Marie Stopes: From 'Married Love' to unmarried sex

Carolyn Moynihan
May 4, 2018
Reproduced with Permission

Last month saw the introduction of the first legal buffer zone around an abortion clinic in Britain. Pro-choice groups are delighted with the precedent, which makes it a criminal offence for pro-life groups to do any of their normal activities (for example, praying, approaching women with leaflets) along a 100m stretch of road outside the Marie Stopes clinic in Ealing, west London. Those who break the council by-law could be fined up to £1,000.

Marie Stopes is a big name in abortion and other forms of birth control in the UK and abroad. In 2016 the organisation provided 3.66 million abortions worldwide and claims to "provide 19% of all safe abortions and post-abortion care." (The implicit claim is that all their abortions are "safe", which, aside from the fatality which every abortion involves, is dubious.)

But the 40-year-old outfit is not without controversy, even outside pro-life circles. Last year a government inspection report on one of its clinics in Kent found that staff were concerned their performance bonus was linked to ensuring that women proceeded to abortion. They told inspectors the clinic was like a "cattle market".

Ironically, the woman whose name the organisation bears seems to have been opposed to abortion. Certainly, it was a crime in Britain when Marie Charlotte Carmichael Stopes began her birth control activity a century ago, which would be a good reason to avoid it. But perhaps she actually thought it wrong; according to a biographer cited here, she accused a male friend of "murdering the unborn child" of a woman he knew.

Despite the prominence of her brand, Marie Stopes, the woman, has been airbrushed out of birth control history because of her strongly eugenic views. An article at The Conversation in March, marking the 100th anniversary of the publication of her famous book, Married Love, attempted to downplay this aspect of her thinking, but it is too prominent to ignore.

Although she felt some sympathy for women of the urban underclass and largely blamed their men for what she saw as their constantly pregnant and often diseased state, her main sentiment was indignation that such "reckless breeding … from the worst end of our community" was allowed to continue - and at the expense (in taxation) of those at "the better end" whose birth rate was proportionately falling. (Society for Constructive Birth Control and Racial Progress, 1920)

This is simply Margaret Sanger's "more from the fit, fewer from the unfit" over again. The two were, naturally, known to each other.

Still, Stopes is a fascinating figure: a scientist (paleobotany was her field) who did important research on coal, a prolific writer who hobnobbed with the leading progressive intellectuals of her day (George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, Thomas Hardy…), a sexologist, but, above all, an indefatigable worker for the improvement of the human race through birth control.

This obsession made her somewhat indiscriminate. Shortly before the start of World War II she sent Hitler a copy of her book, Love Songs for Young Lovers, hoping that he would allow her poems to be distributed through German birth control clinics. (She had gained her PhD in botany at the University of Munich in 1904.) As biographer June Rose has observed, any sympathy she had for Hitler was likely to have dissipated when he closed the clinics.

The title of the collection indicates the gushy romanticism that went hand in hand with her scientific approach to sex and procreation. These twin themes can be seen in her Radiant Motherhood: A Book for Those Who are Creating the Future, inspired in part by her (second) husband Humphrey Verdon Roe and the birth of their son Harry in 1924 when Stopes was 44. An earlier child was stillborn.

More than half the chapters of Radiant Motherhood consist of advice to young couples (of the "better sort") on what to expect during pregnancy and childbirth and how they should conduct themselves to meet the demands and possibilities of this transcendent experience. While giving much practical and more or less scientific information, it is idealistic and often lyrical, even religious in tone. (At the end she claims the mantle of "God's prophet.") The couple's aim is to produce the best possible child, "To leave in the world a creature better than its parents."

There is language in the book that you would not find within a mile of a Marie Stopes manifesto today. Speaking of prenatal influences Stopes says that very sensitive and healthy mothers, in tune with their bodies, may sense much of what is happening to the "unborn embryo", and communicate with it. Similarly the developing "child" is aware of both its mother and father.

But Stopes' high view of marriage and parenthood is only achievable by those already well bred, and then only with a degree of selection and deliberation that turns the family into an instrument for "racial" advancement.

In a self-affirming way, and foreshadowing today's trend, she argues for later marriage and parenthood. "All highly evolved races tend to prolong childhood and youth," and the most "highly evolved women" do not marry before their late 20s, when they can bring "immensely greater brainpower and a stronger temperament" to the project of parenthood. Indeed, the "late maturing type of woman" who has her children between ages 35 and 45 can produce a genius without having to have four or more children. Unfortunately she does not always find the perfect mate, and heredity may tip towards his side…

Some people may be evolving, it seems, but others are not and society must take a hand when it comes to "breeding". She affirms the child's "right' not only "to be wanted" but to "be given a body untainted by any heritable disease." (Stopes apparently never forgave her son for choosing a wife who suffered from myopia.) These are not only individual rights but rights "of racial importance." Unwilling motherhood breeds doomed babies, bitterness and revolution among the poor, and yet there is already enough knowledge to prevent conception.

Meanwhile, those best fitted for parenthood have to scrimp and save to afford one or two children because they have to carry the cost of supporting "the diseased, the racially negligent, the careless, the feebleminded, the very lowest and worst members of the community…" And so:

"It is the urgent duty of the community to make parenthood impossible for those whose mental and physical conditions are such that their offspring must be physically and mentally tainted, if not utterly permeated by disease."

For these she suggests ideas already proposed by Havelock Ellis and others: sterilisation of those totally unfit for parenthood. A few simple Acts of Parliament would take care of them.

Above all, mothers must be empowered - by knowledge of birth control - for conscious, deliberate and responsible motherhood. This is the one reform that will make possible a "leap forward" in the evolution of humanity, "the creation of that fine, glorious and beautiful race of men and women which hovers in the dreams of our reformers."

Given the condition of the urban masses a century ago, and the risk of revolution, one cannot blame a middle-class intellectual like Stopes for wanting to improve the human race. Even today, what reasonable person, surveying the lifestyle epidemics (obesity, diabetes) addictions and violence that afflict "evolved" societies, would not want to see us healthier, happier and more responsible in forming families and raising children?

The trouble is that, like Stopes, so many of the intelligentsia today are choosing the wrong means; they take shortcuts, acting directly against life and human dignity in their attempt to eliminate social problems. If they could sterilise the poor they would; instead, with continuous contraception and frequent abortion they do the nearest thing. In this way they entrench the underclass" which now consists, not of poor families, but poor mothers, fatherless children, and desperate men.

The legacy of Marie Stopes' "Married Love" is "unmarried sex". Her crusade for a new and radiant human race has become a war of attrition against human life itself. And the lesson that improving humanity is a moral project, not a mechanical one, has still to be learned. Would she be happy with that result?