Britain’s first birth control clinic was founded on March 17, 1921. Marie Stopes International, the abortion charity named after the founder of the clinic, marked the centenary four months ago when it changed its name to “MSI Reproductive Choices”. While it did this to disassociate itself from the group’s eugenic origins, it is doubtful if a mere name change can exorcise its history.
One hundred years ago, today, on March 17, 1921, Dr Marie Stopes and her husband, Humphrey Roe, opened the Mothers’ Clinic at 61 Marlborough Road in Holloway, London. It was the first birth control clinic in the British Empire.
Since then Stopes’s eugenic views, and the fact that her Mothers’ Clinic was a eugenic project, have become more widely known.
It led Marie Stopes International to abbreviate its commemoration of her name on November 17 last year, announcing that it had changed it name to MSI Reproductive Choices. As MSI’s CEO, Simon Cooke, explained in Britain’s Daily Telegraph: “it was increasingly ‘proving difficult for us to explain that Dr Stopes was not our founder and these views were not our views.’”
But given that MSI’s eugenic and Malthusian origins are embedded in its DNA (for once that hackneyed corporate expression is appropriate!), one wonders if it really can disassociate itself from its past and exorcise its eugenic ghosts.
Firstly, MSI’s work fulfills its eugenic and Malthusian origins. While MSI may have different views to its founders, does it matter? After all, the substance of its work — providing contraception, sterilisation and abortion in 37 countries — fulfils the eugenic and Malthusian intent of Stopes and Roe 100 years ago. A difference of views is mere nuance by comparison with the work they do.
Secondly, one of the founders of MSI, Dr Tim Black (who died in 2014), had views that were not dissimilar to the eugenicists of Stopes’s era. The media release issued by Marie Stopes International in November 2020 outlined its foundation:
“MSI was founded in 1976 by Dr Tim Black, Jean Black and Phil Harvey, who took over the clinic on the site of the original Marie Stopes’ ‘Mothers Clinic’ in central London and who named the organisation in recognition of the origins of that historic building and Marie Stopes’ pioneering work.”(*)
On this basis, there appears to be no continuity between Stopes’s views and the new owners of her clinic. On the other hand, given that they purchased the clinic from the Eugenics Society, they must have been aware that there was some at least some connection with eugenics.
Further, the views of Dr Tim Black were not dissimilar to the eugenicists and Malthusians of Stopes’ era. For example, compare the passages below:
Havelock Ellis in The Task of Social Hygiene (1912)
“The superficially sympathetic man flings a coin to the beggar; the more deeply sympathetic man builds an almshouse for him so that he need no longer beg; but perhaps the most radically sympathetic of all is the man who arranges that the beggar shall not be born.”
MSI’s account of the life-changing event that led Dr Tim Black to become a birth-controller.
“In the late 1960s, Tim Black was working as a district health officer in the Sepik district of New Guinea, and it was around that time that he began to reassess his focus on trying to cure or save lives as a matter of course. After saving the life of a three-month old girl, he was shocked that her widowed mother — who already had five children and no steady income — didn’t want her to survive.
“‘My shock was absolute. My immediate reaction was one of utter indignation. The gulf separating my life experience and that of this poor woman was complete. She had wanted the baby to die — not live — during the operation.
“‘I suddenly realised that I had presented her, not only with her baby, but with another mouth to feed, another dependent human being to whom she could offer nothing: no father, no education, no future.
“‘It was at that point that I began to realise that preventing a birth could be as important as saving a life.’”
Black and Ellis were essentially making the same point. Both had an unshakeable assurance that the answer to social problems is the prevention of life and that the lives that they prevented would have been, without exception, miserable.
Thirdly, MSI’s mission was set by the Council of the Eugenics Society. After World War II and subsequent revelations of Nazi atrocities, eugenics was “on the nose” and Britain’s Eugenics Society faced an existential crisis. It sought expert advice and received a recommendation: “That the Society should pursue eugenic ends by less obvious means, that is by a policy of crypto-eugenics, which was apparently proving successful with the US Eugenics Society”. In this way, it was hoped that they could continue their work without attracting attention and opposition.
(If this sounds to you like a “conspiracy theory”, check the original source: — The Eugenics Review, September 1968, pp 142-161. It has also been well documented in academic journals – here and here.)
In February 1960, the Council of the Eugenics Society resolved that: “The Society’s activities in crypto-eugenics should be pursued vigorously, and specifically that the Society should increase its monetary support of the FPA [Family Planning Association] and the IPPF [International Planned Parenthood Federation]… ” Notably, at precisely the moment the Council decided to adopt a policy of crypto-eugenics, it increased funding of the FPA and the IPPF.
Subsequent developments accorded with the policy of crypto-eugenics, which enabled the Society to fade into the background. In 1968, the Society ceased publication of the Eugenics Review and replaced it with a less evocative title, The Journal of Biosocial Science. In 1975, the Society sold its family planning clinic at 108 Whitfield Street (a bequest of Stopes upon her death in 1958) to Messrs Black and Harvey. In 1989, the Eugenics Society changed its name to The Galton Institute.
The decision to fund international population control was made in February 1960 as a consequence of the crypto-eugenics policy. Regardless of whether MSI Reproductive Choices share these views, the fact is that to this day, it continues the work allotted by the Council of the Eugenics Society.
Plus ça change…
(*) Note: It isn’t correct to say that they “took over the clinic on the site of the original Marie Stopes’ ‘Mothers Clinic’ in central London”. The original clinic was in Marlborough Road, Holloway. They took over Stopes’ second clinic in Whitfield Street Holloway.