The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 36
Chapter IV. — Objections Considered
Many people, perfectly good-hearted, but somewhat narrow-minded, object strongly to the idea of conjugal prudence, and regard scientific checks to population as "a violation of nature's laws, and a frustration of nature's ends." Such people, a hundred years ago, would have applauded the priest who objected to lightning conductors as being an interference with the bolts of Deity; they exist in every age, the rejoicers over past successes, and the timid disapprovers of new discoveries. Let us analyse the argument. "A violation of nature's laws;" this objection is couched in somewhat unscientific phrase; nature's "laws" are but the observed sequences of events; man cannot violate them; he may disregard them, and suffer in consequence; he may observe them, and regulate his conduct so as to be in harmony with them. Man's prerogative is that by the use of his reason he is able to study nature outside himself, and by observation may so control nature, as to make her add to his happiness instead of bringing him misery. To limit the family is no more a violation of nature's laws, than to preserve the sick by medical skill; the restriction of the birth-rate does not violate nature's laws more than does the restriction of the death-rate. Science strives- to diminish the positive checks; science should also discover the best preventive checks. "The frustration of nature's ends." Why should we worship nature's ends? Nature flings lightning at our houses; we frustrate her ends by the lightning conductor. Nature divides us by seas and by rivers; we frustrate her ends by sailing over the seas, and by bridging the rivers. Nature sends typhus fever and ague to slay us; we frustrate her ends by purifying the air, and by draining the marshes. Oh! it is answered, you only do this by using other natural powers. Yes, we answer, and we only page 38 teach conjugal prudence by balancing one natural force against another. Such study of nature, and such balancing of natural forces, is civilization.
It is next objected that preventive checks are "unnatural" and "immoral." "Unnatural" they are not; for the human brain is nature's highest product, and all improvements on irrational nature are most purely natural; preventive checks are no more unnatural than every other custom of civilization. Raw meat, nakedness, living in caves, these are the irrational natural habits; cooked food, clothes, houses, these are the rational natural customs. Production of offspring recklessly, carelessly, lustfully, this is irrational nature, and every brute can here outdo us; production of offspring with forethought, earnestness, providence, this is rational nature, where man stands alone. But "immoral." What is morality? It is the greatest good of the greatest number. It is immoral to give life where you cannot support it. It is immoral to bring children into the world when you cannot clothe, feed, and educate' them. It is immoral to crowd new life into already over-crowded houses, and to give birth to children wholesale who never have a chance of healthy life. Conjugal prudence is most highly moral, and "those who endeavour to vilify and degrade these means in the eyes of the public, and who speak of them as 'immoral' and 'disgusting,' are little aware of the moral responsibility they incur thereby. As already shown, to reject preventive intercourse is in reality to choose the other three true population checks—poverty, prostitution, and celibacy. So far from meriting reprobation, the endeavour to spread the knowledge of the preventive methods, of the great law of nature which renders them necessary, is in my opinion the very greatest service which can at present be done to mankind" ("Elements of Social Science ").
But the knowledge of these scientific checks would, it is argued, make vice bolder, and would increase unchastity among women by making it safe. Suppose that this were so, it might save some broken hearts and some deserted children; men ruin women and go scatheless, and then bitterly object that their victims escape something of public shame. And if so, are all to suffer, so that one or two, already corrupt in heart, may be preserved from becoming corrupt in act? Are mothers to die slowly that impure women may be held back, wives to be sacrificed, that the unchaste may be page 39 curbed? As well say that no knives must be used because throats may be cut with them; no matches sold because incendiarism may result from them; no pistols allowed because murders may be committed by them. Blank ignorance has some advantages in the way of safety, and if all men's eyes were put out, none would ever be tempted to seduce a woman for her beauty. Let us bring for our women the veil to cover, and the eunuch to guard, and so be at least consistent in our folly and our distrust! But this knowledge would not increase unchastity; the women who could thus use it would be solely those who only lack opportunity, not will, to go astray: the means suggested all imply deliberation and forethought; are these generally the handmaids of unchastity? English women are not yet sunk so low that they preserve their loyalty to one, only from fear of the possible consequences of disloyalty; their purity, their pride, their honour, their womanhood, these are the guardians of their virtue, and never from English women's heart will fade the maiden and matronly dignity, which makes them shield their love from all taint of impurity, and bid them only surrender themselves, where the surrender of heart and of pledged faith have led the way. Shame on those who slander England's wives and maidens with the foul thoughts that can only spring from the mind and the lips of the profligate.
Another class of objectors appears: those who argue that there is no need to limit the population, at any rate for a long while to come. Some of these say that there is food enough in the world for all, and point out that the valley of the Mississippi would grow corn enough to feed the present population of the globe. They forget that the available means of subsistence are those with which we have to deal. Corn in Nebraska and starving mouths in Lancashire are not much use to each other; when the cost of carriage exceeds the money power of the would-be buyer, the corn-fields might be in the moon for all the good they are to him; if means can be discovered of bringing corn and mouths together, well and good, but until they are discovered, undue production of mouths here is unwise, because their owners will starve while the corn is still on the other side of the sea.
But if the corn can't be brought to the mouths may not the mouths go to the corn? Why not emigrate? Because emigration is impracticable to the extent needed for the page 40 relief of the labour market. Emigration caused by starvation pressure is not a healthy outlet for labour; if it is Government-aided, helpless, thriftless folk flock to it for a while, and starve on the other side; if land is given, capital is wanted by the emigrant, for before he can eat his own bread, he must clear his land of timber, plough or dig it, sow his corn, and wait for his harvest; if he goes out poor, on what is he to live during the first year? Men with £300 or £400 of capital may find more profitable investment for it in the West in America, or in our colonies, than at home, but their outgoing will not much relieve the labour market. Emigration for penniless agricultural labourers, and for artizans, means only starvation abroad instead of at home. And it is starvation under worse conditions than they had left in the mother-country; they have to face vicissitudes of climate for which they are utterly unprepared, extremes of heat and of cold which try even vigorous constitutions, and simply kill off underfed, half clothed, and ill housed new comers. Nor is work always to be had in the New World. No better proof of the foolishness of emigration to the United States can be given, than the fact that, at the present time, contractors in England are in treaty with American workmen, with the object of bringing them over here. Unskilled labour does not improve its chances by going abroad. Nor is skilled labour in a better position, for here the German emigrant undersells the British; he can live harder and cheaper, and has had a better technical education than has fallen to the lot of his British rival. One great evil connected with emigration is the disproportion it causes between men and women, both in the old country and in the new, those who emigrate being chiefly males. Nor must it be forgotten that when England colonised most, her population was far smaller than it is at the present time; physical vigour is necessary for successful colonising, and the physical vigour of our labouring poor deteriorates under their present conditions; as the Canadian roughly said at the meeting of the British Association at Plymouth: "the colonies don't want the children of your rickety paupers." Colonization needs the pick of a nation, if it is to succeed, not the poor who are driven from home in search of the necessaries of life. John Stuart Mill points out how inadequate emigration is as a continued relief to population, useful as it is as a sudden effort to lighten pressure; he remarks that the great distance of the fields of emigration prevents them page 41 from being a sufficient outlet for surplus labourers; "it still remains to be shown by experience," he says, "whether a permanent stream of emigration can be kept up sufficient to take off, as in America, all that portion of the annual increase (when proceeding at its greatest rapidity) which, being in excess of the progress made during the same short period in the arts of life, tends to render living more difficult for every averagely situated individual in the community. And unless this can be done, emigration cannot, even in an economical point of view, dispense with the necessity of checks to population." 1173 infants are born in the United Kingdom every day, and to equalise matters about 1000 emigrants should leave our shores daily. Careful calculations are sometimes entered into by anti-Malthusians as to the acreage of Great Britain as compared with its population, and it is said that the land would support many more than the present number of inhabitants; quite so; there is a very large quantity of land used for deer, game, and pleasure, that, if put under cultivation, would enormously increase the food-supply. But to know this, does not remedy the pressing evils of over-population; what service is it to the family crowded into a St. Giles' cellar to tell them that there are large uninhabited tracts of land in Perthshire? In the first place they can't get to them, and if they could, they would be taken up for trespassing. Such information is but mockery. Land reform is sorely needed, but, to meet the immediate needs of the present, land revolution would be necessary; it is surely wiser to lessen the population-pressure, and to work steadily at the same time towards Reform of the Land Laws, instead of allowing the population-pressure to increase, until the starving multitudes precipitate us into a revolution.
An extraordinary confusion exists in some minds between preventive checks and infanticide. People speak as though prevention were the same as destruction. But no life is destroyed by the prevention of conception, any more than by abstention from marriage; if it is infanticide for every man and woman not to produce as many children as possible during the fertile period of life, if every person in a state of celibacy commits infanticide because of the potential life he prevents, then, of course, the prevention of conception by married persons is also infanticide; the two things are on exactly the same level. When conception has taken place, then prevention is no longer possible and a new life having page 42 been made, the destruction of that life would be criminal. Before conception no life exists to be destroyed; the seminal fluid is simply a secretion of the body; its fertilizing power is not a living thing, the non-use of which destroys life; the spermatozoa, the active fertilizing agents, are not living existences, and "they have been erroneously considered as proper animalculæ" (Carpenter). Life is not made until the male and female elements are united, and if this is prevented, either by abstention from intercourse among the unmarried, or by preventive intercourse among the married, life is not destroyed, because the life is not yet in existence.
Mr. Darwin puts forward an argument against scientific checks which must not be omitted here; he says:—"The enhancement of the welfare of mankind is a most intricate problem; all ought to refrain from marriage who cannot avoid abject poverty for their children, for poverty is not only a great evil, but tends to its own increase by leading to recklessness in marriage. On the other hand, as Mr. Galton has remarked, if the prudent avoid marriage, whilst the reckless marry, the inferior members tend to supplant the better members of society. Man, like every other animal, has no doubt advanced to his present high condition through a struggle for existence, consequent on his rapid multiplication, and if he is to advance still higher it is to be feared that he must remain subject to a severe struggle; otherwise he would sink into indolence, and the more gifted men would not be more successful in the battle of life than the less gifted. Hence our natural rate of increase, though leading to many and obvious evils, must not be greatly diminished by any means."
If the struggle for existence among mankind were waged under the same conditions as among animals, then Mr. Darwin's argument would have great force, terrible as would be the amount of human misery caused by it. Then the strongest, cleverest, craftiest, would survive, and would transmit their qualities to their offspring. But Mr. Darwin forgets that men have qualities which the brutes have not, such as compassion, justice, respect for the rights of others—and all these, man's highest virtues, are absolutely incompatible with the brutal struggle for existence. Where the lion would leave his parents to starve, man would feed his; where the stag would kill the sickly one, man would carry him to the hospital and nurse him back to health. The feeble, the deformed, the helpless, are killed out in brute page 43 nature; in human nature they are guarded, tended, nourished, and they hand on to their offspring their own disabilities. Scientific checks to population would just do for man what the struggle for existence does for the brutes: they enable man to control the production of new human beings; those who suffer from hereditary diseases, who have consumption or insanity in the family, might marry, if they so wished, but would preserve the race from the deterioration which results from propagating disease. The whole British race would gain in vigour, in health, in longevity, in beauty, if only healthy parents gave birth to children; at present there is many a sickly family, because sickly persons marry; they revolt against for biddance of marriage, celibacy being unnatural, and they are taught that "the natural consequences of marriage" must follow. Let them understand that one set of "consequences" results naturally from one set of conditions, another set from different conditions, and let them know that laisser aller in marriage is no wiser than in other paths of life.
Leaving objectors, let us look at the other side of the question. The system of preventive checks to population points us to the true pathway of safety; it is an immediate relief, and at once lightens the burden of poverty. Each married couple have it in their power to avoid poverty for themselves and for their children, by determining, when they enter on married life, that they will not produce a family larger than they can comfortably maintain: thus they avoid the daily harass of domestic struggle; they rejoice over two healthy, robust, well-fed children, instead of mourning over seven frail, sickly, half-starved ones; they look forward to an old age of comfort and of respectability instead of one of painful dependence on a grudgingly-given charity.
How rapidly conjugal prudence may lift a nation out of pauperism is seen in France; the proportion of adults to the whole population is the largest in Europe, the proportionate number of persons under thirty being the smallest; hence, there are more producers and fewer non-producers than in any other country. The consequence of this is that the producers are less pressed upon, and live in greater comfort and with more enjoyment of life. There are-no less than 5,000,000 of properties under six acres, each sufficient to support a small family, but wholly inadequate for the maintenance of a large one, and it was from these independent peasants that M. Thiers borrowed the money to pay page 44 off the indemnity levied by the Germans after the late war. If those peasants had been struggling under the difficulties of large families, no savings would have been made to fall back upon in such an emergency. France shows a pattern of widely-spread comfort which we look for in vain in our own' land, and this comfort is directly traceable to the systematic regard for conjugal prudence. Small agricultural holdings directly tend to this virtue, the fact of the limitation of the food-supply available being obvious to the most ignorant peasant. So strongly rooted is this habit in France, that the Roman Church in vain branded it as a deadly sin, and Dr. Drysdale writes that a French priest begged the Vatican Council to change this direction; he said, "It is not the sin which is new, but the circumstances which have changed. This practice has been spreading more and more for half a century from the force of things. As Providence does not multiply animals, when they have not wherewithal to eat, so it will not require reasonable man voluntarily to multiply when there is no longer the condition for his subsistence. This is human calculation, pecuniary motives if you will, but a calculation as inevitable as destiny. Countries enjoying the faith do not thus calculate, it is true, and so long as obedience is possible they will obey the priest without a murmur; but a day will come when the prevailing doctrine will be applicable to them all, and hence we earnestly plead for reform. Other times, other customs. The laws should change with the customs."
It is well worthy of notice that those who have pleaded for scientific checks to population, have also been those who have been identified with the struggle for political and religious freedom; Carlile defended the use of such—as advocated in his "Every Woman's Book "—as follows:—
"There are four grounds on which my ' Every Woman's Book' and its recommendation can be defended, and each of them in itself sufficient to justify the publication, and to make it meritorious. First—the political or national ground; which refers to the strength and wealth of the nation, and the greatest happiness of the greatest number of the people. Second—the local or commercial ground, or the ground of the wages of labour, and its supply in the several trades and districts. Third—the domestic or family ground, where the parents may think they have already children enough, and that more will be an injury. Fourth—the individual ground, where the state of health in the female, or her page 45 situation in life, will not justify a pregnancy; but where the abstinence from love becomes as great an evil. It has been a sort of common, but ill-judged maxim, that the strength and wealth of a nation consist in the number, the greatest number, of its people. The error in the judgment of the maxim is, in not taking into consideration whether that number be well or ill employed, well or ill fed, clothed and housed. If the number be well employed, well fed, well clothed, well housed, then the greatness of the number is in reality the wealth and strength of the nation. But if, on the other hand, the greatness of the number lessens the means of good employment, good living, clothing and housing, then, as in England and Ireland, at this moment, under the present arrangements of government, aristocracy, religion, &c., the greatness of the number constitutes the weakness of the nation; and England and Ireland are both weak at this moment: weak, too evidently weak, from ill-employed or unemployed members of the people. It is objected to me, that there is a sufficiency of natural checks already in existence, to remedy the evils of which I complain. My answer is, that these natural checks are the evil of which I do complain, and which I seek to remove by the substitution of a moral check, that shall furnish no pain, no degradation, no discomfort, no evil of any kind. The existing natural or physical checks are disease or pestilence and famine. Surely it is to be desired that neither of these should exist. It is not wise, not parental, not kind, to breed children to such disasters. It is better that they should not be born, than be cut off prematurely by disease or famine, or struggle through a life of disease, poverty, and misery, a life of pain to themselves, and both a pain and burthen to their parents. The existing moral checks on numbers are war, and social arrangements, such as poverty, late marriages, celibacy, and the bad health which bad states of living produce; to which may be added, states of servitude, in which marriage is found inconvenient. These are all so many evils—all will say. It would be well to go on without war, and the time will come when wars will cease. In the question of trade, a government can do nothing more than remove impediments. It cannot increase the amount of trade beyond its natural demand. It cannot force trade to any permanent utility. Therefore I take it to be a clear point, that no change in government will do anything permanently for the relief of the present number of persons page 46 employed in surplus production. In limiting the number of children, as applicable to such a case, there is a double relief; an immediate relief to the parents, in not incurring expenses which cannot be well met, and a remote relief, in not bringing forth new labourers, when those existing cannot find employment. Besides, there is something cruel, wanton, base, and parentally unfeeling, in the principle that says: ' I will bring all the children I can into the world, and if I cannot maintain them some other persons who care nothing about them must, or, which is the real alternative, they may starve.'"
Mr. Francis Place argues: "The mass of the people in an old country must remain in a state of wretchedness, until they are convinced that their safety depends upon themselves, and that it .can be maintained in no other way than by their ceasing to propagate faster than the means of comfortable subsistence are produced . . . . .
"If above all it were once clearly understood that it was not disreputable for married persons to avail themselves of such precautionary means as would, without being injurious to health, or destructive of female delicacy, prevent conception, a sufficient check might at once be given to the increase of population beyond the means of subsistence, and vice and misery to a prodigious extent might be removed from society . . . . If means were adopted to prevent the breeding of a larger number of children than married people might desire to have, and if the labouring part of the population could thus be kept below the demand for labour, wages would rise, so as to afford the means of comfortable subsistence for all, and all might marry. . . .
"It is time that those who really understand the cause of a redundant, unhappy, miserable, and considerably vicious population, and the means of preventing the redundancy, should clearly, freely, openly, and fearlessly point out the means."
Mr. James Watson showed his view of the matter by publishing Dr. Charles Knowlton's "Fruits of Philosophy."
Mr. Robert Dale Owen (son of Robert Owen, and American minister in Florence), in his "Moral Physiology," urges "some 'moral restraint' that shall not, like vice and misery, be demoralising, nor, like late marriages, be ascetic and impracticable;" and he proceeds to advocate and describe scientific checks.
Mr. James Mill complains that the problem of checking page 47 population is "miserably evaded by all those who have meddled with the subject;" and says that "if the superstitions of the nursery were disregarded, and the principle of utility kept steadily in view, a solution might not be very difficult to be found."
Mr. John Stuart Mill strongly urges restraint of the number of the family, and he took an active part in disseminating the knowledge of scientific checks.
The members of the old Freethought Institution in John Street made it part of their work to circulate popular tracts, advocating scientific checks, such as a four-page tract entitled, "Population: is not its increase at present an evil, and would not some harmless check be desirable? "
Mr. Austin Holyoake, in his "Large and Small Families," follows in the same strain, and recommends as guides Knowlton's Pamphlet and Owen's "Moral Physiology."
Mr. George Jacob Holyoake, writing as one of the Vice-Presidents of the National Secular Society in 1876, points to the difference between Christian and Secular morality on this head; he says: "Let any one regard for a moment the Christian's theory of this life. It tells us that all human beings born are immortal, and that God has to provide for them above or below! Yet in every portion of the land scoundrel or vicious parents may bring into existence a squalid brood of dirty, sickly, depraved, ignorant, ragged children. Christianity fails utterly to prevent their existence, and hurls quick words of opprobrium upon any who advocate the prevention of this progeny of crime. Yet the Christian teaches that, by mere act of orthodox belief, these ignorant and unclean creatures can be sent from the gutter to God. A Secularist cannot help shuddering at this doctrine and this practice, so fatal to society, so contemptuous to heaven."
M. Gamier—and with him I close these extracts, only a few out of many that might be brought forward—says: "I am led to declare openly and positively, that by prudence is to be understood not only delayed marriages, not only celibacy for those who are capable of practising it, but prudence during the married state itself." Answering Proudhon's objections, he asks: "Can it be called immoral in the father of a family if he should wish to have only a limited number of children, proportioned to his means, and to the future which his affection fondly weaves for them, and if he should not, in carrying out this object, condemn page 48 himself to the most absolute and rigorous continence?..........Let any one ask himself whether it is more moral, more conscientious, to give birth to children in the midst of privations, or prevent them being born, and let him then reply."
Thus has the effort to obtain social reform gone hand in hand with that for political and religious freedom; the victors in the latter have been the soldiers in the former. Discussion on the Population Question is not yet safe; legal penalty threatens those who advocate the restriction of birth instead of the destruction of life; the same penalty was braved by our leaders in the last generation, and we have only to follow in their steps in order to conquer as they conquered and become sharers of their crown. We work for the redemption of the poor, for the salvation of the wretched; the cause of the people is the sacredest of all causes, and is the one which is the most certain to triumph, however sharp may be the struggle for the victory.