologies of the 20th century: eugenics. The battle was fought in the law courts when British birth control advocate Marie Stopes sued Dr. Halliday Sutherland for libel.

Had Sutherland lost the case, opposition to eugenics in Britain would have suffered a blow, and would possibly have been silenced altogether. Sutherland’s success was in large part because he was supported by the most consistently vociferous critic of eugenics in Britain at that time: the Catholic Church. But having won the legal battle, Sutherland subsequently lost the history war when the narrative of the losing side became the received history.

It is time to correct the record and, what’s more, demonstrate why it matters today. Recent developments in biotechnology mean that eugenics is back. The issues in Stopes v. Sutherland are still relevant today and, when the centenaries of past events are commemorated in the next few years, it is essential that the correct narrative is used to influence the contemporary debate.

The centenary in 2023 of the Stopes v. Sutherland trial will be an opportunity to challenge the falsehoods of the last 100 years. Catholics can reflect on the Church’s record of standing up for ordinary people against the master plan of the elites. Remembering these events will help to educate and inspire those who will take up the cause in the contemporary debate.

“Fake histories are warehouses to store fake news.”

There’s lots of “fake news” around these days, isn’t there? This article is about one of the sources of fake news—fake history.

Here’s an example from the BBC’s online biography of Marie Stopes:

In 1921, Stopes opened a family planning clinic in Holloway, north London, the first in the country. It offered a free service to married women and also gathered data about contraception. In 1925, the clinic moved to central London and others opened across the country. By 1930, other family planning organisations had been set up and they joined forces with Stopes to form the National Birth Control Council (later the Family Planning Association).

The Catholic church was Stopes’ fiercest critic. In 1923, Stopes sued Catholic doctor Halliday Sutherland for libel. She lost, won at appeal and then lost again in the House of Lords, but the case generated huge publicity for Stopes’ views.

Stopes continued to campaign for women to have better access to birth control…

A second example of “fake history” is a 2015 press release from Marie Stopes International celebrating the 90th anniversary of the establishment of Stopes’ second London clinic:

90 years ago a woman called Marie Stopes made an extraordinary decision. She would open a service in the heart of London that offered women access to free contraception. In 1925, three years before women would win the right to vote, Marie Stopes bucked convention by showing women they had a choice regarding whether and when to have children.

On what grounds do I say that these items are “fake”?  In my opinion, they are fake because of what they leave out.

There is no mention of Stopes’ eugenic agenda or of her intention to achieve, in her own words, “a reduction of the birth rate at the wrong part and increase of the birth rate at the right end of the social scale.”

No mention of her view that, as she put it in 1924:

From the point of view of the economics of the nation, it is racial madness to rifle the pockets of the thrifty and intelligent who are struggling to do their best for their own families of one and two and squander the money on low grade mental deficients, the spawn of drunkards, the puny families of women so feckless and deadened that they apathetically breed like rabbits.

No mention was made that she advocated the compulsorily sterilization of the “unfit,” nor of her lobbying the British Prime Minister and the Parliament to pass the appropriate legislation.

No mention of the vituperative language she used to describe those whom she desired to see sterilized: “hopelessly bad cases, bad through inherent disease, or drunkenness or character” …“wastrels, the diseased…the miserable [and] the criminal”…“degenerate, feeble minded and unbalanced”…“parasites.”

No mention is made of the “bedrock” tenets of the Society for Constructive Birth Control and Racial Progress, set up by Stopes to run her clinics: “to furnish security from conception to those who are racially diseased, already overburdened with children, or in any specific way unfitted for parenthood.”

No reasons were given as to why the doctor opposed her. Dr. Sutherland opposed Stopes because he opposed eugenics. His opposition began many years before, when he was nominally a Presbyterian and in practice an atheist.

No mention was made of the fact that Dr. Sutherland specialized in tuberculosis, an infective disease of poverty. This fact is key, because it brought him into direct conflict with eugenicists (more commonly known at the time as “eugenists”). Eugenists believed that susceptibility to tuberculosis was primarily an inherited condition, so their “cure” was to breed out the tuberculous types. While Sutherland and others were trying to prevent and cure tuberculosis, influential eugenists believed their efforts were a waste of time. Furthermore, these eugenists thought tuberculosis was a “friend of the race” because it was a natural check on the unfit, killing them before they could reproduce.

Of course, both the BBC biography and the press release are brief summaries and, as such, cannot include all of the details that I have outlined. But that’s not the point. The point is that neither item properly summarizes the issues. The excision of Stopes’ eugenic agenda makes her a secular saint. How could anyone oppose her in good conscience?

And that’s the question that brought me to where I am now. As a grandson of Dr. Sutherland, I often wondered why he opposed her, because I used to believe the fake version of this story myself. No one—family or otherwise—told me differently. Following many hours of research, including the examination of Dr. Sutherland’s personal papers, I now know a different version of events.

Who was Halliday Sutherland?

Halliday Gibson Sutherland was born in 1882, and was educated at Glasgow High School and Merchiston Castle School, Edinburgh. He studied medicine at Edinburgh and Aberdeen, and he graduated in 1908. At that time, he came under the influence of Robert Philip, who pioneered modern anti-tuberculosis treatments.

Tuberculosis was responsible for one-ninth of the total death-rate in Britain at the time. Tuberculosis killed over 70,000 victims, and disabled at least 150,000 more each year. Given that the disease often killed the bread-winner of a family, it was “the direct cause of one-eleventh of the pauperism in England and Wales, a charge on the State of one million sterling per annum,” Sutherland wrote in 1911.

In 1910, Sutherland was appointed the Medical Officer for the St. Marylebone Dispensary for the Prevention of Tuberculosis. In 1911, he edited and contributed to a book on tuberculosis by international experts.

Sutherland’s religious journey is pertinent to this story. He was baptized a Presbyterian. In August 1904, at the age of 22, he was “in theory an agnostic and in practice an atheist,” he would later write. Ten years later, “there came the hazards of war, and for me the time had come when it was expedient to make my peace with God.” At that point he was admitted to the Church of Scotland. He became a Catholic in 1919.

The birth rate, Malthusianism, and eugenics

Also relevant to this story is the falling birth rate, and two groups which had strong views about population.

Britain’s birth rate increased from 1800 onwards. In 1876, it peaked at 36.3 per thousand, and began to fall. By the end of 1901 it had fallen 21 percent, and by nearly 34 percent by 1914.

Not everyone was worried about the fall in birth-rate; one group in particular, the Malthusians, welcomed the fall.

It was T.R. Malthus (1766-1834) who had observed: “The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man.”

He drew up his “natural law,” that when the population increased beyond subsistence, the resulting competition for resources would lead to conflict, famine, and disease. Sexual abstinence was the way to keep the population at manageable levels. In the period of the Stopes v. Sutherland libel trial, the term “Neo-Malthusian” was used to differentiate Malthusians who advocated the use of contraceptives instead of abstinence.

Another group keenly interested in population were the eugenists. The word “eugenics” was coined by Sir Francis Galton, cousin of the naturalist Charles Darwin. But while the word was new, the idea was not; G.K. Chesterton described it as “one of the most ancient follies of the earth.”

In the decades before the Stopes v. Sutherland libel trial, eugenists were concerned about the “differential birth rate,” so-called because the poor were producing more children than the rich. Given that British eugenists used social class as a proxy for a person’s racial fitness, it was clear that the worst “stocks” would be the progenitors of Britain’s future population. For this reason, British eugenists fretted about “degeneration” and “race suicide.”

While there was rivalry between the Malthusian League and the Eugenics Education Society, and they differed strongly over the use of contraceptives, both groups agreed that in relation to population, quality mattered. The areas of overlap meant that some people were members of both the League and the Society. One such person was Marie Stopes.

Sutherland’s opposition to eugenics

The reader of this article might assume that doctors cure diseases; this, however, was not always a pressing concern for some influential minds in medicine and science at the beginning of the 20th century, particularly in relation to tuberculosis.

Sir James Barr, president of the British Medical Association (“BMA”), provides an excellent example of the attitude of many of those in the medical establishment of the time. At the BMA’s annual conference in Liverpool in 1912, Barr was explicit that “moral and physical degenerates should not be allowed to take any part in adding to the race.” He then he turned his attention to tuberculosis:

If we could only abolish the tubercle bacillus in these islands we would get rid of tuberculous disease, but we should at the same time raise up a race peculiarly susceptible to this infection—a race of hothouse plants which would not flourish in any other environment. …  Nature, on the other hand, weeds out those who have not got the innate power of recovery from disease, and by means of the tubercle bacillus and other pathogenic organisms she frequently does this before the reproductive age, so that a check is put on the multiplication of idiots and the feeble-minded. Nature’s methods are thus of advantage to the race rather than to the individual.

Sutherland’s opposition to this mindset and to eugenics can be traced to the article “The Soil and the Seed in Tuberculosis,” published in the British Medical Journal on November 23, 1912. In it, he recognised that doctors had traditionally believed in an “inherited disposition” to tuberculosis, and admitted that he had been one of them. Now he had changed his mind.

Sutherland again spoke out against eugenics on September 4, 1917, when he addressed the National Council of the YMCA. He rebutted the notion that consumption was hereditary, and he attacked the eugenists:

But why should you set out to prevent this infection and to cure the disease? There are some self-styled eugenists…who declaim that the prevention of disease is not in itself a good thing. They say the efficiency of the State is based upon what they call “the survival of the fittest.” [World War I] 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.

His disagreement with eugenists, previously on medical and scientific grounds, was now on ethical and moral grounds as well.

Married Love

In March 1918, Marie Stopes’ book Married Love was published, became a bestseller, and made her a celebrity. According to biographer June Rose:

Marie had written Married Love for women like herself, educated middle-class wives who had been left ignorant of the physical side of marriage. Her tone in her book and in the letters of advice sent to readers implied that they shared a community of interests and of income. She had no particular interest in the lower classes and in Wise Parenthood had written censoriously of the “less thrifty and conscientious” who bred rapidly and produced children “weakened and handicapped by physical as well as mental warping and weakness.” “The lower classes were,” she wrote in a letter to the Leicester Daily Post, “often thriftless, illiterate and careless.”

It was in her other books that the eugenic agenda was more clearly expressed. In Radiant Motherhood, she urged the compulsory sterilization of “wastrels, the diseased…the miserable…the criminal.”

Stopes and her husband opened the “Mother’s Clinic” in Marlborough Road, Holloway on March 17, 1921. She established the Society for Constructive Birth Control and Racial Progress to run the clinic.  She engaged eminent people as vice-presidents of her society, including Bertrand Russell, H.G. Wells, John Maynard Keynes, and Sir James Barr.

Birth Control

On July 7, 1921, Sutherland attended a talk at the Medico-Legal Society by Dr. Louise McIlroy, professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology and first female professor at the Royal Free Hospital. In the discussion that followed her presentation, McIlroy addressed the negative physical effects of contraceptives. Sutherland, by this time a Catholic, wrote an article in which he observed that the medical profession now concurred with Catholic doctrine. The editor of The Month, in which the article appeared, suggested that he develop it into a book.

Sutherland wrote Birth Control: A Statement of Christian Doctrine Against the Neo-Malthusians. Despite the title, the book was very political and it described Malthusianism as “an attack on the poor.” It was a polemic for the fair treatment of the poor, and for an equitable structure in society to share the abundance of wealth. His conclusion foreshadows the demographic problems that developed nations face today:

The Catholic Church has never taught that “an avalanche of children” should be brought into the world regardless of the consequences. God is not mocked; as men sow, so shall they reap, and against a law of nature both the transient amelioration wrought by philanthropists and the subtle expediences of scientific politicians are alike futile. If our civilisation is to survive we must abandon those ideals that lead to decline.

The libel suit

In Birth Control, under the heading “Exposing the Poor to Experiment,” Sutherland wrote:

But, owing to their poverty, lack of learning, and helplessness, the poor are natural victims of those who seek to make experiments on their fellows. 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 before and after childbirth, for the provision of skilled midwives, and on Infant Welfare Centres—all for the single purpose of bringing healthy children into our midst, it is truly amazing this monstrous campaign of birth control should be tolerated by the Home Secretary.

Shortly after the book was published on March 27, 1922, Humphrey Roe, Stopes’ husband, wrote to Sutherland inviting him to publicly debate his wife. Sutherland did not respond to the letter, and a month later, he received a writ for libel.

About Mark H. Sutherland 2 Articles
Mark H. Sutherland is the curator of hallidaysutherland.com, a website that celebrates the life and work of Dr. Halliday Sutherland (1882-1960). A consultant facilitator and teacher, he is based in Sydney Australia.

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