Birth Control, Religion and Morality
It will be seen that, in their general condemnation of Birth Control, the upholders of the Christian Faith, even if they do not rely on many of the non-religious grounds which we have advanced for rejecting the doctrine, come very near to anticipating our position. And, in so far as their attitude confirms our own, and is arrived at by a different process of thought, and a set of first principles which we cannot accept, we are interested in it, and would like to discover the ground which we and they hold in common. Truth to tell, the principal point of disagreement between us is not concerned with any of the objections that can be raised against Birth Control, but with the authority on which these objections are based. For while we rely on science, tradition, and a clear sifting of the facts and the reasoning upon which Birth Control claims to be based, the religious objectors rely largely upon Divine Law and divinely inspired morality, and use science only as a confirmation of their standpoint.
Nevertheless, it cannot be quite otiose to try to understand the religious man's standpoint; for while it may afford some help in the work of strengthening our own, it will also supply us with a means of determining who are and who are not the consistent men of
The Christian believer approaches Birth Control, as he does all other problems, with the conviction that (a) man bears a definite "relation to the Supernatural Power from whom all life proceeds, and that (b) there is a moral code which emanates from this Supernatural Power, and which it is wrong to transgress.
Under the first conviction (a) we have to include the Christian's belief that, since children come from God and are numbered according to His Will, and that it is not necessary to give any thought for the morrow, the individual, provided that he does his religious duty and relies on God's guidance, is not concerned with the problem whether he may or may not be able to support a large family. This is precisely the kind of problem which his faith solves for him. Merging his own personal desires, convenience and ambition into God's Omniscient and Superior Guidance, he says meekly, "Thy Will be done!" Such problems as over-population, urban congestion and shortage of food are the creation of unreligion, or a lack of faith in God. If "God is at the helm" there cannot be any urgency for man to face and grapple with these questions. And Malthus, although a Christian divine, was one of the long line of Protestant clergymen who, by believing that, lest disaster should come, man must interfere violently with what the true Christian believes can be left to God's Will, deliberately threw up the faith in Divine Guidance and reliance upon Divine Will.
The Christian, moreover, believes that each God-sent child has a spark of the Divine in it, which prob-
Given the belief in the existence of a Supernatural Being, constantly and vigilantly watching this world, working out His Divine Will through its agency, and attending in such detail to every one of the happenings upon it that no sparrow falls to the earth without His Will, and no hair grows on any man or woman's head that He has not numbered, there is nothing fantastic, inconsistent or illogical in any of the conclusions enumerated in the preceding paragraph. And although we as free-thinkers must confess ourselves unable to rely on supernatural agencies to solve our problems for us "here below" whether these be the provision for a large family, over-population or degeneracy we must bear in mind that, when once the Christian's first principles are accepted, there is nothing either irrational or inconsistent in doing so.
If we wish to find inconsistency and irrationality, we must seek it in the attitude of those divines, such as Dean Inge and the Bishop of Birmingham, who, while professing their belief in Christianity and holding positions which pre-suppose Christian convictions, proceed to approach all problems, whether of over-population, the large family, or degeneracy, as if no reliance whatsoever were to be placed upon the Super-
And in this sense purely from the standpoint of consistency and rationality in religion nothing could have been finer than the attitude of the Right Rev. Monsignor W. F. Brown, Vicar-General of the Diocese of Southwark, before the Commission of Enquiry into the Declining Birth Rate. After having, under a terrible fire of questions from most of those present, adhered valiantly to his point that in this matter of Birth Control the Church would not yield an inch from its position of hostility, he was at last confronted by a question from Dr. Greenwood, which might well have shaken the steadiness of one belonging to a much sterner and more religious age than the present. Turning to him, towards the end of his examination by the Commission, Dr. Greenwood asked him whether the Church's condemnation of Birth Control would apply to the suggested eugenic prohibition to bring into the world unhealthy children. And, without hesitation, Monsignor Brown replied:
"Even then I think we have to leave a good deal to the Supernatural rather than, say, to the individual." 1
Although we, as free-thinkers, cannot approve of the standpoint, these words were, from the Christian point of view, the only sound reply that could be given; and it was a lesson in logic and consistency to a good many of those present, including the Chairman, Dean Inge himself.
1 See Report, p. 409.
Even if we take the view, which as free-thinkers we probably must, that this command was transferred by the priestly leader or leaders of a flourishing and stalwart race to the lips of their God, after having been conceived in their own ambitious souls, it does not reduce its significance for us, but, on the contrary, rather increases it. For then we are compelled to see in it, not the arbitrary pronouncement of a deity outside human aspirations, but the expression of a yea-saying and proudly self-confident spirit within a section of mankind itself. We are compelled to suppose that a healthy, buoyant and self-trusting people, believing in its own lofty destiny, believing in its right to "subdue" the earth and replenish it, and, above all, feeling itself entirely free from those paralysing doubts about its own desirability and privileges, which come over communities, like individuals, only when degeneracy and decay have laid a hold upon their minds and bodies, must feel and express themselves in this way. We are constrained to regard this Divine ordinance merely as a symptom of a people's vigour, self-reliance and self-approval. And as such it is extremely instructive; because it leads to the
From this standpoint, therefore, we have something to learn from the religious man's first conviction regarding himself and his relation to the Supernatural Power from Whom all life proceeds. For, although we may not, and do not, interpret the meaning of Genesis i. 28 as he does, and refuse to regard it as a Divine behest at all, we are nevertheless constrained to read in it a psychological symptom of racial health of the first magnitude, and thence to suspect that, when this will to multiply, this determination to be fruitful, turns into its opposite among a people, something has set in which is more dangerous than unbelief, more insidious than atheism, and more lethal than freedom of thought. We are led to suspect that degeneracy has perhaps destroyed a people's heart and eaten away its faith in itself.
When, therefore. Dr. Gamgee, in the excellent paper which we have so often quoted, says that "the desire for birth-control only becomes manifest, i.e. widespread, when a nation has become decadent and already effete," 1 we see the points of view of the Christian and the enlightened scientist uniting, and we should be foolhardy to neglect the force of this coincidence.
Turning now to (b), under which we have to consider the Christian's belief in a moral code of Supernatural Origin, which it is wrong and wicked to transgress, we are confronted by a point of view, according to which
1 Op. cit., p. 13.
According to this standpoint, to interfere with a natural function as sacred as human sexual congress in order to prevent any result which, in the light of God's Law, ought to follow from it, is to break a Divine Ordinance. It is not merely "unnatural," it is "ungodly." This obviously gives the action a rather different complexion. For if we say to the Christian, "But we wear collars, and comb our hair, and wear boots" all of which are unnatural "therefore why should we not wear artificial penial sheaths or occlusive pessaries?" he may reply, if he is consistent, "There is no breach of Divine Law in your covering your body; you are interfering with no God-implanted instinct or process, any more than is the bird that seeks the warmth of a nest, or the animal that seeks the shelter of its lair. When, however, you wear artificial penial sheaths and occlusive pessaries, it is to thwart a process ordained by Divine Law, according to which your act is designed to have a certain result, and to which your God-implanted passions and appetites are supposed to lead."
Thus by regarding natural law as Divine Law, the religious man creates for himself a much more real and insuperable barrier to law-breaking than the non-religious man.
Now although, as free-thinkers, we may repudiate the first principles on which this prohibition is based, discard altogether the elaborate exegetical arguments by which it is confirmed, and refuse to follow the Churchman when he admits of no circumstances when contraceptives, or Birth Control, may be justified, 2 as mere outsiders contemplating the conduct and motives of a separate society from our own, we must acknowledge that the attitude of rigid Christians on this point is at least consistent and logical, and that it at least follows rationally out of their first principles
1 See, for instance, Christian Marriages and the Limitation of the Family, by A. J. Anderson.
2 For instance, we must acknowledge that there are sometimes medical grounds for the use of contraceptives, when either pathological conditions are present, or when, in cases of exceptional sexual affinity between couples, the optimum interval between births cannot be normally maintained. (See pp. 17 and 55, 56, ante.)
The question is whether we as modern free-thinkers have anything to learn from the moral objections to Birth Control advanced by Christian divines, remembering that such men are as widely separated in their doctrinal views as Monsignor W. F. Brown, Dr. Winnington-Ingram (Bishop of London), and Dr. John Scott Lidgett, of the Bermondsey Settlement. There does not seem to be the smallest doubt that we have something to learn in this way, and for the sake of convenience we will limit these moral objections to the two that do concern us.
We have seen that the naturalistic and scientific view confirms the general condemnation of Birth Control by consistent Christians; not, however, because contraception is a breach of the law of God, but because it cannot be practised without evil consequences, both to the minds and bodies of the married, and to the married state itself. What are these evil consequences? To the man, the mischief done is comparatively slight, and, as we have seen, chiefly of a moral kind, modifying his attitude to his mate and to marriage in an undesirable way. But to woman the mischief is more serious; for in addition to impairing her proper attitude to her mate and to marriage, contraception prevents her from functioning normally, with all the possible evil results that this may bring in its train. While we must also bear in mind that
So much for the point of union between the moral condemnation of Birth Control by Christian divines and the condemnation of it on naturalistic and scientific grounds.
But we, as unbelievers, are, as has already been pointed out, further concerned with two less general condemnations of Birth Control on moral grounds by Christian divines, and these are:
(a) That Birth Control amounts to a policy of despair, and
(b) That Birth Control will encourage immorality between the young and the unmarried.
(c) The first point of view, which was put to me very forcibly by Dr. John Scott Lidgett, and which is shared by hundreds of enlightened Christian divines, amounts briefly to this that Birth Control, by
1 Vague statements have apparently been made, both by lay and medical critics of Birth Control, to the effect that to most women the prolonged use of contraceptives may mean neurosis, general ill-health and mental conflict. But nothing approaching the methodical results detailed in the first part of the previous chapter has been obtained from any investigation of cases in regard to these disorders, although the British section of the Great Universal Christian Conference, which met at Stockholm in 1923, while refusing to pass judgment, acknowledged that methods of prevention may mean "neurosis or ill-health and mental conflict."
The opinion of Dr. Scott Lidgett, who expressed this view to me, is most valuable, not only because of his intellectual attainments and notorious broadness of mind, but also because of his long and intimate association with the poor of South-East London, and the ample opportunities he has therefore had of testing that aspect of the case for Birth Control which confines itself to enumerating the miseries of the women of slumland exhausted by excessive child-bearing.
Now Dr. Scott Lidgett condemns the mechanical or chemical methods of Birth Control unhesitatingly, and he does so chiefly because of the reason we are discussing. He claims that to use a mechanism or a chemical preparation to control a function which is directly connected with volition is to debase the whole of the psycho-physical design of the human body, and to liken it to an inanimate or irrational automaton with which no other means are possible. It is tantamount to dealing with humanity as we deal with a house that needs a plumber, a dog that needs a muzzle, or a horse that needs blinkers. It is driving the materialistic view of life so far as to deny the adequacy of mind and will as means of direction. And at this advanced stage of civilisation it means the deliberate and gratuitous depreciation or neglect of the other and nobler means which are to hand. The fact that, as birth-controllers are never tired of reminding us,
There is a good deal in this point of view. We may regard with alarm a doctrine which relies merely upon mechanical or chemical means to bring about an end which it lies within the power of man to reach by the nobler instrumentality of will and self-discipline. And those who, like Mr. Bernard Shaw, have welcomed Birth Control as a fresh access of freedom for men from the thraldom of Nature 2 have overlooked the fact that it is a fresh inroad made upon man's highest liberty by the steadily increasing tyranny of machinery and materialistic science.
Where they are indicated, therefore, between normal married couples (and in the case of couples where pathological conditions exist we have already acknowledged the usefulness of contraception under
1 Although none of the means used by savages are recommended by modem birth-controllers, the principle, which is to prevent conception by mechanical or chemical means, is the same in each case.
2 See his participation in a debate held on July 7th, 1921, at the Annual General Meeting of the Medico-Legal Society, reported in The Morality of Birth Control (pp. 14950), by Ettie A. Rout.
If this is true of married couples, however, who enjoy normal health, it is a thousand times more true of the normal unmarried, either in the period immediately before serious and honourable courtship is undertaken or during courtship. And we say this, not because we are Puritans or believers in the sinfulness of sexual intercourse, but because we recognise in the sex impulse of both young men and young women a social factor of immense value which can prove of enormous dynamic importance in their lives. And this brings us to the second of the two reasons for which Christian divines condemn Birth Control,
1 That is to say, either for the woman's sake or for the man's as, for instance, when he is faced by an important task demanding all his strength, or an important mission demanding all his attention,
(b) The Christian divine, and a large number of doctors and lay-thinkers who share his views, think that Birth Control will encourage, and is now encouraging, so-called "immorality" between the young unmarried, because it removes the natural consequences which, before contraceptive expedients were widely known, revealed the existence of illicit relations. And they say that, with the danger of the natural consequences removed and illicit intercourse made practicable with impunity, young people are sooner or later bound to become thoroughly demoralised.
Whatever value we may attach to the word "demoralised" whether we think it a regrettable and desperate condition to be in, or whether we regard it lightly, does not necessarily affect the principal point in the charge, which is that Birth Control, by making pre-marital intercourse safe (i.e. sterile), must lead to a large amount of sexual licence among the unmarried.
There can be no doubt that this is so, that the charge is justified, and that birth-controllers hardly deny that it is justified. In fact, if we turn to such books as Mrs. Bertrand Russell's Hypatia, or Dr. Norman Haire's Hymen, we find that one of the advantages claimed for Birth Control is precisely that it enables young unmarried women to have a lover "somewhere " without the dire consequences which, a hundred years ago, used necessarily to follow.
We should bear in mind that, after all, our society is still organised on the basis of a sexual life which did not know of contraception. The freedom of young women, their emancipation from the vigilant super-
Now, however, that this freedom from supervision has been secured, Birth Control has come in to give it an entirely new complexion. While the sexual life on which it was based has entirely changed, this freedom from supervision has actually grown more intense than ever. And this is a fact which birth-controllers appear entirely to overlook, or deliberately to ignore.
In France, where the knowledge and practice of contraceptive methods were always more widespread than they are here even now, and where the knowledge of practical sex problems has always been much more easily accessible to young people, the supervision of the young girl of good or respectable family is, as
We in England, however, who, through the spread of Birth Control literature and the accessibility of Birth Control expedients, have allowed conditions to supervene, which are in many respects equivalent to those prevailing in France before the War, have not thought it necessary to institute the vigilant supervision over our girls which the-French have never abandoned, and which is an essential element in any social system where clandestine pre-marital relations can be carried on with impunity. And we still continue to rely on the old on parole system in a world where the former checks to side-slipping have entirely disappeared.
It is this anomaly which makes the controversy between the birth-controllers and the strict Christian moralists so bitter, because, while the former refuse to acknowledge the way in which the widespread' liberty of young women modifies the wisdom of their propaganda, the latter are not bold enough to point out that it must be one thing or the other either Birth Control propaganda must cease and the accessibility of contraceptive expedients be restricted, as that of poisons has been, or else a closer supervision of young female life must straightway be adopted all round. Obviously, if we retain Birth Control and continue to allow the knowledge of its methods and expedients to be broadcasted throughout the nation,
Is it a bad thing that liberty is abused?
Not if, as a nation, we do not care whether our girls are or are not virgins at marriage. Nor if, as a nation, we mind whether our young men are or are not free to concentrate on the studies or work which is to establish them in their professions. But then, if we do not trouble ourselves about these things, let us frankly say so, and not pretend to be concerned about them and at the same time allow Birth Control to defeat our ends. For there is all the difference between the young man's periodical holiday from work, followed by a night's debauch, during which he may receive useful initiation into sex-life, and the kind of continuous "collage," with a girl who might be his wife, which can be secured by Birth Control.
And it is to this extent, and to this extent only, that we therefore agree with the strict Churchman in saying that the abuse of the liberty of young women, which is made possible by Birth Control, is a bad thing.
We recognise no sin in sexual intercourse outside wedlock. We see no shame in it, no wickedness. But, whether it is, or is not, carried on with the help of contraceptive practices, we cannot reconcile it (a) with a continuation of the virgin ideal in
Sex-gratification of a regular and adequate kind, of the kind obtainable in the first year of marriage, is incompatible with the concentration in the young male, fighting for a position, of that dynamic power which, both in Nature and in civilised society, has probably been the greatest spur to evolutionary progress.
Why is this so?
Because sex-gratification of a regular and adequate kind before marriage means, in the vast majority of cases, anticipating and spending a prize before having won it. It means forestalling an inheritance, and is likely, therefore, to lead to lethargy, sloth, aborted ambition and indifference. Marriage, like the success in obtaining a female among the lower mammalia, amounts to the adult animal's conquest of the circumstances which make the possession of a mate
1 And this objection is entirely apart from the further fact that illicit relations before marriage, concealed by Birth Control, are in any case just as injurious to the woman as non-productive sexual congress after marriage. In both cases non-functioning is imposed upon her reproductive system.
2 For schools of sex-initiation for young men as a means of avoiding the dangers of commercial prostitution, see the author's Woman: A Vindication, p. 172.
Both the individual and society are obviously the gainers if the sexual impulses aid in the early struggles of youth, by backing ambition and by lending their unspent forces to the fighter. Anyone who studies either life or fiction must recognise this important truth. The lives of the great have not been so very different from the life which Barrie depicts in When a
For what does this state mean? It means a young man not looking forward particularly to marriage, because he has already discounted his bills of intimacy before they became due; not spurred by his waiting love to feats of energy, concentration and conquest, not aided in his struggle by the energy of unspent youth, not dynamic and victorious, but spiritless, lethargic, devoid of ambition and ideals, hardly possessing enough interest to go round the corner to seek a better position, and throwing the reins cynically across the neck of his life-steed, to take him where it lists. 1
And Birth Control universally known and practised means a nation of such youths!
This picture may be overdrawn, but who will say that it is not essentially accurate? It may be pessimistic, but who will deny that it depicts the real danger?
These, then, we believe, are the chief reasons why
1 It will be argued by birth-controllers that the internal conflict resulting from enforced abstinence may result also in a great expenditure of energy. This is to confuse two states of mind. Enforced abstinence is not necessarily accompanied by an attitude of concentration upon the attainment of a certain goal. Where it is so accompanied, there is not necessarily any conflict. Sexual abstinence alone, without concentration on a particular aim, will produce conflict.
2. These are that fibroid tumours of the womb, low vitality of the reproductive organs', and cancer of the body of the womb and of the breast, appear to bear some relation to a previous history of disuse or non-functioning in these organs. And though this fact cannot be used to show any direct connection between contraception and these diseases, it certainly points to an indirect connection, owing to the fact that contraception may be the cause of disuse or non-functioning, whether over the whole of a woman's life or over a considerable period of it.
3. The psycho-physical modifications of the act of sexual congress, affected by contraception, make the
4. In both the man and the woman they tend to destroy the desire for a permanent relationship, and thus to undermine matrimonial relations.
5. As contraceptives affect women much more adversely than men, it seems incomprehensible that the majority of birth-controllers should also be Feminists, and, with the misleading device, "Excessive Child-bearing," on their banners, should claim that they are fighting a battle for women. But we shall show how inevitable the connection between Feminism and Birth Control actually is. Such, however, is the power of error, if it is often enough repeated, that it will take some time before the average person will be able to recognise to what extent we, the opponents of Birth Control, are the greater friends of humanity and of women.
6. The difference between the religious objector to Birth Control and ourselves is merely that we base our objections on a different authority. But we nevertheless have something to learn from the consistent Christian's views.
7. To the consistent Christian Birth Control is a defiance of God's Will. Even from the race standpoint, the Christian believer cannot believe that the world is a derelict over which God has ceased to watch, and he is therefore inclined to place more trust in supernatural aid than in man-made measures in ridding society of degeneracy hence the attitude of the Right Rev. Monsignor W. F. Brown.
9. We may learn from the objections of the Christian moralist to Birth Control that it is (a) a policy of despair, and that (b) it will encourage immorality between the young. These are the only moral condemnations that concern us; for, according to the first, birth-controllers regard it as hopeless to place reliance on self-discipline in the majority of people, and are therefore unjustifiably misanthropic and desperate about human power and freedom; and according to the second, birth-controllers seem to overlook entirely the consequences of their doctrine on the youth of the country.
10. There are moments in every couple's life when self-discipline and control may profitably be used to turn the attention away from sexual gratification. And to suppose that only the few can succeed at such moments without having recourse to chemistry or machinery is to preach an unjustifiably desperate policy.
11. The sex impulse, by being linked up with ambition, perseverance and endeavour in young people, and by lending its unspent energy to their efforts to secure themselves an independence, serves a great purpose, and it is in both the individual's and