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The Neo-Malthusian League and the origins of the birth control movement

Posted by Matthew McCusker on 17 April 2012

We have previously considered the influence of the ideas of Thomas Robert Malthus on the pro-abortion movement.

In this post we will consider the way in which the population control ideology developed after his death.

In 1877 an organisation called the Neo-Malthusian League was founded in the aftermath of the prosecution of Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant. Bradlaugh, founder of the National Secular Society, and Besant, a political radical, were prosecuted for republishing a book entitled Fruits of Philosophy, written by an American called Charles Knowlton, which described various methods of birth control.

They were found guilty of publishing obscene material but were later acquitted on a legal technicality. The Neo-Malthusian League was founded to campaign for the right to publish information about contraceptive methods without fear of prosecution, and to advocate for the reduction of the birth rate by limitation of family size. It grew in influence under the leadership of three members of the same family, George Drysdale, his brother Charles Robert Drysdale and the latter's son Charles Vickery Drysdale.

The League argued that war and poverty were caused by overpopulation and that it was therefore essential that the birth rate be reduced. Unlike Malthus, the League advocated artificial birth control as the best means of bringing this about. Celibacy and abstinence were rejected as 'unhealthy'; sexual pleasure divorced from procreative responsibility was the end they sought.

In his book Elements of Social Science, George Drysdale argued that "there could not be greater error" than monogamous marriage.  The "laws of nature" required "a variety of objects" for sexual desire. Many members of the League believed that the poor must be put under pressure to reduce the number of children that they had. Annie Besant said that the first phase of their campaign must aim to "stamp with disapproval every married couple who selfishly overcrowd their home, to the injury of the community of which they are a part." This is certainly an attitude which prevails in our society today.

By the time the league was dissolved in 1927 many of its aims were well on their way to being met. Numerous influential members of the Labour Party were supporters of the League or of other population control groups such as Marie Stopes's Society for Constructive Birth Control and Racial Progress. Activists such as these, supported by many Labour MPs, were successful in persuading the Labour Party to adopt a pro-birth control policy in 1926. There was initially some successful resistance from Catholics in the party but soon both the Labour and Conservative parties succumbed to the birth control agenda. From 1930 onwards it was permissible for birth control advice to be given at public health clinics. Birth control 'clinics', founded by organisations such as Marie Stopes and the Family Planning Association, began to spread, with the express intention of inducing women from poor backgrounds to use birth control. This was the beginning of a network of 'clinics' which now not only seek to prevent new life coming into existence but to destroy it during its earliest and most vulnerable stages. The organisations which now perform thousands of abortions every year are often the very same organisations that began by advocating birth control.

Further Reading

Ann Farmer, Prophets and Priests: The Hidden Face of the Birth Control Movement,  (London, 2002)

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