Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Dr Halliday G. Sutherland and resistance to the birth control movement

“... the ordinary decent instincts of the poor are against these practices, and indeed they have used them less than any other class. But, owing to their poverty, lack of learning, and helplessness, the poor are the natural victims or those who wish to make experiments on their fellows. In the midst of London, a woman, who is a doctor of German philosophy (Munich) has opened a Birth Control Clinic where working women are instructed in a method of contraception described by Professor McIlroy as ‘the most harmful method of which I have had experience.’”

“It is truly amazing that this monstrous campaign of birth control should be tolerated by the Home Secretary. Charles Bradlaugh was condemned to jail for a less serious crime.”

For these words a renowned medical pioneer was prosecuted for libel by Marie Stopes in 1923.

Dr Halliday G. Sutherland (1888-1960)
Dr Halliday G. Sutherland stood up courageously against the birth control and eugenics movement in the early twentieth century and his life therefore deserves the attention of those of us who continue that battle today. He was born in Glasgow in 1882 and studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh, graduating in 1908. He began his career as a bacteriologist at Liverpool Chest Hospital before spending time practising medicine in Spain at a British medical clinic. On his return to Scotland he worked at various hospitals before becoming Medical Officer at St. Marylebone Tuberculosis Dispensary in London in 1911. When war broke out he joined the Royal Navy, and then the fledging Royal Air Force. After the war he returned to the practice of medicine becoming an expert in tuberculosis and holding many senior positions in that field. He was also a popular travel writer and adventurer writing books such as Lapland Journey, Spanish Journey, and A Time to Keep. His autobiography The Arches of the Years was published in eight European languages and reprinted thirty-five times.

Shortly after the First World War Sutherland was received into the Catholic Church. He dedicated a great deal of time and energy to exposing the incipient birth control movement publishing Birth Control: A Statement of Christian Doctrine against the Neo-Malthusians in 1922. He began this work by examining and refuting the doctrines of Malthus and the Neo-Malthusians concerning overpopulation. He argued that there was no evidence that the world was facing a crisis of overpopulation and then deconstructed the Malthusian narrative step by step. He argued that the real cause of poverty was economic injustice and not overpopulation. He then moved on to discuss the health risks of contraceptive methods, the degradation of women which was inseperable from their use, the damage that they caused to marriages and finally the way in which in birth control was used to control the poor. He ended the book by discussing the immorality of contraception in the light of the teaching of the Catholic Church.

The first trial of Halliday Sutherland took place in February 1923. Marie Stopes argued that the extracts quoted above were libellous because they alleged that she was taking advantage of the weakness of the poor, that she was subjecting them to dangerous experiments, and that she was guilty of criminal practices. She said that her reputation and that of her clinic had been unjustly damaged. Sutherland defended himself by arguing that his words were true and fair comment made in the public interest. The jury decided that the claims made by Sutherland about Stopes were accurate but that they had been made in a defamatory manner and awarded damages of £100 to Stopes. The judge rejected their verdict and Sutherland was aquitted. Stopes successfully appealed against this decision and £100 of damages were once more awarded to her. Sutherland then appealed to the House of Lords where the Law Lords reached a verdict 4-1 in his favour.

Lord Vincent concluded that Sutherland’s accusations were fair comment and a reasonable expression of the commonly held opinion that ‘such practices are revolting to the healthy instincts of human nature’. Indeed, Lord Vincent expressed his own opinion that works promoting methods of birth control ‘are calculated to have a most deplorable effect upon the young of both sexes’ and pointed out that Stopes’ works were ‘of such a nature that they were not read aloud’ in the court. The accuracy of Lord Vincent's prediction has become all too clear in our own day (see here and here for evidence of this).
The Stopes vs Sutherland trial ended with criticism of Marie Stopes being heard in the highest court in the land and with at least one of her allegations against Sutherland being dismissed as ‘absurd.’ The enormous costs that she was made to pay were a setback to her work. Unfortunately the courts would not long remain places where human dignity was upheld yet Sutherland can remain for us a model of courage and tenacity in defence of human life.

Dr Halliday G. Sutherland died in April 1960. He had been made Knight Commander of the Order of Isabella by the Spanish government in 1954 for his services to the Spanish people. In 1955 he was presented with the Pope John XXI medal, which is awarded to Catholic doctors who have made an outstanding contribution to the field of medical ethics.
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