Birth Control and the Moral Law




THE pronouncement of the Lambeth Conference on the artificial control of conception is a recognition of a great change in public opinion on this subject. By a majority of about three to one the representatives of all the churches in communion with the Church of England have refused, for the first time, to condemn the practice absolutely, and have conceded that the morality of the action depends on the motive, which is a matter for the individual conscience.

It is perhaps worth while to remind Americans that this Conference of 320 bishops, gathered from every quarter of the world, had almost the dignity of a General Council. It included not only the white representatives of the United States and of the British Commonwealth of Nations, but Indians, Chinese, Japanese, and Africans, whose ability and sense made a good impression on their colleagues. It received deputations from almost all the other episcopal churches, including the great Orthodox Church of the East, the Church of Origen, Athanasius, and Chrysostom. An alliance, with full mutual recognition, of all the episcopal churches, except the Church of Rome, seems to be in sight. The Report of the proceedings of the Conference, a dignified and on the whole a courageous document, will repay perusal by all who are interested in religious questions.

The cardinal problem of civilization, H. G. Wells has told us, is the question of births. Hitherto procreation has been unregulated and haphazard. Sometimes the results of natural selection have been eugenic, as they must have been while such great races as the Greeks and Romans were being formed. Sometimes there has been a counterselection ending in the disappearance of the higher stocks and the decay of civilization. In primitive societies numbers are kept down and the weak eliminated by war, famine, and pestilence, often supplemented by infanticide. These rough methods are ceasing to be operative. In modern civilization almost every department of human activity is being brought under rational and social control. War has been formally renounced as an instrument of international policy. Famine and pestilence no longer decimate the white races, and nature’s failures are carefully protected and encouraged to propagate their like. Is it possible any longer to exempt the growth and the quality of the population from the scope of rationally directed effort? Can procreation remain any longer outside the sphere of moral obligation? Is there any self-adjusting provision of nature whereby the optimum number of citizens can be preserved in a society which has decided that none shall starve? To ask those questions is to answer them. The population question is an important branch of social ethics.

Copyright 1930, by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.

There are still some — a rapidly dwindling minority — who would forbid any consideration of the subject on the ground that all interference with procreation is contrary to the will of God or the law of nature. A Roman Catholic controversialist has blamed the bishops for condemning adultery, while condoning ‘a greater sin,’the prevention of conception. It is difficult for anyone who does not accept the authoritative declarations of the Roman Church to understand this position, though a fundamentalist might appeal to the injunction ‘Be fruitful and multiply,’ uttered when the population of the globe consisted of two persons, and to Genesis XXXVIII, where Onan is punished, not, however, for ‘spilling his seed,’ but for refusing to have a child by his brother’s widow. These arguments are out of date, and in the discussion which follows I shall take the position of the bishops, that control of conception cannot be condemned absolutely, without regard to the motives which lead men and women to adopt it.

There is no doubt that the movement has, in popular phrase, ‘come to stay.’ In half a century the birth rate in England and Wales has fallen from 36 to 16.3, the figure for last year. There is hardly a civilized country, except Japan, in which there has not been a very steep decline. The Roman Catholic countries are not really an exception. France and Belgium have very low birth rates, and Austria since the war has joined the nations where population is artificially restricted. In Vienna the deaths now exceed the births. Very high rates prevail among the Poles, the French Canadians, and the Irish; but this is not so much the result of their religion as of their readiness to perform rough labor which races with a higher standard refuse. They can therefore find work for their large families, and Scotland, France, and Germany are uneasy at the steady influx of low-grade workers, who displace native labor. The most startling exception to the general decline of natality is in the Slav countries, Russia and Bulgaria, where the birth rates are still round about 40 per thousand. Here again we see the connection between a very low standard and fecundity.


It is impossible to discuss the morality of limitation from a purely individual standpoint, or to lay down a general rule. Conditions vary greatly in different countries, and in the same country at different times. The optimum population may be larger than the present total, or (when the unemployed are maintained out of public funds) it may be considerably less.

Let me take my own country as an example. In the nineteenth century, England was the workshop of the world. Having a long start of its rivals in mechanical appliances, and being able to import as much food as it required in exchange for its manufactures, it could support a rapidly increasing population while actually raising the standard of living. This growth was effected without a very high birth rate, by steadily reducing the toll levied by death. In the year of my birth, 1860, the death rate was about 22 per thousand; at present it is usually between 11 and 12.

The state of things which made almost unchecked increase possible was obviously transitory, and it has now passed away. We have lost our preeminence in manufacture; political pressure has forced up the costs of production to an uneconomic level; we are unfairly handicapped by the high tariff walls which foreign nations, and even our own Dominions, erect against our goods; our emigrants are excluded from some lands which once welcomed them; we are staggering under a prodigious weight of taxation; and the pernicious system of the dole, introduced after the war to stave off revolution, is sapping the independence of our workers, and making what may be called the rentier habit of mind universal. Offer to an unemployed man an easy job, such as sweeping a lawn, at thirty-two shillings a week, and he will probably answer: ‘What? Me work for six shillings a week? I have a right to twenty-six for doing nothing!’ To these troubles must be added the great displacement of labor by machinery, and the entry of women in very large numbers into the ranks of wage earners. So far as I can see, we shall never be able to find employment for anything like the forty-eight million who now inhabit these islands, and the optimum population at present is probably not more than forty million.

If I am right, we shall be driven to limit our numbers in one way or another, and this can be done peaceably only by a general use of birth control. It is true that the bishops prefer another remedy — namely, total abstinence from marital relations. (The old notion that there are ‘safe times’ in every month is now discredited.) The bishops can hardly have thought that their suggestion is practicable, except for a small minority. A manage blanc is generally an unhappy one, and frequently ends in disaster. The bishops ought to have remembered Saint Paul’s prohibition of such experiments, except for a short time, and for purposes of self-discipline.

The real alternative to birth control is abortion. The extent to which this crime is practised all over the world is known only to a few. Miss Elderton, who was commissioned by the Galton Institute to investigate social conditions in England north of the Humber, found reason to believe that a majority of married women of the artisan class in many parts of Lancashire and Yorkshire attempt to terminate pregnancies by artificial means. The chemists, at the time when she made her inquiries, sold a great variety of drugs, reputed to be abortifacients. Most of these were probably of little use; but a preparation containing lead, which was bought on easily scraped plasters, frequently caused miscarriages. More violent methods were also resorted to.

Other investigators in France and Germany report that an enormous number of births are prevented every year, either by drugs or by illegal operations. These operations are somewhat dangerous, and in England, if death results, the operator may be tried on a capital charge. Nevertheless many practitioners make a living in this way; and I was told the other day by the High Sheriff of a county in the west of England that juries will not convict on this charge unless a life has been sacrificed. ‘Half of them,’ he said, ‘do not believe that abortion is practised; the other half have resorted to it in their own families.’ The German writer Max Hirsch, in his learned book on birth prevention in all its forms, regards the United States as the country in which abortion is most prevalent, and connects this fact with the legal obstacles which are there placed upon the use of contraception. Writing before the war, when the population of America was much smaller than it is now, he estimates the number of embryos destroyed as two millions a year. This number appears to me incredible; and as, from the nature of the case, the estimate must be founded on guesswork, I have no scruple in setting it aside. But no one who has gone into the evidence can have any doubt that abortion is practised to a vastly greater extent than is generally realized.


If, then, we are justified in choosing the lesser of two evils, we must allow that if the increased knowledge of contraception has the result of diminishing the destruction of lives that have already begun, it should be encouraged as in every way better than its alternative, and we shall not approve of the check placed by the British and American governments on the communication of this knowledge by the medical profession. The agitation for the removal of this embargo in Great Britain has hitherto been foiled by politicians, who are afraid of losing the Roman Catholic vote; but the time is not far distant when the poor will be able to acquire this information as easily as the rich. Already various contraceptive appliances are openly exposed for sale in the chemists’ windows, so that it is easy to make too much of the silence imposed on medical officers of health.

The fear is often expressed that, if the knowledge of these new methods were made accessible to all, births would be restricted beyond what the interest of the country demands. This notion is less unreasonable than a comparison of the crude birth rates and death rates might suggest. It is true that a birth rate of 16, with a death rate of 11, still gives a margin of increase which might be inadequate in a progressive and half-filled country, but which is quite sufficient in a society so unhappily situated as Great Britain since the war. This, however, is not the right way to look at it. The crude death rate is misleading, because there is still a great preponderance of young lives, with a very low death rate. If we disregard the Registrar General’s figures, and consult the actuarial tables used by insurance companies, we shall see that the average duration of life in England, for both sexes taken together, is about fifty-eight years, or slightly less if we allow for an occasional epidemic. This corresponds to a true death rate of about 17.6, on the basis of a stationary population. As the age distribution of the population tends to become more normal, owing to the relative diminution of young lives, the crude death rate will automatically creep up to meet the true death rate, which on the basis of a stationary population already slightly exceeds the birth rate.

No accurate prediction is possible where the figures fluctuate, but my rough calculation is that our population will become stationary, with a slight tendency to decline, between 1940 and 1945. I am a patriotic Englishman and believe in the good qualities of my countrymen, so that I have no wish to see the British race dwindling, either absolutely or relatively to other nations. But since insuperable difficulties are placed in the way of State-aided colonization, both by the self-regarding policy of Labor in the Dominions, and by the superior attractions of the dole at home, I see no help for it. We have passed our zenith as a world power, and must go the way of our precursors in colonization, Spain and Holland.

But the mention of Holland may remind us that complete freedom in the use of contraceptives does not necessarily lead to an undue fall in the birth rate. Holland, which seems just now to be in a very healthy condition, morally as well as physically, is increasing rapidly in population.

So long as restriction is practised mainly by the educated classes, the results are dangerously dysgenic. In my country the learned professions have the lowest birth rate; the slum dwellers, and especially the feebleminded, have the highest. The only physically fit class who have large families are the coal miners. The same is true in America, where the old American families are not only not increasing, but are dwindling rapidly. Remembering that these families are mainly of British descent, I once said, ‘We did not lose America in the eighteenth century, but we are losing it now.’ The British element in the United States may even come to be a decaying aristocracy.

This ruinous process is world-wide, and may herald the progressive decline of the white races, or at any rate of the Nordics. It has, however, been stayed in Sweden, where the birth rate of the educated is no longer lower than that of the handworkers. But this result seems to be caused by undue restriction in the working class, for the birth rate of Sweden is the lowest in Europe — an unfortunate fact, since there is no finer race in the world than the Swedes.

The bishops, as might be expected, extenuate their concession to the advocates of birth control by a diatribe on the culpable selfishness of those who for the sake of frivolous luxury and self-indulgence refuse to have children whom they could well afford to educate and provide for. This little sermon is quite justified. I wish, however, that they had drawn a distinction between a decision to limit the family after two or three children have been born and an agreement between a married pair to have no children at all. The bungalow habit has made childless marriages very common in England, and I do not think it is possible, except in rare cases, to justify this deliberate refusal to accept a responsibility which is at once a public duty and a source of the purest happiness. But it is not enough to inveigh against the selfishness of the well-to-do, who are probably no worse than their poorer neighbors. The chief causes of the reluctance of this class to have children are the enormous expense (from ten thousand to fifteen thousand dollars) of what among us is called the education of a gentleman, and the unfortunate custom, in all the higher walks of life, to underpay the young and overpay the old. The lengthening of life has also deferred the date at which a man may expect to inherit his father’s money. This is nowbeing rectified as the result of the iniquitous death duties, rising to 50 per cent, which are destroying all accumulations of wealth in England. Most parents make over to their children all that they can spare out of their savings, and retire into a small house in their old age. If the time ever comes (I hope it will not) when our old ‘public schools’ (the word ‘public’ is used in a different sense in America) are abolished, and all children are educated by the State, one motive for restricting births in the richer class will disappear.


From the moral point of view, the most deplorable aspect of the new methods is the impossibility of confining them to married persons. For many generations one of the happiest features of civilization in northern Europe and America has been the free and innocent intercourse of the sexes, based on the knowledge that the virtue of young women is inexpugnable, or only to be overcome by the base arts of an unprincipled seducer. In the south of Europe it has been considered necessary to forbid this freedom, and social life in those countries has been shorn of one of its graces. But now, although freedom is greater than ever before, it is unfortunately impossible to deny that it is very often abused. In New York a medical investigator, who gives his figures, is driven to the conclusion that, while young men in America are becoming more virtuous, girls are becoming much less so. The scandalous revelations of Judge Ben Lindsey about the state of morals in a state university, exaggerated though they may be, confirm this conclusion. There is much evidence that this evil is spreading in England, though I do not think that the state of things with us is so bad as that depicted by the two authorities whom I have mentioned. There has been a great decline in commercialized vice, which would be a matter for congratulation if it were not that our investigators put it down caustically as due to ‘the competition of the amateur.’

This terrible fact — for so a Christian must regard it — is no doubt part of the general breakdown of traditional morality which is a feature of the postwar world. Sexual license is not only practised but avowed and justified in a manner which in the last century would have been called utterly shameless. But the knowledge that this appetite may be indulged without fear of consequences has unquestionably encouraged very many young people to form irregular connections, and some who still think it possible to check the diffusion of this knowledge by legal prohibitions are actuated by a desire to protect the innocence of boys and girls. Others welcome the repudiation of what they call sexual taboos, and look forward to a time when ‘repression,’ as the psychoanalysts call it, will be unnecessary.

My own opinion is that a firm line should be taken against those who in the name of a pseudo-science seem ready to advocate promiscuity. There are instincts in our nature which need to be ‘repressed’ (Saint Paul says ‘mortified’ or ‘crucified’). Our nature is not harmonious to start with, and no harmony can be established by giving the rein to a mob of jarring impulses, which must be brought to heel under the control of the will and conscience, consecrated to some single and worthy end. We cannot go back to the ‘pretty little rabbits with their interesting habits.’ Even the most ‘advanced’ thinker, I imagine, does not wish to see his own daughter or sister seduced.


I have tried to show that the question of birth control is a complex one, which can be fairly considered only from several points of view. It is the most momentous of all the changes which have taken place in our time. For good or evil it will modify profoundly the whole future of mankind. There are some who look forward to a time when the intercourse of the sexes and the procreation of children will be regarded as separate things. We have speculations about the possibility of producing ‘ectogenetic’ children. Dame Nature may have her own views about these experiments. As Plotinus makes her say, ‘I am not in the habit of talking.’ With her it is a word and a blow, and the blow first.

In moral questions, and not least in those half-instinctive reactions which it is the fashion to call taboos and to reject as irrational, it is wise to treat tradition with respect. And yet we have many examples of the arrest of civilizations by customs which have lost any justification they may once have had. The appeal must be to the enlightened conscience of those who have studied the questions in all their bearings. In the very difficult problem which has been the subject of this short paper, my own opinion is that we have in our hands an instrument which is capable of being turned to great good and still greater evil. It may be so used as to further the cause of social hygiene, which indeed can hardly be advanced without it. It may be so used as to secure the optimum population in every country, and to put a stop to the dysgenic selection which at present threatens the whole future of the white races. Or it may be an instrument of moral dissolution and racial suicide. In any case it has gone much too far to be checked. Those who merely denounce it are like Mrs. Partington trying to thrust back the Atlantic with her mop. We must face the problem without squeamishness and without prejudice, but with the conviction that there are established moral laws on which humanity cannot turn its back with impunity.