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Defending life from the moment of conception

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Marie Stopes: The other side of the story

Posted by Matthew McCusker on 24 April 2012

Back in 2008 Royal Mail caused controversy by honouring birth control pioneer Marie Stopes with a postage stamp, thus placing her alongside the many great national figures who have received this honour in the past.

Those who defended the decision lauded her as a pioneer of women’s rights who, in the words of Marie Stopes International, "did more to emancipate working class women in 1920s' Britain than any of her contemporaries." This is certainly the commonly held view of Marie Stopes in some quarters, but is it an accurate representation?

Marie Carmichael Stopes was born on 15th October 1880. She studied botany and geology at University College London and was awarded a doctorate in palaeobotany in 1904 from the University of Munich. She lectured at University College London and then at the University of Manchester. She married in March 1911 and filed for divorce on 11 May 1913 claiming that her marriage had never been consumated. Around this time she began writing a book on Married Love.

In 1915 she met American eugenicist and birth controller Margaret Sanger and sought her advice about her treatment of contraception in the book. The book remained unpublished until 1918 because she was unable find a willing publisher. In the same year she married Humphrey Hugh Roe, a supporter of birth control, and published a birth control manual entitled Wise Parenthood: a Book for Married People. She followed this with a pamphlet which targeted the poor called Letter to Working Mothers on how to have healthy children and avoid weakening pregnancies. This was distributed free of charge to ensure that her birth control message, not alluded to directly in the title, reached as many people as possible.

In 1920 Stopes took a new step and opened Britain's first birth control clinic. Later that same year she founded the Society for Constructive Birth Control and Racial Progress. From now on she would increasingly dedicate her life to birth control and eugenics.

Stopes was a committed supporter of eugenics which was defined by eugenicist Francis Galton as "the study of all agencies under human control which can improve or impair the racial quality of future generations". She desired the creation of "a new and irradiated race" of human beings freed from the 'defects' suffered by previous generations, maintaining that "the only hope for the race is the conscious elimination of all diseased and overcrowded lives before their conception."

In her 1920 book Radiant Motherhood Stopes condemned a society that "allows the diseased, the racially negligent, the thriftless, the careless, the feeble-minded, the very lowest and worst members of the community, to produce innumerable tens of thousands of stunted, warped, and inferior infants." She demanded the "sterilisation of those totally unfit for parenthood be made an immediate possibility, indeed made compulsory."

Stopes applied her eugenics principles to her own family and was furious when her son Harry married a women with an eye condition, expressing horror that her grandchildren might inherit the same defect. She wrote "Mary has an inherited physical defect and morally should never bear children." By marrying her he had betrayed his parents and made "a mock of our life's work for eugenic breeding and the race." When she died she left Harry only a few small items in her will.

It is worth noting however that even her crusade for birth control was not her main priority; in 1925 she wrote that she was "out for a much greater thing than birth-control. I am out to smash the tradition of organised Christianity." She wrote to Henry Ford asking for "a million or two" to help her in the "very biggest fight in history" against "the reactionary forces" of the Catholic Church.

In August 1939 Marie Stopes sent a volume of her poetry to Adolf Hitler with the following letter:

Dear Herr Hitler,

Love is the greatest thing in the world: so will you accept from me these [poems] that you may allow the young people of your nation to have them?

The young must learn love from the particular 'till they are wise enough for the universal.

I hope too that you yourself may find something to enjoy in the book.

Once war broke out however she supported the British war effort, adding 'Prussians' to the list of those for whom she had a pronounced distaste. A verse from 1942 suggests something of her attitude to race and religion:

Catholics, Prussians,
The Jews and the Russians,
All are a curse,
Or something worse.

Her son, desiring to free her from the taint of supporting the Nazis, argued that she had sent the poems to Hitler not because she supported him but because in her 'megalomania' she thought that she could singlehandedly prevent the war. It is certainly true that Stopes suffered from illusions of grandeur. In 1920 she dictated the following message to the Anglican Bishops:

My Lords, I speak to you in the name of God. You are his priests. I am his prophet. I speak to you of the mysteries of man and woman.

Perhaps more harmful in the long term was her practice of prescribing contraceptives and giving medical advice despite having no medical qualifications whatsoever. She was willing to experiment on the poor. She tried to persuade a doctor, Norman Hoare, to fit a contraceptive device called the 'gold pin'. When he refused because he had previously seen that this device could cause abortion and infections she urged him to experiment with it anyway: "take on two or three cases, which you should watch carefully, and if these yielded unsatisfactory results we would then drop it1."

"I teach doctors," she once proclaimed2. It is generally argued, based on her statements and actions on the subject, that Marie Stopes was opposed to abortion. Whether this is substantially true or not she was prepared to experiment with a contraceptive method with potential abortifacient effects3.

Marie Stopes dedicated her life to preventing the conception of human beings that she considered to be of inferior worth. She was prepared to advocate compulsory sterilisation and dangerous experiments on women in pursuit of that end. By the time of her death in 1958 the birth control ideology was well established and the legalisation of abortion at hand. In 1975 Marie Stopes International was founded to advance her legacy.

She herself may not have been an advocate of abortion but this organisation, which is proud to bear her name and build on her achievements, certainly is. Today it has 629 clinics across 40 countries all of which are dedicated to the prevention and elimination of human life.

The Good Counsel Network hold a daily vigil outside Marie Stopes' original birth control clinic, on Whitfield Street in central London, which is now an abortion clinic operated by Marie Stopes International.

If you would like to join the vigil please see here for more information.

1. Ann Farmer, Prophets and Priests: The Hidden Face of the Birth Control Movement, p. 47
2. Ibid, p. 45
3. According to Ann Farmer there were cases where Stopes referred women for abortion, Prophets and Priests, p. 52

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