The Large Family: Some Objections Answered
There are not many of the more reputable birth-controllers who would be so bold or misguided as to contest any of the arguments that have been advanced in the previous chapter in favour of the large family. It is, however, by the ingenious confusion of what may and what may not legitimately be said against the large family that they make out the appearance of a strong case against the latter. And it was precisely on this account that we carefully drew up two separate lists, a and b and c, d, e, f and g, to distinguish between the valid and the invalid arguments against the large family.
The first objection that occurs to us, and one which all vigilant birth-controllers are bound to make, is that the separation between group a and b and group c, d, e, f and g is quite arbitrary and academic, and does not actually bear any relation to living conditions.
Let us examine this objection.
The birth-controller will say: it is impossible to separate a and b from c, for instance, or from e, because if all even of the healthy couples in the nation had large families, the pressure of numbers would become so acute that food shortage, poverty and overcrowding, by becoming intolerable, would of themselves become causes of unhappiness, ill-health and other kinds of
There is some truth in this objection, but before we allow it to weigh too heavily with us, we should point out:
First, that, as far as we can tell, there is no possible fear that every healthy couple in the nation would, if they did not use artificial measures, have from eight to ten children in their twenty-one to twenty-five years of reproductive life; for the fertility of different men and women, and the sexual affinity between different men and women, varies greatly, and all kinds of factors such as, apparently, intellectual pursuits, and, according to Dr. Groddeck 1 and other medical thinkers, desire or non-desire for pregnancy (whether conscious or unconscious), may play an important part in preventing or promoting fertility. While there are many thoughtful people Dr. John Brownlee, Dr. Chalmers 2 and Mr. Pell 3 are amongst them who
1 See Das Buch vom Es.
2 See their evidence before the Birth Rate Commission. See also Dr. Brownlee in the Lancet, November 1st, 1924, p. 927.
3 Mr. C. E. Pell, in his book The Law of Births and Deaths (London, 1921), argues that poverty, hard labour, any sort of oppression, and low mental activity lead to fertility, and that good feeding, high mental activity, material welfare, and low output of physical labour, lead to comparative sterility. It seems to us, however, that his argument is to some extent vitiated, because he fails to take into account the influence of refinement in manners, and thence a tendency to constraint,
if not to actual prudery and Puritanism, in the sexual relations of the "upper" classes of all nations, so that the females may (and in England certainly do) fail to obtain the sexual excitement favourable to fertility, which females in the "lower" classes are able to obtain. The greater "coarseness" or "naturalness" of the preliminaries to sexual congress among all "less refined" people, is surely a factor that should be taken into account particularly as the sexologist so frequently finds that he has to recommend to sterile couples of the middle and wealthier classes precisely those tactics which, among couples of coarser grain, are taken as a matter of course. There are other flaws in Mr. Pell's reasoning, but we cannot go into them all. A bad one, however, occurs on pp. 212, where he argues that if contraceptives were really responsible for the decline in the birth rate in a country like France, or England, it would mean a weekly consumption of contraceptives by millions of couples, and he says: "No evidence has ever been produced of the existence of a trade [in contraceptives] of such magnitude." But he forgets three points: (a) the douching appliance (a favourite French method) can be used without renewal for a lifetime; (b) that withdrawal is a not uncommon form of Birth Control practice; and (c) there are some who hold that prolonged use of contraceptives in early married life leads to sterility thereafter, and, therefore, that contraceptives may tend to make contraceptive practices unnecessary among many couples in the later years of married life.
From the examination of 1,000 cases. Dr. Siegel found 2 that, as a rule, the interval between
Marriage and the first child is . . i^ years. The first child and the second . . 2 to 2^ years. The second child and the third . . 3 years. Third child and the fourth . . 3^ to 4 years.
So that we cannot assume on the basis of the above figures and conditions that if preventives were rigorously abolished every couple would have the normal "large" family as we have defined it.
Secondly, that if we really did mean that only our, healthy couples i.e. our all sound people should be allowed to have large families which would immediately go some way towards extricating the problem of over-population from that of degeneracy it is doubtful whether the number of wholly sound people
1 See some very interesting remarks on this point in Dr. G. T. Wrench's Healthy Wedded Life, p. 59. See also Dr. P. W. Siegel (op. cit., p. 9), where it is claimed that woman's period of greatest fertility lasts from her 22nd to her 27th year.
2 Op. cit., p. 149. See also Appendix I.
Thirdly, that, although we have supposed the extreme case of from eight to ten children in setting up our standard of the large family, which can normally be procreated in healthy conditions in twenty-one to twenty-five years, we do not pretend that these numbers ought in any way to be regarded as the minimum that is required in order to fulfil the conditions requisite for securing the advantages of a large family seven, and even six, will in some cases have to be made to do equally well.
Fourthly, that although we may acknowledge the necessity of restricting a large number of the nation's couples, in the present crisis, to a smaller family than ten, or even to less than eight or nine, that necessity ought not to prevent us from making quite clear to those couples whom we advise to adopt family limitation the advantages both domestic and social which are being sacrificed by the immediate necessity of restriction. Instead of making family limitation appear as entirely advantageous in every respect, and instead of concealing the very real sacrifices in happiness, health and national genius which it may entail which is the practice of all birth-controllers we should, if we acknowledge the present need of restriction, call attention to the sacrifices it means, particularly for women. And the failure to do this amounts to a piece of gross deception and misrepresentation. It is, however, a failure of which all birth-controllers are guilty.
It is thus that an entirely false value is now be-
The birth-controller may, at this point, take up the argument as follows :
He may say: "It is all very well to claim that large families as defined in the previous chapter do not bring ill-health and distress upon the mother and the children, and probably this is true as far as the mere bearing of the children and their living together, even in what the middle classes would regard as crowded conditions, are concerned. But we maintain that there is a point when poverty makes ill-health and distress enter into a large family, however healthy they may be congenitally. They may enter in various ways, and thus wipe out the advantages of a large family through poor and insufficient food, through anxiety and lack of rest where the mother is concerned, through the difficulty of maintaining rigid rules of cleanliness, through exposure and inadequate clothing, and through the difficulty of attending, without the aid of assistants, in an adequate way to a large number of children."
In reply to this, it seems necessary to point out that although not wholly fallacious, as we shall see, the contention is based largely upon imagination and is in some respects little more than a plausible assumption. Our experience among the poor of Rotherhithe
Here again, the trade-mark, so to speak, of the middle-class mind, behind the Birth Control movement, becomes apparent. For the middle-class person man or woman without the imagination to perceive that environmental conditions (the appointments of a comfortable house, large rooms, and high standards of cleanliness) are the very first things in life to be taken for granted and forgotten, often leaves his snug quarters with the firm expectation of being horrified by any set of home conditions very much inferior to his own. And if they are so much inferior to his own that he cannot imagine himself happy in them, he concludes rashly and hastily that no happiness whatsoever can be possible in them.
A good deal of the nineteenth and twentieth-century middle-class zeal for Social Reform has been based entirely upon this kind of subjective realism (or the postulating in others of reactions which are purely personal). And it is the result of an inability to appreciate relativity, a complete lack of understanding for the principle of the relativity of happiness. The conditions of overcrowding, of inadequate sanitary accommodation, of uncleanliness in the preparation
Firmly established among his saddle-bag arm-chairs, his warm rugs, his white tablecloths and bed-linen, and accustomed to the chance of fleeing to empty and private rooms when he has quarrelled with his wife, sister, brother, daughter, mother or father, the middle-class person looks with bewildered horror on conditions which are utterly unsuited to his unsociable, sulk-fostering, and negative habits and surroundings. Forgetting that man is a gregarious animal, and that happiness is not necessarily achieved by spacious houses, luxurious appointments, and the constant opportunity and temptation of seeking isolation, he concludes superficially, on inspecting the homes of the poor, that those who inhabit them must necessarily be miserable. No error could be more foolish and at the same time more widespread.
Let any reader consult an experienced woman like Miss Anna Martin of Rotherhithe, who has spent all her life with the poor. We did not consult her. We merely stated our views to her. We expressed the belief that the poor were, on the whole, much happier and much healthier than the classes above them. And she agreed. She will remember the conversation. Let the same reader consult any cultivated lifelong member of the Rugby Club, in the most squalid and poorest quarter of North Kensington, and he will meet with the same agreement on the same point.
Of course the poor will not contradict the middle-class visitor who assures them that they must be unhappy, because conviction in such circumstances may and frequently does mean obtaining something for nothing the delight of every sportsman's heart. But as a member of the class which has the cowardly and spiritless motto of Safety First as its ideal, to suppose that because the rent and the food of next day week are not assured by dividends, interest, or a permanent salary, that, therefore, one must be unhappy; as a creature reduced in vitality and stamina by too many baths, too much ease, too much warmth, to suppose that people who have not the smug villa accommodation of a respectable middle-class quarter, must necessarily be wretched, unhealthy and discontented; and, above all, as a creature secured by insurance and other safeguards from every possible
Not only, therefore, is it contrary to experience to say that a large family among the poor must always lead to conditions which wipe out the advantages of having more than the birth-controller's maximum of children, but we should feel inclined to argue that it very rarely does so except where ill-health, not necessarily caused by the conditions of existence, but by a bad heredity, by accident, or by health-destroying work (of which there is a great deal among the poor), interferes with the normal enjoyment of life.
Thus, while we acknowledge that universally large families throughout the nation (a most unlikely state of affairs even without artificial restriction) would bring group a and b and group c, d, e, f and g into dangerous association, and possibly cancel all the good effects of the large family, we deny that where the large family occurs among the healthy poor, that the conditions under which the poor live have any such deleterious effect as to wipe out the advantages which are to be derived from the proverbial quiverful of children.
Those who have attempted to go further than mere statement and who have taken the pains to collect reliable data on the subject certainly do not hold the opinion either that large families are necessarily more unhealthy than small ones, or that large families
Dr. J. Brownlee, than whom no one could be a greater authority precisely on this subject, writes :
"Where the data are taken before restriction of birth became a practical factor, there is no evidence that large families were more unhealthy than small ones, and the statement that it is better to have three healthy children than six unhealthy ones has no foundation." 1
While Dr. Katherine Gamgee writes as follows: 2
"I made a detailed investigation into the health and social conditions of 500 very poor families. The enquiry was undertaken by twelve people all Health Visitors on unselected cases taken at random from the poorest section of our population.
"350 of these families were families of over 5 children, which I will call Class A, while 150 were families of under 5 children, which I will call Class B. The average number of children in Class A was 8. The average number in Class B was 2.9. Overcrowding in Class A was considerably greater than in Class B, the maximum average number of rooms inhabited by the family being only 3.7 in Class A and 2.65 in Class B, and the sanitary conditions were decidedly less good (only 16 per cent W.C.'s as against 32 per cent for Class B). It was found that the health of the mother was definitely slightly better in Class A than in Class B, while the health of the children was very markedly so. Two further points worthy of notice were: (1) that the maternal health level was decidedly higher than the paternal, and. (2) that, even in this, the most improvident class of the whole community, the class of the casual labourer (nearly all of them out of work), the average interval between the pregnancies (every
1 "Birth Control in some of its Statistical Aspects" (Lancet, November 1st, 1924, p. 927).
2 Op. cit., p. 11.
The birth-controller may still object that, at least among the poor, the large family prevents the parents from taking proper care of the later children, and that therefore these must be neglected.
This also, however, is not necessarily so, and constitutes another of the birth-controller's glib assumptions, based chiefly on imagination and subjective realism. For, as anybody can see for himself, and as Dr. Gamgee very wisely points out, the older children of large families almost always act as mother to the younger, 2 and they do so not in a grudging spirit, but cheerfully and voluntarily. And, seeing that elder brothers and sisters are, as a rule, much sterner disciplinarians than the loving and doting mother of one or two children, the advantage is all to the child of the large family.
As regards so-called "education," and the expenses it involves, this objection hardly applies to a large working-class family; 3 and it would apply even less than it appears to do to middle-class families, if such
1 These figures would have been more convincing if we had been told (a) of the deaths, if any, in the smaller families, and (b) of the miscarriages, if any. These have only been taken into account in reckoning interval.
2 Op. cit., p. 11.
3 At least it does not apply now. But if Dean Inge's very Christian suggestion "that the State should refuse to educate free more than four children in one family " should ever be adopted, this would no longer be true. (See Medical Views on Birth Control, p. 110.)
It would, of course, be both ridiculous and unjust to claim that the large family does not call for certain sacrifices both from the parents and from the children, and in advocating a large family it would not be candid to conceal this fact. Although, for instance, there seems to be no biological reason for the diminished vitality of the children that come late in a family, great poverty and other circumstances, some of which could, we suggest, be traced to degeneracy, by making the rearing of a large family difficult, tend to bring about a larger death rate among the later than among the earlier children of a marriage. Dr. P. W. Siegel 1 mentions results obtained by Geissler from the examination of the records of 5,236 families connected with a certain Saxon Provident Association, according to which it would appear that, after the birth of the fourth child, the death rate of children increases. And Siegel relates 2 that similar results have been obtained by Agnes Bluhm and C. H. Hamburger,
1 Op. cit., p. 130.
2 Ibid., p. 131.
Both Agnes Bluhm and Siegel, however, agree in this, that no biological law is to be inferred from these facts, 3 but rather that they are to be regarded as due purely to social conditions. And Agnes Bluhm argues that, as the number of children in each family increases, mothers tend to be less careful about avoiding miscarriages, 4 can attend less to the later children, and the children themselves, by being more numerous and their contacts with the outside world being more widespread, may tend to contract and to pass on more infectious diseases.
Dr Edgar Schuster, in referring to Geissler's figures, quotes with approval Dr. Ploetz's view, that the excessive mortality among the "later born" is due largely to the fact that, in a poor home, when the
1 Ibid., p. 132.
2 Ibid., p. 134.
3 Ibid., p. 133.
4 This would not affect Geissler's conclusions.
Furthermore, he says: "If all the facts are taken together, the safest conclusion to draw seems to be that children are not directly affected to any marked extent by their place in order of birth." 2
This would seem to bear out our own conclusions. For while, in considering Geissler, Siegel, Bluhm and Hamburger's figures, we must acknowledge that, where extreme poverty prevails, the later-born children are at a disadvantage which may sometimes imperil their lives (the fact that it does not always do so, we have already seen demonstrated by Dr. Gamgee), we have also to bear in mind that (a) these conditions of extreme poverty are now comparatively rare, and when discovered are quickly relieved; and (b) that Bluhm's remarks, particularly in so far as they apply to carelessness about miscarriages, must certainly be taken into account in examining the phenomenon of excessive pregnancies, for instance, in our own working classes. For in them, it is a matter not only of carelessness during the later gestations, but also of deliberate attempts at provoking miscarriages whenever this seems desirable. This criticism, however, obviously does not affect Geissler's figures, which dealt only with births and not with conceptions.
On the whole, therefore, we may say that whereas, in exceptionally poor circumstances. Dr. Gamgee's conclusions would probably not always be confirmed,
1 See Eugenics (Collins, pp. 2012).
The way to combat this diminished zeal and enthusiasm in individual parents, however, cannot be to diminish the demands upon it. Because we can imagine that it would thus shrink by degrees to nothing. The only way is to improve the bodily tone of such parents, so that the depth and endurance of the natural passions, and therefore of attachments, may also improve; and this can be done on a grand scale only by improving the national stock. In examining all these statistics the reader should never lose sight of the fact that to-day we are breeding largely from
Even where, however, there is no trace of this diminished zeal and enthusiasm, and where the factors enumerated by Dr. Bluhm do not operate adversely against the later conceptions or later births, we must acknowledge the need of a certain amount of self-sacrifice and self-abnegation in all large families, whose means are limited. Children will have to some extent to wear each other's clothes, tend to each other's wants, make room for and yield to each other, and the earlier children will have to deputise for their parents in caring for the younger ones. But all this is really to the good of the large family, and we must also remember that far greater sacrifices are made by both the parents and children of small families sacrifices that they wot not of, are never told about, and which are a dead loss leading to nothing. And it is precisely because birth-controllers, in their advocacy of the small family, invariably refrain from any mention of these sacrifices, that their propaganda on family limitation is so misleading, so unscientific and so dishonest.
We may be compelled by the force of circumstances to impose, at least upon a large proportion of couples to-day, a limitation of offspring say, we may; but let us at least do so in a candid and scientific manner, and not make the small family, because it may happen to be a temporary political necessity, appear a desirable ideal, unfraught with serious sacrifices and dangers, whether domestic or national, and preferable
Furthermore, let us be certain to regard with very grave suspicion and contempt any group of people who, in their advocacy of a doctrine which, as we shall show, is really only one of despair and spiritual bankruptcy, find it necessary to obscure and disfigure; the problem of the large family 1 by deliberately confusing it with the comparatively rare and pathological phenomenon of excessive and exhausting childbirth and a too rapid succession of pregnancies.
Let all readers remember the words of Dr. Katherine Gamgee, let them remember that they were spoken by a woman, and let them also bear in mind the kind of misrepresentation which they were intended to expose:
"I think it cannot be too emphatically stated and repeated that the normal woman is not exhausted by bearing children."
1. As the Birth Control movement is essentially an attack on the large family, it is important to discover what this attitude signifies in regard to the welfare of the individual and the race.
2. We must distinguish rigidly between what can and what cannot legitimately be said against the large family taking this to mean any number of children
1 It would, of course, be unfair in discussing the phenomena of the large family to suppose that in every case contraceptives have never been used at all. The most that can be assumed positively is that they have either been used less, or have been unsuccessful.
3. Although famine, distress and possibly revolution or war would soon result if every couple had this number of children, it is unlikely, even if artificial restriction were not resorted to, that they would all have this number, or that if only healthy couples were allowed to have them, that the increase of population would necessarily be so very great. Nor is the maximum number, ten, essential for the enjoyment of the advantages of a large family.
4. Where healthy conditions prevail, there is nothing pathological, morbid, or unnatural in a woman's having such a family. On the contrary she is better for it. As are also her children.
5. It is untrue to state that the advantages both educational, hygienic and hedonistic of the large family are necessarily wiped out in the poorer classes by the ill-health and distress introduced by the increased stress and strain and increased poverty which a number of children might be expected to bring about.
6. The modern zeal for Social Reform is largely due to misconceptions, preconceived notions and lack of a sense of relativity on the part of the middle classes.
7. Even the claim that the children of a large family both among the poor and the middle classes must suffer both through neglect and lack of education from the inroads a large number of children make upon the parents' resources, is not strictly valid. Among the poor neglect is minimised by the efforts of the older children, and the objection regarding so-
8. Although there are some grounds for supposing that when, in poor families, the family increases beyond a certain number (from four to six according to the figures quoted) the death rate or wastage rate among the later born or among the later conceptions is greater than among the early born or earlier conceptions, it is not legitimate to infer a biological law from this observed fact. Children are not directly affected to any marked extent by their place in order of birth, and even when the circumstances which appear to operate against the later born or against later conceptions are present in some families, they do not always have this effect. Dire poverty may be one of these circumstances, but, in view of the conflicting data, it is probable that it only operates adversely against the later born, when other circumstances, such as diminished zeal and enthusiasm, or both, happen to be present also.