Project Canterbury

The Christian and Birth Control
by Edward Lyttelton, D.D.

London: SPCK, 1929.

contributed by the Reverend Edward L. Rix

Chapter I. Introduction

THE reader must not expect any brilliant treatment of such a question as the increase of population and its distribution over the face of the earth. Nor of the divorce question or the right age for marriage. All these topics are carefully excluded. It is assumed that in a very large majority of cases married people have to limit the number of their children. The problem is simply how? The use of contraceptives is discussed in its ethical and religious aspect and in the light of the difference that is made by bringing Christian principle to bear upon the matter.

The discussion is carried on by three men: S.W., a social worker on the Charity Organization Society, a plain, practical man full of eagerness to "do something" to better the condition of the slums; D., a practising doctor of independent mind who has given much attention to ethical and psychological questions, and has very strong convictions as to the moral issues of the matter in hand; V., the local vicar, a theologian for whom the doctrines of Christianity are living, and day by day becoming more fruitful and potent for good in their application to life's problems. The two latter agree in their general feeling towards the question at issue, but, both being often consulted by others, are able to understand and sympathize with people of less robust moral fibre and less carefully thought out principles.

In one or two details dramatic propriety has been sacrificed to clearness of argument. What follows is not a narrative but a discussion.

S.W. comes to consult the doctor on the possibility of reforming the life of our back streets, which constitute a pressing social danger.

S.W.--Doctor, I am fain to trouble you with a late evening visit because I am badly in want of advice in my work, and, 'pon my word, I don't know anyone who is so well qualified as you arc to give it. Can you spare me half an hour?

D.--Willingly, if you think I can help you.

S.W.--The fact is it is partly a medical matter and partly a question of what we call social economics. It concerns the rapid increase of population in our slums and the difference of opinion that exists among my colleagues as to whether we ought or ought not to encourage the use of these contraceptives. We have on the committee, of which I have lately and rather reluctantly become chairman, a retired Colonel of a conventional type; a Mrs. ------, a member of the Mothers' Union; a barrister, generally briefless, of decidedly "modern" ideas; and two or three nondescripts. They cannot agree and would like to burke the question. But this I am determined it shall not be. The state of things in our back streets is nothing short of appalling, and much of the horror is due to the reckless procreation of children.

D.--I can well believe it, though my experience, as you know, has lain principally not with the very poor. Jut oughtn't we to make sure of our ground before we go on? Is that the last word? What makes these people reckless in so grave a matter?

S.W.--Well, think of their surroundings: the hideousness of life to them, the want of sun and air, the awful overcrowding, and so on. One of the mothers said to my wife the other day when asked why the children came so rapidly: "Well, you see, mum, it is our only pleasure."

D.--I see. You mean that if the conditions were better, and they were taught how to regulate child-girths, there would be small and manageable families instead of these "marmot-broods," as the French call them. But tell me: are there not instances of children brought up to be decent, clean-minded, self-respecting youths and maidens in spite of the squalor and foulness with which they are beset?

S.W.--To be sure there are. Wonderful, some of the parents are, especially the mothers. I would take off my hat to any one or these in sheer admiration of what they are doing!

D.--Good. That means, then, that horrible though the conditions are, and awful though the guilt is that rests on us all for allowing them to be so, yet barbarism is, so to speak, not forced upon them. The best of them come out of the ordeal stronger and better for the very evil against which they have put up so gallant a fight. Therefore there is a deeper cause for the horrors we deplore--viz., infirmity of will and gross ignorance; in short, reckless self-indulgence and refusal to look ahead.

S.W.--Exactly; you have hit the nail on the head. Ignorance is the very word. These poor souls don't know, or anyhow don't care, whether there be a remedy against the huge families, the destruction of women's health, the animalism, and the miserably under-fed children. Science has shown us the remedy, and I am come to ask you plainly as a medical man which of these contraceptive devices is the best--I mean which is quite free of danger to health.

D.--Wait a moment. I am only suggesting you should reflect on what you mean to do. You propose to sweep away the evil which, horrible though it is, has somehow called out noble heroism as well as brutal selfishness; that is, to extirpate the good as well as the evil. I seem to remember an old story about wheat and tares which is certainly relevant.
S.W.--Surely you are not going to recommend a policy of laisser-aller? Think of the cruelty, the rampant animalism------

D.--Nay, nay. I know, I know. Nothing could be farther from my thoughts than a do-nothing policy. But look you! You contemplate sweeping away a mass of evil, very hideous indeed, but which has been the means of calling out a certain amount of sheer beautiful heroism. That fact must not be forgotten. And all the time you are leaving untouched the mischief which is at the bottom of the whole complex trouble, not only of the animalism, but of the slums.

S.W.--What in the world do you mean?

D.--I mean the determination shown by all classes concerned to take the line of least resistance. That is a deeply rooted instinct in mankind. See how it has worked among the middle classes of England. One hundred and fifty years ago here and there all over the country the line of least resistance was to make money quickly, build shoddy houses for working men, let them decay into foul slums, and take no heed. The mass of onlookers, seeing nothing particular, said nothing and did nothing. Ignorant and shiftless hordes people got the impression that no one in authority cared a fig for anything but money, comfort, and amusement, so they naturally followed suit. In the middle of last century all classes of the population were apparently unanimous in the pursuit of temporal happiness conceived of in different ways. To the slum-dwellers happiness often meant coarse self-indulgence, animalism natural to them. But what made resistance so difficult and so rare was the almost universal selfish example of those who were supposed to know better.

S.W.--I dare say you are right. But please remember that something practical must be done. Many of the slum-dwellers, I admit, have been degraded the selfishness of the better-to-do. But there the facts are. You can't cure their animalism, but you check their cruelty and the swarms of children who ought not to be born. What else can you suggest?

D.--Is it not a grave objection to your remedy that it would afford a powerful encouragement to that spirit of self-indulgence which you admit is at the bottom of
whole trouble?

S.W.--I don't feel sure that it would.

D.--Carnality is the enemy to be fought. Hitherto, when given way to, it has brought heavy burdens. Are you going to check it by relieving it of all burden?

S. W. (uneasily).--H'm. Let us anyhow think of your alternative.

D.--I will come to that later. I want you to look at the facts as a man scientifically trained ought to--that is, by realizing that the only real cause of all serious trouble is spiritual; secondary material causes, may have to be tackled too. But the main task before you is a spiritual renewal, an uplifting of public opinion, and if you don't attempt that you attempt nothing. Spiritual facts demand scientific rational interpretation more urgently than material, though they start by being invisible. But these invisible facts, when misjudged and mishandled by the line-of-least-resistance people, have an ugly way of becoming visible. That is just what is happening now. You see that self-indulgence is your one arch-evil. You propose to combat it by increasing it. That is not science, nor common sense, nor is it even religion.

S. W.--Religion! I confess I don't see how that comes in at all. The greatest difficulty I have in being an orthodox Churchman is that the Bible--anyhow, the New Testament--gives me no guidance in the social problems of the day, and I really don't see how it can be called a Gospel. Even if I am wrong there, is it not a fair challenge to make to anyone who, like yourself, has thought about these things that he should show where the Bible condemns such a practice as that we call Birth Control? Then, again, don't forget we have to work nowadays with heterogeneous elements. One of my best allies is a Jewish lady, a most helpful worker, but of course you can't expect her to take a very idealistic view of things. Wouldn't it be best for a practical committee like ours to go for some plan of action that will work?

D.--Do you mean work on some line not specifically Christian?

S.W.--Yes, some policy which ordinary people can understand, as religious, of course, as you can safely make it.

D. (with a whimsical look in his eyes).--Safety is a queer word in this context.

S.W.--Well, if, as I contend, the use of contraceptives, under guidance, is for the slum-dweller the lesser the two evils, then it is an advance, and there is no reason for us to hang back. No one can say that a carefully restricted adoption of the practice is taking the line of least resistance, or a drawing of a line at the point where difficulty begins. It is rather a definite advance on a road leading to--to------

D.--Pray finish your sentence.

S.W.--Well, anyhow, something far better than the present horrors.

D.--Horrors they are indeed; and you will be inclined to accuse me of indifference because I do not straight off give you the prescription you ask for. My conviction is that your remedy is far too superficial to be worth troubling about. It goes nowhere near to the centre of the disorder, the primal cause, which is obviously moral, not material nor mechanical. Immorality, in the broadest sense, continued through centuries; callousness to the point of cruelty; greed and grasping on the part of those who were called to set an example--these moral disorders have generated slums, and they can only be remedied by a combination of moral and material remedies, such as Octavia Hill employed. Grip the facts scientifically--that is, completely, not ignoring the invisible, as many so-called scientists habitually do.

S.W.--Well, but it is no use preaching to these unfortunates.

D.--Not much by itself. Someone must live among them, appealing to the few who have some instincts for cleanliness to war against filth of all kinds till the irretrievable savages find the tenements too clean to hold them and they gradually clear out. Meantime establish a rudimentary but wholesome respect for law by insisting on punctuality as to payment of rent; get hold of the children, teaching them, through the school-teachers, to say their prayers morning and evening, and some of the mothers will back you up. For religion never fails with all. Much besides this you may learn from Church Army workers.

Now, compared with this rich and hopeful programme, how poor and shallow is this talk of contraceptives! Imagine the device as successful as possible: you have done nothing permanent. You have but "skimmed and filmed the ulcerous place," if you have done so much as that. Here and there a poor woman's life may be made a trifle less miserable and prolonged a year or two; but while you are trying to plant the idea of Law you are encouraging the violation of it. Moreover, they tell me the very poor are instinctively unwilling to adopt the practice, and often too degraded and too shiftless to make proper use of it. When you fail you fail horribly. You have undermined what little residuum of right feeling there is among them, and what have you gained? A very little of something that lay be called decorum in a few individual instances. Meantime this is at the cost of jeopardizing the one fair id noble element in this dismal underworld: I mean the heroic constancy we were mentioning just now of mothers who stand out as martyrs in the cause of purity and self-respect and honesty of their children. Woe betide any efforts for social reform which tend to weaken what there is of fine character in our back streets! In these obscure and intricate problems it is not possible to forecast accurately what is going to happen. But a terrible responsibility will rest on those about whose policy there is the smallest likelihood that it will work in the wrong direction. The more external your remedies, the more uncertain is their issue; but tamper with a moral principle, and mischief is sure to ensue.

S.W.--As far as I can make out, you are now making tracks for the policy of inculcating self-control, sleeping apart, and so on. But people don't realize that in very many cases it is a physical impossibility that any arrangements of the kind should be made. That is due to the fact that we are wrestling not only with animalism and squalor, but with overcrowding as well. In the majority of cases sleeping apart is out of the question.

D.--I can quite understand that. It has made me hesitate to recommend any precipitate action. The truth is that selfishness, continued long enough, brings on a state of impasse for which there is no remedy discernible. In that fact lies the extreme severity of the warning. The inference is not that the calamitous state of things is to be let alone, but that we should try to be wiser in the future and less inclined to drift than we were.

S. W.--Well, I am afraid it is bedtime. I am disappointed, though I suppose there is something in what you say. Did you say you were going to look farther into the question?

D.--Yes, but take notice, please, that so far I have only put forward a plea for caution based on moral grounds. How far they can be appreciated independently of religion I have my doubts. We ought to listen to the Vicar on that matter, and I will try to get him to join us to-morrow. Meantime most sensible people agree that if there are plain moral issues at stake it is the duty of practical men to have regard to them when they are discussing remedies; of scientific men when they are diagnosing the cause. So let us see. Do we agree that my first moral objection is worth attention--viz., that the existence of something like heroism in the slums shows that another cause besides overcrowding is at work?

S.W.--Yes, but overcrowding is a provocative of such horrors as bestiality and cruelty.

D.--That may be, though I should lay most stress on the damage done to health by lack of sunlight. That is a certainty, whereas die moral harm done by external material conditions is much less certain. Still, we agree that the housing problem is urgent. As to your remedy for the moral evils cruelty and animalism, do we not see ground for hesitation in this fact: that tie whole complex mischief springs from the selfishness of different groups--the property owners; the untaught, carnal-minded slum-dwellers; and, above all, the mass of callous, rather contemptuous, indifference of the thousand onlookers who for centuries have persuaded I themselves that such a state of things is inevitable, a necessary concomitant of civilization?

S.W. (after a pause).--Well, I suppose so.

D.--In short, that moral evil is the cause of physical evil, and if either is to be remedied the remedy must deal with the cause, not with the symptoms only?

S.W.--Well, I suppose you are right. But in Heaven's name don't let us stop there. Something, I keep on saying, must be done.

D,--I agree. But the more zeal you throw into any projects of reform, the more necessary it is to make sure that you will not do more harm than good. That, of course, is the reason why municipal and other authorities refuse to sanction the public provision of mechanical means of birth prevention. Now we really must stop. Come to luncheon to-morrow, and I will ask the Vicar to join us. You know he is one of the practical-headed parsons, and will certainly be sympathetic with your point of view. I gave him some of my nostrums out walking last week, and he has been thinking them over. So we may resume just where we have left off to-night.

S.W.--Very good. I will be with you at half-past one.

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