'Baby-Killers', and others
F. W. Stella Browne, letter to the Editor of The Malthusian, Mar 1915
Her first published statement on the necessity of legalising abortion.
Sir, On the 8th of January the Society of Medical Officers of Health met to hear and discuss a paper by Dr W. Whitley, on "Criminal Abortion and Abortifacients.' The proceedings are summarised in both the Lancet and the British Medical Journal.
These summaries are psychological curiosities, and significant of the causes of much disorder and misery. The Medical Officers of Health are greatly disturbed at the prevalence of abortion, and at least two among them - Dr Whitely and Dr Willoughby, -have realised that the Illegitimacy Laws are largely responsible. But all wider implications are steadily ignored, and there is something at once ridiculous and terrible in the solemnly futile, exclusively masculine discussion of such a question. Mentally, these gentlemen live in an androcentric world. To judge from the report of the debate, the very possibility of preventing conception might be unknown to those experienced medical men and public officials, and they almost seem to agree with a lady - well known on Anti-Suffrage and Tariff Reform platforms - that "a great deal of nonsense is talked about the over-driven wives and mothers of the working class."
Over-driven or leisured, wives or not - women are slowly gaining control of their own affairs, and neither attacks on the herbalists, nor restrictions on the sale of diachylon, nor such inquisitorial outrages as the suggested compulsory notification of miscarriages, are really relevant.
The first essential measure is the instruction of the poorer classes in the most hygienic and reliable contraceptive methods. Our League has always insisted that this instruction should be undertaken by the doctors and nurses who are the qualified guardians of the nation's health; but while many of them refuse to recognise reason and humanity in this matter, we must work as we can, without their co-operation, believing that some day their attitude will be as emphatically condemned as the Early Victorian opposition to the use of anaesthetics in childbirth is, today.
Another very important remedial measure is the reform of the "Bastardy" Laws, which directly promotes infantile mortality, ante-natal and post-natal. They must be revised in accordance with real respect for motherhood and the rights of future generations.
The writer of this letter is inclined to hope far more from State intervention in industry and trade than do most of our members. In previous issues of our paper this question has been very ably debated by authorities on both sides. Here I would only emphasise the possibility of combining Neo-Malthusianism and Social Reform. To be really effective they must be taken in conjunction. It is at least curious that at the present moment, though the British Navy ensures our food supply, there is a serious rise in prices, owning to the neglect of the authorities to take sufficiently prompt measures for its distribution.
A further question arises in connection with the subject so superficially discussed by the Medical Officers of Health. It is one of the Principles of the League, "That the full and open discussion of the Population Question in all its necessary aspects is of vital moment to society"; and it is from this point of view that - having regard to facts instead of obsolescent codes - I venture to plead for the abolition of the present savage penalties on the performance of "illegal operations"; for the following reasons:
1. An invariably reliable preventive has yet to be invented. The greatest care and forethought are sometimes at fault, even though there may be overwhelmingly cogent reasons why no child should be born to the particular people in question.
2. As yet the education of the young in the facts of sex is only beginning, though it is considered necessary by all medical, and most educational, specialists. Why penalise irretrievably what may be the result of pitiful ignorance, an ignorance which no one has tried to enlighten in a decent reverent way?
3. The present laws - while they seldom check women who are driven desperate by fear or want, or deliberately, intelligently resolved not to undertake the responsibility for another life, - are a veritable forcing house of blackmail. (See the case recorded in the absorbingly interesting and authoritative "History of Penal Methods," by G.C. Ives.) The professional procuring of abortion has been made a crime, and therefore fallen mainly into the hands of a criminal class, though any knowledge of the lives of working class women will prove that the professional abortionist is sometimes the truest friend and benefactor. Nevertheless, the antecedents of the majority are in the highest degree undesirable and anti-social, and their lack of proper obstetric training often causes permanent injuries to their clients. It is seldom realised that the prejudice against abortion is founded, not on medical science, but on Christian doctrine. It is a remnant of the Canon Law, which assumed that from the time of conception the child possessed an imprescriptible right to "salvation," i.e. baptism. Thinking men and women, who look at Europe today, may well question why embryonic life alone should be considered sacred! If the world and the State need the children, let them be made fit for the children to live and grow, to work and love, in.
4. Lastly, we cannot recognise as final, any laws on these subjects, so long as women have not
full opportunities of expressing their wishes. Quite apart from economic stress, no one who
studies women as they are, as distinct from the "Woman" of traditional masculine sentiment, can
doubt that a large number of women are not specially and preeminently maternal. They are by no
means necessarily on a low ethical plane on that account, - there are many striking and
distinguished personalities among them - but their temperament is either neuter or strongly
sexual, rather than parental, and when they are not terrorised into subjection by ignorance, they
refuse to undertake a responsibility for which they are naturally unfit. A really adequate civilised
morality will support their decision, while it honours and protects maternity. It is part of our
work to develop such a morality.
P.S. Since this letter was written, public attention has been called to the fate of those French and Belgian women, who are expectant mothers, as a result of the enemies' brutality. Here, surely is a case in which abortion is imperatively indicated, unless the woman herself prefers to have the child. That this obvious remedy should be refused in favour of a complicated system of secrecy and subterfuge (change of name and address, boarding out of children, etc is surely the limit of the absurdity and cruelty involved in denying a woman's right over her own body.