Editor’s note: This is the first of two articles
Marie Stopes in her laboratory in 1904. (Image via Wikipedia)
Stopes v. Sutherland libel trial.The second article can be read here.
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.
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.
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.
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
“Fake histories are warehouses to store fake
lots of “fake news” around these days, isn’t there? This article is about one
of the sources of fake newsfake history.
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…
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.
what grounds do I say that these items are “fake”? In my opinion, they are fake because of what they
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.”
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
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:
bad cases, bad through inherent disease, or drunkenness or character” …“wastrels,
the diseased…the miserable [and] the criminal”…“degenerate, feeble minded and
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.”
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.
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.
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?
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 onefamily or otherwisetold 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
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.
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
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
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”
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.
opposition to eugenics
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
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:
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 infectiona 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
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
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.
disagreement with eugenists, previously on medical and scientific grounds, was
now on ethical and moral grounds as well.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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
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 Authoritieson pure milk for necessitous expectant and nursing mothers
before and after childbirth, for the provision of skilled midwives, and on
Infant Welfare Centresall 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.
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.