Mr Wheatley's Reply and Ours

F. W. Stella Browne

The New Generation, June 1924

The Minister of Health in the first Labour Government, in reply to a deputation entirely organised by, and mostly entirely composed of, members of the Labour Party, has categorically refused:-

(a) To rescind the order against giving birth control information at maternity centres

(b) To permit doctors in the Public Health Service and in their public capacity to give this information when they consider it medically advisable.

The Deputation and the League

We were duly ushered upstairs into an enormous room lavishly pillared and carpeted, and certainly provided with the worst acoustic properties I have ever had occasion to suffer from. Most of us had already worked together, either for birth control or in the labour cause, but there were some new and very welcome faces. It was appropriate and pleasant to see the pioneer birth control organisation of the world so predominantly represented. Both the organiser of the deputation, Mrs Bertrand Russell (to whose energy, initiative and sympathy its inception and publicity are due), and its introducer, Mr F.A. Broad, M.P., are our Vice-Presidents, and Miss Dorothy Jewson, M.P., the only woman in the House of Commons who has come forward to help and voice this fundamental feminist cause, is also one of our members. Our indefatigable Vice-President, Mrs Graham Murray and Mrs Fuller fitly represented the Walworth Centre which owes them both so much. Among the medical contingent were our proved friends Dr Frances Huxley and Dr Muriel Radford.

Among the new faces, I was especially glad to see Alderman Edward C. Reed, who as Labour representative on Battersea Borough Council first moved that the local health authorities should give birth control knowledge to Battersea mothers, and Mr Romeril and Mr Sam March, Labour M.P.'s for Poplar and South East St. Pancras.

The statement compiled by Mrs Russell and the organising Committee and dealing mainly with the medical question had already been received by the Minister. As we sat in that desiccated atmosphere where the voices of human pity and indignation and intelligence die away among the pyramids of dusty files in the Ministry's pigeon-holes. I wondered how and in what terms Mr. Wheatley would refuse us.

Enter Officialdom

Punctual to the minute, the Minister and a little group of officials filed and seated themselves at a long table facing us. I recognised the Under-Secretary, Mr Arthur Greenwood, M.P.; there was also a private secretary and a tall, graceful woman who sat with impassive face on the Minister's right, and whom I took to be Dr Janet Campbell, the Ministry's chief woman official, and herself the author of a Report on Maternal Mortality, which is the pièce de résistance in our indictment of its present policy. I do not envy, and I do not understand, the author of that report, herself a woman, who could sit unmoved through the evidence and continue service under the Ministry after our deputation.

Mr Wheatley looked brisk, capable, dictatorial and rosy-cheeked as ever. The manner of the traditional Treasury Bench is beginning to develop in him, but he is not yet a figure-head - at least not in intention!

The Request

Mr Broad introduced the deputation and gave a summary of all the arguments for birth control, from the non-medical point of view. Mrs Russell then read a brief letter of apology from Dr. Elizabeth Sloan Chesser, whose attendance was unavoidably prevented. Dr. Chesser, while expressing approval of large families, emphasised the need for "spacing out" births, and the total unfitness of some women for maternity.

Mr H.G. Wells then rose, and there was a heightened tension; the assembly became not only deeply impressive, but dramatic. I have in the past not hesitated to criticise Wells very freely when I thought it necessary; one expects a great deal from genius, but on this occasion one got it. He was admirable. Intensely serious yet genial, entirely dignified and controlled, he at once got to the core of the matter - the right to knowledge and to freedom of choice in the use of that knowledge. He declined to enter into any theoretical discussion on the desirability, or otherwise, of birth control, but concentrated on the need and right of common men and women to knowledge available to all the well-to-do. He pointed out that in hospitals and elsewhere the working woman is not only denied birth control knowledge, but sometimes denied it with laughter and unseemly jests, and that, beneath and beyond the so-called religious objection, there are depths of envy and pruriency and all the ugliest primitive elements of human nature.

Dr Frances Huxley spoke very briefly and seriously as to the need for this knowledge at the only centres of special medical treatment available for poor women.

Mrs Russell then spoke, from the feminist-socialist point of view, and with explicit reference to the detailed and appalling medical statistics. She pointed out that hospitals and private practitioners (to whom the Ministry officially refers applicants at Welfare Centres, in this connection) were both impracticable. Many of these women cannot afford even panel fees, and at hospitals the whole staff is overworked, and the whole system so obviously breaking down, that the only opportunity available would be at the out-patients' consultation hour, where the necessary privacy and personal attention could not be offered. She pointed out that some officers of the public health departments had signed the petition and had stated that they would gladly have accompanied the deputation, and were entirely convinced of its needs, but refrained from joining it on account of the attitude of their departmental superiors. She claimed that birth control was a part of politics as we Labour people understand politics - one of many interwoven vital constructive issues including agriculture, employment, housing, education, and that all hopes of obtaining a physically adequate race were vain so long as they ignored the mothers of that race.

Mrs Jennie Baker, representative of the Finchley Women's Section, and well-known in the Labour movement for her fearless work in this and other directions then spoke, confirming and re-emphasising the working woman's position. It was deeply interesting to me to hear that this honoured veteran of both our causes has had, in her addresses to Women's Groups and Guilds, the same experience as myself and often heard that infinitely pathetic cry, "You've come too late for me - but help my daughters!"

The Reply

The Minister rose to reply. He made a condescending acknowledgement - which appeared to me superfluous to the point of impertinence - of the purity and nobility of our motives. The advocates of birth control do not require any white-wash - nor any treacle! We want deeds, not words.

Mr Wheatley then stated what I can well believe, that he was glad not to have to argue against the general question of birth control, though he also indulged in a somewhat irrelevant jibe at those who had long employed it.

Then came the crux: the matter was highly controversial; religious feeling was involved; the centres were maintained from public funds, and no public mandate in the sense desired by the deputation had yet been received.

"Our Audacity"

He was amazed at our audacity in demanding an administrative order in this matter without Parliamentary sanction.

Mrs Russell, who was obviously on fire with indignation at such callous quibbling, rose more than once to heckle him, and Alderman Reed on my right protested, till peremptorily silence, in a manner more suggestive of the school-master than the Clyde. Democracy has a way of evaporating - !

In reply to Mrs Russell's explicit question, the Minister refused even to give modified permission in special medical cases.

He drew a delicate distinction between permitting access to knowledge and actually supplying it - (in the words of Arthur Clough: "Thou shalt not kill - but needs not strive officiously to keep alive.").

In short, let Parliament decide. Till then - No.

And so, Mr H.V. Roe briefly and nervously expressed our thanks to the Minister for receiving us, and we went out of that deadly stone sarcophagus of the spirit into the traffic of Westminster.

We have had Wheatley's answer. And Labour women mean business in this matter.

He will have ours.


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