Image: SPUC UK

You can tell something about a person by the company she keeps, and the same applies to organisations. Marie Stopes International, a high profile British birth control non-profit, was outed in The Mail on Sunday recently for receiving cash and goods worth 7.5 million pounds from American porn tycoon Phil Harvey over the past 15 years.

Harvey himself has been a direct player in the international “reproductive health” game since the 1970s, funding his own and other charities through Adam & Eve, a business that sold 60 million pounds worth of sex toys and pornographic film in 2019.

What does this say about Marie Stopes?

At best that it suffers from poor taste. It also has a strange attitude to women. MSI touts its contraceptive and abortion services as empowering “women and girls all over the world to choose when or whether to have children.” Yet it works hand in glove with an industry that disempowers women by making them sexual playthings, if not facilitating sexual assault and human trafficking.

Harvey’s sex business offers an array of pornographic material including female sex robots which promote the fact “her inflatable body is also practical if you need to store her or take her on journeys.” An huge list of pornographic films is also flaunted on his sex website.

But by peddling contraception and abortion to vulnerable women in developing countries, MSI, like Planned Parenthood and the rest of them, is handmaiden to every man who would sexually exploit a woman. Yet it is blasé about the connection.

Its response to the Mail on Sunday was: “Phil Harvey has spent his life defending sexual and reproductive health rights, and played a significant role in expanding access for women across the world. We are proud that he continues to contribute to the organisation.”

Harvey, 82, is not the only unsavoury mogul to cosy up to the birth control industry. Hugh Hefner, the founder of Playboy, used his magazine to campaign for legalised abortion. Harvey Weinstein apparently posed as a cheerleader of Planned Parenthood. It makes sense: the women they used or encouraged other men to use might need the odd abortion, and it goes down well with the liberal crowd.

However, Phil Harvey’s US$9 million equivalent over a decade or two looks paltry compared to what Marie Stopes gets from other sources every year. The UK government alone gave them £48million last year which helped them deliver around five million abortions and pay its CEO £434,000 – among other things. Harvey’s position as a board member of MSI signals that he is much more important to the organisation than his cash grants.

A profile of him in Mother Jones magazine back in 2002 reveals that the relationship between Harvey and Marie Stopes goes back more than 50 years, to when he was a graduate student at the University of North Carolina’s School of Public Health, on a Ford Foundation fellowship (Ford being one of the main powerhouses of the population control movement). There he worked with a young British doctor, Tim Black, who went on to rescue the bankrupt Marie Stopes Foundation in 1975 and turn it into a “social business” with its current name.

Both Harvey and Black had spent time in developing countries and were convinced that what the poor of the world needed more than food was fewer babies. As part of their thesis work they came up with a plan to test social marketing of contraceptives in the American marketplace. With a university grant they began a mail order business, running clever ads in college newspapers and selling condoms to students. Next they added other merchandise and eventually struck gold when they threw in sex magazines. This was the genesis of Adam & Eve, which under Harvey surfed the wave of the home video boom in the 1980s and survived efforts to shut it down under the Reagan administration.

But Harvey and Black hadn’t forgotten the poor: perhaps social marketing of condoms would work in the developing world as well. To this end they set up a dual venture: a profit-making arm called Population Planning Associates, and a separate nonprofit, Population Services International (PSI), which by 1975 was running condom-marketing programmes in Kenya and Bangladesh. PSI remains one of the big guns of population control alongside International Planned Parenthood.

Harvey left PSI in the late 1970s and focussed on his porn business, but a few years later he founded another non-profit, DKT International, to take up marketing and supplying cheap condoms to the poor again.

In 2017 DKT launched a “WomanCare” platform “to dramatically increase the use of high-quality contraceptive, safe abortion, and reproductive health products.” In 2019, DKT WomanCare sold 222,123 manual vacuum aspiration abortion kits, 1.8 million cannulae and 1.4 million implants (linked with high rates of HIV in some African countries) in 90 countries. The organisation’s homepage currently features an example of its social marketing in the form of an article headed, “5 People Share Why Their Abortion Was Beautiful”.

This seems to be the real value of Phil Harvey to MSI and the whole international birth control industrial complex. As an entrepreneur he will use some of his own profits from porn to boost the supply of something like manual vacuum aspiration kits where, say, the British foreign aid agency or the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation or the UN Population Fund might hold back until the product is more acceptable to recipient governments.

Perhaps in somewhere like Kenya, where, although Marie Stopes says it only does abortions where they are legal, it more or less openly flouts the country’s highly restrictive law, and cloaks its activity with the saintly garb of “after abortion care” – that is, cleaning up after illegal abortions, which MSI dramatises (and inflates?) in order to push its abortion rights barrow.

On its home turf in Britain, MSI has had to clean up its own operations after unannounced official inspections. A highly critical Care Quality Commission report found major safety flaws at MSI clinics, with more than 2,600 serious incidents reported in 2015. A follow-up report in 2017 found there were 373 botched abortions in just the first two months of that year. MSI had issues with infection control and staff at one clinic complained of a “cattle market” approach with incentives for putting through as many abortions as possible.

No doubt there was some kind of idealism driving the founders of MSI and PSI/DKT, as there may be among those working for the organisations today – an actual belief that preventing births is a real favour to women and to the world in general. After all, the rich and respected of the world, the Fords, the Hewletts, the Gates and others have thought and continue to think so.

But the pornography connection that has helped so many of their projects along shows the true character of the birth control enterprise. Harvey told Mother Jones in 2002 that in the early days he was “terrified that, because of Adam & Eve, we were going to lose support for some of our programs.” Then he added: “But it never happened. I think part of the reason was that the key people in charge of family planning overseas, even in conservative governments, are not the types who are likely to be upset by sex products. After all, they’re in the sex business themselves.”

Yes, sex boils down to business for the so-called family planning establishment. A business requiring certain products to make it “safe” if not enjoyable for all concerned. And porn is one of those products, nearly as important as the condom itself, and often more effective since it removes the need for any human contact whatsoever. In that way, however, the pornographers could drive MSI and company out of business, ending a beautiful friendship – one as beautiful as abortion.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet