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Mary Kenny

Marie Stopes: birth control pioneer and friend of Hitler

Mary Kenny


Colourful life: Family planning pioneer Dr Marie Stopes

Colourful life: Family planning pioneer Dr Marie Stopes

Colourful life: Family planning pioneer Dr Marie Stopes

You can be a very progressive person, ahead of your time and a pioneer of new ideas that are subsequently accepted and endorsed. You can also be a very progressive person in your time and subsequently denounced and disowned by those who inherit your values. That is what has happened with Marie Stopes, the birth control pioneer.

Dr Stopes (she was actually a scientist of paleobotany) opened the first birth control clinic in Europe 100 years ago - on March 17, 1921.

It was sited in London's Holloway and attracted only a few clients at first: it also attracted strong disapproval from medical doctors, clergy (both Anglican and Catholic) and members of Parliament.

Marie Stopes was denounced as a pornographer and a peddler of obscenity, because she had written a sex education book called Married Love, with realistic descriptions of physical sex which shocked a public shielded from such facts.

In Ireland, the ardent republican Mary MacSwiney attacked Marie Stopes in the Dail, labelling her as an example of British filth. Yet, an English Jesuit, a Father Stanislaus St John, had praised Married Love as a thoughtful and scientific support to marital happiness.

Marie was controversial, for sure, and she courted the publicity of controversy. A hundred years on, her views on contraception and sex education are widely accepted as standard, and the medical profession, which opposed her initially, endorses her ideas on maternal health.

The pitiful letters that Stopes received from poor women who already had 13 children and dreaded another pregnancy are testament to the conditions she was addressing.

And yet, despite having gained the approval of history on these issues, Marie Stopes's name has been removed from the family planning clinics, across 37 countries, that she founded. In November, a spokesman for Marie Stopes International said: "Although undoubtedly a family planning pioneer... by today's standards, a lot of her utterances are completely unacceptable."

The trouble with Marie was that she was also a racist, a eugenicist and an admirer of Adolf Hitler, to whom she sent her poetry (she always wanted to be known as a poet). She certainly did care about the overburdened, and often very poor, mothers who wanted to limit their families.

But she also sought to stop "the lower orders" from breeding altogether. She denounced "the undesirable mother" who would produce "diseased or degenerate" children. She was against the dole on the grounds that it encouraged the feckless.

She hounded a deaf father for having had four children who had inherited the condition. She exalted the goal of healthy babies - to strengthen the British Empire. Wise parenthood through birth control could do "great things for the Race" (which she always capitalised).

She adored her only child, Harry, born when she was 44, and wanted more children: so she adopted a series of little boys whom, one by one, she rejected, because they didn't meet her standards - and recommended a sound whipping when these toddlers seemed recalcitrant.

She was very much in love with her pilot husband, Humphrey Roe, when they first married. But as she became famous throughout the 1930s, she relegated him to second place and he became sexually impotent - a problem she had addressed, for others, in her sex education manuals.

She was hostile to Catholics, Jews, Bolsheviks and homosexuals and yet, late in life, she struck up a romantic relationship with "Bosie", Lord Alfred Douglas, Oscar Wilde's lover, who was both gay and a Catholic convert.

She also wrote to the Pope (Pius XI) to tell him they were "on the same side" - since she, too, was against abortion, which indeed she was: she believed contraception was always a better option.

Marie Stopes was a very odd woman - both her excellent biographers, June Rose and Ruth Hall, came to regard her as a delusional fanatic in some ways, and yet driven, ambitious, brainy, extraordinarily energetic and sure she was always right. Sometimes she described herself as a religious leader inspired by God.

Campaigners and pioneers often are peculiar personalities; perhaps they need to be, so as to challenge received opinion.

Stopes, born in Edinburgh in 1880, railed against the Victorian prudery of her time, when many brides entered marriage without knowing anything whatsoever about sex.

She received thousands of letters from married couples whose conjugal lives were joyless and fearful. She was a highly qualified scientist by her mid-twenties (she was also an expert on coal) and addressed these issues in a scientific way.

She was surely right to campaign for sexual happiness in marriage - she was keen on marriage - and for fertility control to enhance the health of mothers.

But many of the opinions she held otherwise are, rightly, unacceptable today: white supremacy, homophobia, compulsory sterilisation of the "unfit".

And her name has thus been wiped from the foundations she established.

Belfast Telegraph

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