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The BBC, fake news and feminist health provider Marie Stopes

The BBC, fake news and feminist health provider Marie Stopes

Emma Barnett, the new presenter of BBC Radio Four’s Woman’s Hour, read out ‘a rare and personal’ message from the Queen to mark the beginning of the programme’s 75th year; the 94-year-old monarch, ‘understood to be a long time listener of the programme’ sent the ‘warm message of celebration and continued success’, praising the programme for being ‘“a friend, guide and advocate to women everywhere”’, and hailing the ‘“significant” part the BBC show had played in the “evolving role of women across society.”


However, the glowing commendation may be a touch premature, since the new presenter has become embroiled in a row about racism involving black guest Kelechi Okafor, who heard Ms Barnett speaking with her microphone still switched on, asking ‘“Have we booked an anti-Semite?”’


And still on the subject of diversity, on her BBC Radio Five Live show on 17th November, Ms Barnett’s interview with historian Lesley Hall, expert on the subject of Marie Stopes, left much to be desired, especially given the BBC’s relentless emphasis on ‘diversity’, with historical figures linked to eugenics coming under increasing scrutiny, such that abortion provider Marie Stopes International recently changed its name to MSI Choices.


Ms Barnett’s final question to Dr Hall, Honorary Associate Professor at University College London and Wellcome Library research fellow, was: ‘Do we know why [Stopes] was so committed to offering as she puts it reproductive choices, was it anything to do with eugenics?’ Dr Hall responded: ‘Very little... it was basically about enabling women to control their health and space out... to have healthy babies... she was very much about healthier babies and she saw that basically about enabling women to, you know, control their own motherhood and have space babies out and to be able to be better mothers.’


Stopes, who had only one child, insisted that having fewer children made women better mothers, but far from being ‘very little to do with eugenics’, the aim of her Mothers’ Clinic, which opened in Holloway, North London, in 1921, was to carry out eugenic breeding. The clue is in the name - the Society for Constructive Birth Control and Racial Progress, which she set up in 1921, and whose aims were outlined in Tenets of the C.B.C., reproduced in Aylmer Maude’s The Authorized Life of Marie C. Stopes (1924).


The Tenets makes clear that the aim was both ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ eugenics, or as Stopes herself put it, ‘more from the fit, fewer from the unfit’. The logo of the Mothers’ Clinic was ‘joyous and deliberate motherhood’, which included the spacing of babies, but also ‘the illumination’ of ‘our racial darkness’. And far from having any ‘choice’ in the matter, the Tenets maintained: ‘We say that there are unfortunately many men and women who should be prevented from procreating children at all, because of their individual ill-health, or the diseased and degenerate nature of the offspring that they may be expected to produce.’  


Even the brand-names of the contraceptives dispensed by her clinic give the game away: ‘Pro Race’ and ‘Racial’; indeed, her discriminatory language was such that her eugenics programme has been described in the Guardian as ‘actually slightly to the right of Hitler’s, just because her definition of defective is so broad.’


Stopes was a fan of Hitler’s – at least, until the Second World War started -  but back in 1918, in Wise Parenthood, she claimed that many ‘health workers, district nurses, and workers in schools for mothers ... have appealed to me asking what they are to advise for women too careless to use any ordinary method and yet who continue to give birth to hopelessly inferior infants which are only an expense and drag upon the community.’ She concluded: ‘It seems easy enough to supply the intelligent and careful woman with physiological help; and for the careless, stupid or feeble-minded who persist in producing infants of no value to the State and often only a charge upon it, the right course seems to be sterilisation.’


She admitted that there was ‘no quite simple and satisfactory method of sterilising women. Hence just the type of woman who most certainly should be sterilised in the interests of the State and of herself, namely, one with a slightly subnormal mentality or liable to epileptic fits, drink, etc., cannot be successfully sterilised without a major operation’; consequently, this type of woman ‘must use most carefully birth control methods or refrain entirely from married life’; however, ‘for men’, sterilisation was ‘comparatively easy – so trifling an operation that it is described by a leading American medical man as “an office operation” when it is performed by simple vasectomy’.


But not only ‘mentally deficient’ adults, she believed, should be sterilised:  ‘For instance, boys should be sterilised in families where there is epilepsy, or any degree of feeble-mindedness, not only in the parents but in the collaterals such as uncles and aunts, for feeble-mindedness and epilepsy are apt to “miss a generation,” and appear in a manner unexpected to the parents, although the likelihood of the calamity arising is obvious to scientists who know some of the laws which govern these deplorable racial defects.’  She also openly admitted that contraception was simply the first step to compulsory sterilisation, continuing: ‘Now that birth control is becoming so well established, it is time that the idea of sterilisation should be familiarised, so that those who would benefit by its application to themselves or their own families should be free without fear or anxiety to utilise it.’


She had already said that those most ‘in need’ would not seek ‘voluntary’ sterilisation, but her campaign helped ‘raise awareness’ of the negative effects on the wallets of the public posed by the ‘problem’ of multiplying mental deficients, as she adds: “The public will be ready to utilise it for racial purposes when its urgent need is realised’, noting: ‘Not long ago a letter in The Times signed by some distinguished medical men advocated sterilisation in this country.” Clearly, the promotion of contraception – allegedly needed to combat abortion and infanticide – was simply the preliminary step to introducing compulsory sterilisation, and given the fact that the methods she advocated did not always work, contraception could be a useful springboard to both abortion and sterilisation.


As to her ‘feminist’ credentials, far from urging sexual restraint on the husbands of women who, she said, were at risk of dying from having ‘another child’, she recommended such couples using both male and female contraception, while admitting ‘no one method gives absolute security by itself, though it may give 9,999 chances of security to one of danger.’   In conclusion, she admitted: ‘The ideal method is not yet discovered’, and while the methods she had just described were ‘absolutely harmless, and generally reliable and satisfactory’, she added that if anyone knew ‘of any method better than are now suggested, I sincerely hope that he or she will publish it or will communicate it to me, in care of my publisher.’  [Original emphasis]


Anyone who has read Marie Stopes’s works cannot escape the fact that she was a eugenicist rather than a compassionate woman who sought to improve poor women’s health and liberate them from misogyny, with a side interest in tinkering with the quality and quantity of the race.


Emma Barnett has said that ‘“Woman’s Hour is a wonderful platform known for its robust journalism and asking all of the questions that need asking’”, thus it is to be hoped that the programme might do a better job of interrogating the case of Marie Stopes, thus showing evidence of this claimed ‘robust journalism and asking all of the questions that need asking’.


The Radio Five Live attempt was even more ironic in view of the BBC’s new director general telling the Radio Times: ‘“News sources such as the BBC need to work harder than ever to expose fake news and separate fact from fiction ... We need to take care that trusted news is not blown off course by claims that are unfounded, however widespread they become.”’ He warned: “‘[W]e need to recognise that we are up against the well-funded, state-backed actors who see news as an extension of state influence and a tool for disrupting our societies and democracies”’, adding that ‘“he was proud of the BBC’s effort to “stand up for integrity in news and fight disinformation on the frontline”.


However, he was speaking about ‘disinformation online’, and it is interesting that he chose to attack the internet for ‘fake news’ while ignoring the whitewashing of eugenicist racists like Marie Stopes by his own organisation, despite the fact that her name is still being used to curb the numbers of the disadvantaged and/or non-white, both here and abroad, nowadays including abortion in the array of reproductive ‘choices’ .


Mr Davie could, however, strike a real blow for ‘diversity’ and ‘equality’ by broadcasting a programme studying the eugenics and racial aspects of Stopes’s ‘work’, and their continuation into the present day - otherwise, it will look very much as if the BBC is simply faking a determination to combat fake news.