A Closer Examination of Some of the Pleas made by Birth-Controllers
When faced by a problem which is biological in its main features, it is always interesting to enquire what would be Nature's way of solving it? What would Nature do?
In regard to the present problem of over-population and its associated evil, degeneracy, there can be no doubt that Nature's way would be to allow the unfit to be exterminated or otherwise to perish. But, if we adopted this method to-day, would it necessarily be progressive? No, because Nature does not care a rap about progress, as we understand it that is, development along an ascending line. Provided that more life comes into being, Nature seems to be just as content with change along a descending line as along an ascending line, or, at least, quite impartial towards the multiplication of species whether in a progressive or regressive direction. Her mutations and the creatures she selects for survival may or may not be an advance on pre-existing species, and the fact that the organisms representing retrograde metamorphosis outnumber all others in existing species, 1
1 See Herbert Spencer, Collected Essays, Vol. I, p. 379, where he is replying to an attack made by Dr. Martineau upon the hypothesis of General Evolution.
If a quality, once acquired through countless generations, can, by being dropped, enhance the survival power of a species, there is no tendency in Nature to safeguard that quality from being lost by that species. This applies to fleetness, courage, agility, fine colouring, strength in fact, to any quality which we humans might consider as admirable.
If, therefore, Nature's rule were now applied in human society, and the unfit, or the least perfectly adapted, were, as a class, allowed to succumb, the result would not necessarily be any more progressive than it is among the plants and lower animals. Let us think what might be the result. In the first place, more moneylenders, commission agents, stockbrokers, middle-men, lawyers, doctors and storekeepers would probably survive than poets, artists, producers of all kinds, agricultural labourers and science-workers. The agricultural labourer, in particular, with the François Millets, the Edgar Allan Poes, and the Bernard Palissys of this world would be likely to perish, while the exploiters of human labour of all kinds would survive.
It should not be forgotten that the quality of those who survive depends upon the kind of survival value that prevails. Consequently to allow the extreme effects of the struggle for existence to eliminate the unfit of to-day, would amount to rearing a race consisting of every class of person who happens to succeed best in a commercial and industrial Age no matter whether he were a pawnbroker or a quack, an oppor-
That is why it is so dangerous, in discussions on population, to use the highly technical term "unfit," imperfectly understood by thousands of people, and to proceed to recommend "the elimination of the unfit." If it could be demonstrated that, under the values and standards that prevail in a commercial and industrial society, governed by the moneyed interests, the unfit, i.e. the ill-adapted, was a comprehensive term, including not only the physiologically botched, but all undesirables, the elimination of the unfit would certainly be progressive. But this cannot be demonstrated. Amongst the unfit to-day would be found hundreds of thousands of the poorly remunerated who, from the standpoint of their desirability as Inhuman stock, might be most valuable. While, conversely, among the fit, would be found thousands of the heavily remunerated who, from the standpoint of their desirability as human stock, might be most deleterious.
It is not possible, therefore, to consider the unfit of to-day as undesirables. Some of them undoubtedly are undesirable. But we must carefully distinguish between unfitness as mere unsuccessful adaptation in
Now in all Birth Control propaganda there is a suspicious tendency to regard the first kind of unfit as equally undesirable with the second kind a thoroughly unscientific generalisation; and when Dean Inge writes deprecatingly of
"a social order which encourages the multiplication of the most undesirable section of the population the people of the slums while it penalises and steadily eliminates the intellectual elite, who, in this country, are also, as a class, far above the average in physique," 1
he falls into this error.
Such a statement is not only unscientific, but also thoroughly incompatible with the Dean's religious professions, and, if we wish to be charitable, we can only suppose that it is the outcome of the shallowness of mind which too often characterises his writings.
At any rate, in the literature of Birth Control, there is more than enough of this kind of class bias, 2
1 The Control of Parenthood, p. 61.
2 See, for instance, Mr. Edward Cecil's glib generalisations before the Fifth International Conference on Birth Control (Report, p. 32): "It is, of course, chiefly amongst the poor, and especially amongst the very poor, that we find C3 mothers. It is not, I think, sufficiently realised that because the poor are so very numerous, the harm done to the community by the evils associated with and caused by poverty is immensely greater than the harm done by the evils which spring up in the middle classes and amongst the really well-to-do." See also Marie Stopes (Contraception, p. 10), where she quotes with approval S. J. Holmes as follows: "We are losing the ele-
ments of our population that have achieved success financially [sic!], socially, or in the field of intellectual achievement. Speaking generally, none of these classes is reproducing itself. The elements of the population that are of subnormal mentality [sic!!] exhibit at present the highest degree of fecundity." This is supposed to be a scientific statement and it is given an important place in an alleged scientific work!
1 See Dean Inge in the Evening Standard, February 9th, 1927: "The upshot is that the reduction in the birth rate is imperatively necessary, and that it gives no ground for anxiety or regret, except for the fact that there is an active dysgenic selection caused by the differential birth-rates in different classes."
From the very outset, therefore, it is important to distinguish clearly between the terms "unfit" and "undesirable," and to guard against the errors to which their confusion may lead. As the writer knows many birth-controllers personally, he has not the slightest hesitation in saying that many of them, when they are guilty of this confusion, have no intention of despising the poor or of sycophantically looking up to the rich on the contrary, their support of the Birth Control movement has frequently been prompted by their sympathy with the former and their desire to help them. But it is plain, nevertheless, that in their handling of Birth Control problems, and in their effort to lend the Birth Control movement a eugenic quality it does not possess, they often fall into the error of equating the terms "unfit" and "undesirable."
1 Dr. Letitia D. Fairfield, who contributed an excellent article to Medical Views on Birth Control (edited by Sir J. Marchant, London, 1926, pp. 1089), remarks on the same peculiar attitude of the average birth-controller towards the poorly remunerated. She says: "Whatever the cause, however, we are undoubtedly breeding faster from the poor than from the rich. The lower 25 per cent of this generation are producing 30 per cent of the next. The fact is terrifying the intelligentsia. Why? The Neo-Malthusian eugenist has no hesitation in replying, like Tennyson's 'Northern Farmer,' that 'the poor in a loomp are baad.' Not only do they include the bulk of the mental and physical weaklings classed as the unfit, but the 'poor' are of necessity 'unfit' by reason of their poverty they have failed to get rich. They are dullards and they are expensive." (See also pp. 110 and 130 in the same article.)
But have we any means of determining who are the undesirable? Up to a certain point we certainly do possess the means, provided that we regard every man and woman, not from the standpoint of their adaptability to the conditions of the Age (in which, as is admitted on all sides, the prizes do not necessarily fall to the most worthy), but from the standpoint of the guarantee which each gives in his or her own psycho-physical being, of securing the survival of the race in a desirable form. Only thus can we find a criterion of value which, running vertically through all classes, rich and poor alike, will leave entirely out of account such, transient and purely accidental disadvantages as the "unfitness" resulting from modern conditions, the desirability of which is extremely doubtful.
Having done this, we can then proceed to readjust our ideas about elimination to an entirely different object. For by this rule we shall eliminate not only the half-witted and underfed strain in a Rotherhithe slum, but also the half-witted and surfeited strain in a respectable Mayfair or Kensington square.
Undesirability, as defined in these pages i.e. the
Even Dean Inge himself would probably admit that it is better, from the standpoint of society not to mention the race for a man to be an efficient, poor but healthy dock labourer, than an inefficient, well-to-do, unhealthy, and shallow thinker, no matter how much more comfortably the latter may live, or how far his study may be removed from the slums of Rotherhithe. For the misdirection and break-up of society has more often resulted from the shallow thinking of unhealthy men of leisure, than from poor though efficient manual labourers.
Professor E. W. MacBride is one of those birth-controllers who, like Dean Inge, looks gloomily upon the reproductive disparity between the "upper" and the "lower" classes. He says:
"Whilst . . . the birth rate as a whole has fallen, the birth rate of the lowest [sic] strata of the community has not appre-
1 It is even doubtful, as we shall see, whether it is actually more common. In his Man: An Indictment, the author was able to show, on a small scale only, it is true, that the difference, if there is a difference, is sometimes to the advantage of the "lower" classes.
And Prof. MacBride then proceeds to show that mental tests have proved how is not quite clear that in the slums we are engaged in propagating an inferior class of people." 4
But whereas, with Mr. Bertrand Russell, we may be sceptical about the value of mental tests, 5 we may also ask whether a uniformly high degree of intelligence is in any event a desirable thing. Dr. Blacker puts the point rather well. He says:
"In every community, primitive or civilised, an immense amount of crude physical labour has to be done. The soil has, to be tilled, someone has to dig coal and iron out of the
1 The reader's attention is called to the unconscious bias which leads Prof. MacBride to make the words "poorer" and better" antithetical. For a scientist this is surely pretty bad.
2 Once more the antithesis "poor" and "better," so it can hardly have been a verbal slip in the first case. It is embedded in Prof. MacBride's method of thinking about this problem.
3 Report of the Fifth Birth Control Conference, pp. 12930.
4 Ibid., p. 133.
5 See Icarus, p. 53.
While Sir Arthur Newsholme, whose judgment in this matter ought to command attention, writes as follows:
"Are we to believe that among the poorest classes, the unskilled agricultural and other labourers, among the artisans who have not yet learnt, or who do not desire to limit their families, and generally in all families in which the number of children is uncontrolled by artificial measures, there is an excessive proportion of children with undesirable or inferior qualities, either mental or physical? There are many such in all social strata, 2 though happily the evidence points to the conclusion that in every station of life normality of inheritance is the rule. Notwithstanding many statistical attempts it has not been shown indubitably that the strictly inherent qualities of any large social class or occupation are superior to those of any other large social class, and if this be so there is no adequate justification for the suggestion that the biologically unfit are now adding to the adult population to a greater extent than in the past, as compared with the biologically fit." 3
So that the one dysgenic effect of Birth Control "the differential birth-rates in different classes" which Dean Inge and many other birth-controllers are able to discover, turns out to be not so very serious after all, and the really serious dysgenic effects are altogether overlooked.
One more point requires to be made clear. If we
1 Op. cit., p. 88.
2 The italics are the present writer's.
3 Medical Views on Birth Control, Chapter: Some Public Health Aspects of "Birth Control," pp. 1456.
A large number of the stigmata of degeneration are known. A greater number may be discovered and classified in the near future. It has also been observed that these stigmata rarely occur singly, that, in fact, when some external sign of degeneration is present, other hidden physical and mental degenerative traits may be suspected. We have thus a criterion by which we can, along broad lines, at least determine while they are still infants those who cannot be expected to guarantee in their psycho-physical make-up the survival of humanity in a desirable form, and when we add to these the long list of people who, while not necessarily revealing the stigmata of degeneration in infancy, develop insanity, cretinism, mental deficiency
At least such a classification of desirables and undesirables, imperfect as it would remain for a long time, would prevent such absurdities as the regarding of all the "unfit" as undesirable, and would save the poor from the benighted zeal of the ardent reformer,ecclesiastical or otherwise, who, as Dr. Letitia Fairfield points out so brilliantly, are determined to regard the unsuccessful as "baad in the loomp."
The enforcing of contraceptive practices upon such undesirables as we have described, might not necessarily be the solution, any more than might be their sterilisation by surgery; but that severe Birth Control of some kind, whether by sex-segregation or contraception, will some time or other have to be imposed upon them by law, there cannot be the slightest doubt. Sterilisation by surgery followed by freedom, though widely recommended by birth-controllers, 1 is the least
1 See Dr. Norman Haire (Report of the Fifth Birth Control Conference, pp. 234, etc.). Also Hymen, pp. 72, 73 and 90, where sterilisation or the use of contraceptives is recommended, and his paper, read before the International Sex Congress in Berlin, September 9th, 1926, where he says: "I myself, am
From the above it will be seen that we must not take too seriously the birth-controllers' reiterated cry that the least valuable elements in the population are multiplying too rapidly, nor should we allow their pious hopes, that the present disproportion between the classes may be modified in favour of the successful, to, delude us into believing that the Birth Control movement is, as it is claimed to be, eugenic and for good of the race.
Besides, even if we take the birth-controllers seriously, and acknowledge that their claim regarding the constructive and eugenic aspects of their movement, in so far as it is based upon their advocacy of artificial restriction among the poor, and vigorous multiplication among the well-to-do, is a valid one, what proof have we that even here we are not
at present inclined to regard surgical methods of sterilisation as the best available." See also Dr. Blacker (op. cit., pp. 68, 69), and Harold Cox (The Problem of Population, pp. 14653, etc.). As far as Dr. Haire is concerned, however, it would appear that post-sterilisation freedom is only to be recommended in the case of certain types those with some moral responsibility. We, however, should regard all sterilised undesirables as possible foci of sexual irregularities; and would therefore prefer segregation. In any case, we can find no reference in Birth Control literature to the necessity of confining even a certain type of sterilised undesirable.
There is some evidence to show, for instance, that despite all the advocacy and instruction that can be brought to bear, the poor are not inclined to adopt contraception on a scale sufficient to produce any appreciable effect. Mrs. Bramwell Booth, than whom few could be more knowledgeable in this matter, told the Birth Rate Commission that she did not think the poor used contraceptives; 1 and Miss Mason, who has had a great deal of experience among women of the labouring classes, said, before the same Commission (speaking of preventive measures): "I think the expense will always mitigate against their use." 2
On the other hand, Miss Anna Martin, whose experience among the poor is also very great, assures me that they do readily adopt contraceptive measures, and she introduced me to scores of poor mothers in
1 See Report, p. 444.
2 Ibid., p. 280. See also the evidence of the Bishop of Southwark (p. 438). Speaking of South London, the Bishop, said: "There the problem is not the prevention of conception, but it is the prevention of birth and the destruction of unborn infants. . . . And because this is regarded as normal amongst certain classes of the population, they do not worry about the prevention of conception." See also Dr. Katherine Gamgee, M.R.C.S., L.R.C.P., D.P.H., Assist. Medical Officer of Health for Maternity and Child Welfare, Hull. "Some Modern Aspects of Birth Control" (Public Health, October, 1925, p. 12): "Those of us who are familiar with the habits and mentality of our working-class population, will at once think of the utter impossibility of our ever getting the lowest strata of our population to take the complicated precautions required by the advocates of the methods of Birth Control."
If, however, there is great resistance among the poor, as there seems to be, towards the teaching of Birth Control, it would merely mean that the propaganda of the Birth Control movement does not and cannot achieve even that object which all its supporters regard as its chief justification the dissemination of the knowledge of contraceptive methods and practices among the poorly remunerated; and that, on the whole, all it does is to spread Birth Control among all those classes immediately above the poor the artisan, the lower middle, the middle, and the well-to-do classes. But although there are a number of reasons which would make this appear likely, it seems on the whole more in keeping with the weight of the evidence to assume that preventive measures are now being introduced with some success among the poorest elements in the population.
The reasons which would make it appear likely that much resistance is shown by the poor to the adoption of preventive measures may briefly be summed up as follows:
(a) The poor live a primitive sort of life in primitive conditions. Their joys are few, and therefore correspondingly intense. Owing to the fact that intellect plays a smaller part in their everyday life than in that of the educated classes, emotion with them is deeper, richer, and more important. Thus the whole bias of their lives would tend to be opposed to anything that threatens to interfere with, or diminish, the intensity of their primitive joys, or to convert what
(b) The poor not only have to reckon every penny, but they also live in surroundings which make a proper hygiene of the body, according to middle-class standards, almost impossible. It is not maintained here that the frequent baths and the convenient access to hot and cold water among the middle and "upper"classes are necessarily good; but in any case, whether good or bad, the poor do not possess them, and that means that any sort of interference with natural processes is extremely difficult. For there is hardly a recommendable form of contraceptive which does not involve, for the female at least, a certain elaborate subsequent toilet. (The word "elaborate" is here used quite relatively. In relation to the appointments of a poor man's home, anything beyond the bare necessaries is an irksome complication.)
(c) The poor are on the whole tasteful in matters of human relationships. The women like their men to be men, not "moffs," as they say (meaning "hermaphrodites"), and the men like their women to be women. And this taste in human relations is extended to everything in their lives. They like their boys to be little devils and their girls to be Eves. Sharp contrast between the sexes is much more common in Rotherhithe than in Mayfair, and it is most probable that it also gets extended to their sexual relations. If this is so, it is obvious that they cannot very easily be induced to adopt contraceptives, for anything more tasteless, more sordid, more devastating to the art of life and the art of love cannot well be imagined. And the fact that, according to my own experience in
It is very necessary to insist on the fact that among normal and healthy couples the joy is shared and valued both by the woman and the man. For, if the literature of Birth Control were our only guide to sex matters, 1 we should be constrained to believe that human sexual congress is a joy only to the man, that it is bitterly resented and even hated by the woman,
1 Particularly that part of it which is written by women, or by doctors not unaccustomed to pandering to the perverted views of women patients. Dr. Norman Haire is a happy exception among birth-controllers, on this very point. See his Hymen (p. 41): "This view of the male as generally over-sexed and the female as generally under-sexed has little foundation in fact. Every sexologist is aware that the normal woman has as vigorous a sex-appetite as the normal man, and it is just as frequent for married women to complain of their husband's inadequacy as of his sexual excess."
The reasons above enumerated will continue to make it very difficult to introduce the practice of contraception very widely among the poor; and will, for a long time, render the efforts of birth-controllers among the slums of our large cities more or less unsuccessful and disappointing. But this does not mean that success may not ultimately crown their efforts, and then the last stronghold of normal sexual expression will have disappeared. Even when this does occur, however, it will not be a eugenic reform; for, apart from the fact that Birth Control, as at present advocated, leads to a uniform reduction of sound with unsound stocks, and will therefore act just as dysgenically among the poor as it is now doing among the rest of the population, there is no reason, except snobbery, to make us assume, as birth-controllers almost invariably do, that the present reproductive disparity between the classes is having a dysgenic influence upon the national stock.