Wednesday, October 22, 2008

A woman for our time?


It was one of the most poignant photographss o far of the US presidential race. Sarah Palin, the Republican Party’svice-presidential nominee, cradled herbaby, Trig, in her arms. A classic Madonnaand Child pose. But it was one for which MrsPalin was particularly vilified, simply becauseTrig is a Down’s syndrome baby.
Rather than be applauded for the courageand hard work it takes to raise a child withspecial needs, Sarah Palin was, according toCarol Fowler, the chairwoman of the DemocraticParty in South Carolina, chosen becauseher “primary qualification seems to bethat she hasn’t had an abortion”, while CintraWilson, a columnist for the online Salonmagazine, said that Trig was “the anti-abortionplatform that ensures [Palin’s] own politicalambitions”.

Mrs Palin is not the first woman in the publiceye to raise eyebrows over her decisionabout her baby. Cherie Blair chose not to havean amniocentesis test when she was pregnantwith her fourth child, Leo, because of the riskto the baby, despite the relative likelihood ather age of having a child with Down’s syndrome.This was a view that went right againstthe grain. As a newly published report fromthe worldwide charity Down Syndrome Education International (DSEI), reveals, government policy and pressure from themedical establishment has led to screeningfor genetic abnormality becoming the normin Britain. The study by DSEI shows that thisscreening, requiring invasive techniques,leads to miscarriage in between one in 100and one in 50 pregnancies, and that arounda startling 95 per cent of positive screeningsare wrong.

But what the charity is really concernedabout is not just the “normal” babies who arelost through this screening but whether geneticscreening for physical and mentalabilities and disabilities during pregnancy isacceptable. For behind that screening policylies a conviction that abnormality, any deviationfrom the “perfect”, has no place in oursociety. For years the political and medicalestablishment has promoted the idea thatscreening is a sensible, rational option. It isa given that if abnormality is found, then thechild’s life should be terminated. And just howthat view came to be so popular owes its rootsto a woman whose life and work is this monthbeing given what one might call, literally, astamp of approval. Marie Stopes is beinghonoured with a stamp issued by the RoyalMail.

Stopes is, of course,  best known for being a birth-control pioneer. The correspondencebetween Stopes and thousands of letterwriters who contacted her afterpublication of her bestselling volumes, MarriedLove and Wise Parenthood, reveal thedesperation many felt at having large familiesthey struggled to raise, the despairwrought by sexual ignorance, and the compassionfelt by her for their plight. But MarieStopes was not all that she seemed. (Indeedeven her title was misleading. That she wasDr Stopes suggested she had a medical background;in fact she had a PhD in fossilbotany.) Like many of the early pioneers ofabortion and birth control she was a eugenicist.Eugenics, while long associated with NaziGermany, has a lengthy history in Britain. Theword derives from the Greek, meaning wellborn,and its followers advocate the improvementof the human race throughintervention. Its beginnings can be linked toThomas Malthus’ “Essay on the Principle ofPopulation”, published in 1798, which expressedthe fear that the poor, unless checked,would outstrip food supplies. During the nineteenthcentury, as the size of richer familiesdeclined, followers of Malthus feared that thepoor would start to predominate in society.The solution was segregation of the poor inworkhouses, where husbands and wives were kept apart so that they had no more children.By the beginning of the twentieth century,the belief that those unfit to breed shouldbe stopped from doing so began to grow inpopularity. Preventive methods proposed includedsegregation, sterilisation, euthanasia,and abortion, as well as birth control. Thisdesire to control population was not entirelyfocused on the poor; while the working classesshould limit their families, many eugenicistsand Malthusians were dismayed that themiddle classes were having fewer children.

The well-off woman was seen as shirking herduty by not improving the stock.While the Eugenics Education Society was formed in 1907, it was during the 1920s and1930s that the eugenics movement grew, attractingwell-known intellectuals such as Sydneyand Beatrice Webb and Bertrand andDora Russell. Although the society’s leadinglights were on the left, and an unsuccessfulbill was put forward in 1931 by a Labour MP to sterilise the unfit, there was a certain suspicionamong Labour Party members that eugenicswas focused on eliminating theworking class. As indeed it was: ProfessorF.A.E. Carew, when giving evidence to the1937 Birkett Enquiry into abortion, urged thatthe “slum womb” be abolished.In contrast, as Ann Farmer recalls in hernewly published study of abortion and eugenicsBy Their Fruits, the WestminsterCatholic Federation told the Birkett Enquirythat it was social conditions, not the child,that should be changed. It was a plea thatwent unheeded among the proponents ofabortion. Ann Furedi, chief executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service and oneof the staunchest advocates of the right toabortion in this country, revealed in a paperon abortion given at Kent University that policymakers long focused on limiting the childrenof the poor, right up to the passing ofthe 1967 Abortion Act.“Parliamentary discussion of the AbortionAct explicitly discussed its use in preventingunfit mothers from having unsuitable families,”she told the one-day conference. “Contemporarymedical journals discussed thevalidity of legal abortion alongside the needfor a birth control plan for Britain to limitthe numbers of the poor.”Back in the 1930s, as Ann Farmer’s meticulouslyresearched account reveals, a networkof campaigners made up of Eugenics Society members belonged to a wide rangeof other organisations and worked across party political lines, pushing for abortion andsterilisation for just these reasons. 

In the midstof all this was Marie Stopes. Stopes came toprominence in 1918 with the publication ofMarried Love, which had sold 400,000 copiesby 1923. In 1921, she and her husband, theaviator H.V. Roe, set up London’s first birthcontrolclinic in north London and formedthe Society for Constructive Birth Controland Racial Progress. Her views went well beyondan interest in people’s sexual wellbeing.“Are these puny-faced, gaunt, blotchy,ill-balanced, feeble, ungainly, withered childrenthe young of an Imperial race?” she askedthe readers of The Daily Mail in 1919 in anarticle entitled “Mrs Jones does her worst”.“Mrs Jones”, she went on, “is destroyingthe race!” 

The following year, in her book RadiantMotherhood, she urged that “the sterilisationof those 
totally unfit for parenthoodbe made an immediate possibility, indeedmade compulsory.” Marie Stopes’ beliefs affectedher own family. She cut her son outof her will for marrying a short-sightedwoman, outraged at the harm it wouldcause to her own bloodline. “Mary andHarry are quite callous about both thewrong to their children, the wrong to my familyand the eugenic crime.”These beliefs took Stopes to Germany, whereshe attended the Nazis’ Berlin congress onpopulation science in 1935. They were beliefsshe maintained throughout her life, leavingher money to the Eugenics Society andhelping to set up the International PlannedParenthood Federation in the 1950s, arguingthat no society should allow “the diseased,the racially negligent, the careless, the feeble-minded and the very lowest and worstmembers of the community to produce innumerabletens of thousands of warped andinferior infants”.

Such extreme language might seem outdatedtoday, but Stopes would no doubtapprove of the 
screening for congenitalabnormality so heavily promotedby the NHS, whose end result is frequentlytermination. And yet the numbers of childrenwith Down’s is increasing. The number of babiesborn with the condition has risen by25 per cent in the past 15 years in Britain. Accordingto Frank Buckley, chief executive ofDSEI and co-author of the charity’s new report:“More people are living with Down’s syndromethan ever before, with over 600,000across Europe and North America andmaybe 4 million worldwide.”All kinds of reasons could explain the increasein the number of Down’s children.Women are having children later in life, thusincreasing the likelihood of chromosomal abnormality.They feel encouraged to have thembecause other parents and charities have lobbiedhard for better healthcare and better opportunities for their children.

Above all, these figures are a sign that wehave made progress in the twenty-first century– not because of genetic screening butbecause, unlike Marie Stopes, people havelearned that they need not fear those who they deem less than perfect.

Marie Stopes,honoured on a new postage stamp, is well known as a pioneer in the field of contraception.What is less well known is the influence on her work of her belief in eugenics – that bylimiting the numbers of the poor by birth control it would be possible to improve the English ‘race’A woman for our time?The Royal Mail’s stamp featuring MarieStopes: her belief in eugenics took her tothe Nazis’ Berlin congress on populationscience in 1935