An old story?

I have just discovered something wonderful: The National Library of Australia’s online database of Australian Newspapers from 1803 to 1954 (also available here). It really is a treasure trove! Here is an “old story” from The Mercury (Hobart) Monday 27 November 1933:

FOR at least a century and a quarter, the question of birth control has come periodically under notice. About the beginning of the eighteenth century some persons who today would be called “economists,” and would hold positions on the teaching staffs of universities, made calculations and published them about the effect of the birth rate. They showed conclusively that unless something drastic were done the world would starve to death in less than 50 years…

The calculation was simple. They took the available figures regarding the increase in the birth rate and the figures relating to thc increase of the production of food, and were able, without difficulty, lo show that in another half century the world would be strewn with the skeletons of those millions who would have died. Absurd as that may sound today, the publication of these stories created a veritable panic in England and in other countries.

In these later days, since the discovery of what is called thc “science”‘ of eugenics, there is an agitation for compulsory birth control on the part of those who are supposed to be physically or mentally, or morally, unfit to breed human beings. The German Government is tackling the problem valiantly, but with the knowledge we have of Nazi ideals we may be permitted to wonder whether the selection of those, who may or may not have a part in bringing children into the world will be entirely judicious.

But now comes a new story which brings us back to the original idea. The people of the East are urged to restrict their population increases because thc rate is too high, and there is not enough food for them all. Control of money, control of trade, control of production and of prices, control, in fact, of every mortal thing in the life of men and women from the cradle to the grave is the keynote today of every policy put forward for the salvation of the world.

And now that it is said that there is too much production of food for the world, the cure is to be found in a still further restriction of the number of persons to be available for its consumption. Between eugenics and economics, this old world of ours is getting into a strange tangle of notions and plans.

Take good note of the date of this article. And then read this one on the same page:

Threat from the East
Vital Need of Civilisation
London. November 25.

“With India’s increase of 34,000,000 persons in tho last 10 years, and Japan’s four babies a minute in 1932, it ls time the red traffic light was turned eastward,” says the president ot tho Birth Control International centre in a cablegram to the London conference discussing birth control in Asia under tho presidency of Lord Horder.

Professor Carr Saunders declared that birth control was a vital need of modern civilisation, but the problem was how small the family should be. It could be harmonised with communal needs. If there was not birth control the result would be disastrous. The leading question was whether the human race could be trusted with birth control, as there was danger of contraception threatening civilisation.

Dr. Dugsdale, a pioneer of the movement, said that over-population was tantamount to an excessive death rate, and abbreviation of the life span, owing to insufficiency of necessities and comforts. It was significant that both the
birth rate and death rate In Japan had increased since the era of Industrialisation. Limitation of the birth rate in India, China, and Japan was essential for the world’s peace and tranquillity.

Mr. Eguehi, a Japanese delegate, said that his countrymen were interested on birth control. lt was easy for Westerners to scoff at Japan because of a low standard of living, but Japan would be only too glad if Britain had any scheme for bringing Japan’s standard of living on equality with the West.

Again, note the date… Who was it who said that those who do not learn from th mistakes of history are condemned to repeat them?

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29 Responses to An old story?

  1. Paul G says:

    A very timely observation. On Thursday night on ABC TV, our very own publicity junkie, Dick Smith is going to earbash us with his latest enthusiasm, population control. He is now an expert, because over the last 12 months, in his own words, “I have read more than a dozen books on the subject”.

    Can I suggest another book he might like to read is “The Coming Population Crash” by Fred Pearce.

    One of Mr Smith’s most famous predecessors on this subject was of course Rev Thomas Robert Malthus who wrote on the subject in the 18th Century. I don’t know if it was Malthus himself, but a famous prediction of the time was the calculation of the limit to the population of London, based on the amount of manure produced by the horses you would need for transport. I wonder if Mr Smith plans on discussing manure tomorrow?

  2. Tony says:

    Not meaning to be obtuse, David, but what lesson are we to take from these articles?

  3. Paul G says:

    FWIW, the lesson I draw is that while people were mulling over the populations futures of Germany and Japan in 1933, there were forces gathering that had nothing to do with population growth. It would have been better to spend more time addressing those forces rather than spending time discussing population trends, based on insufficient evidence.

    • Peregrinus says:

      Interesting. The lesson that Paul G draws is a perfectly valid one, but it’s not what [i]I[/i] though David was getting at. I thought he was suggesting that fears about near-term unsustainability of population numbers in the mid-twentieth century proved unfounded; the world now supports a much larger population without widespread famine (or, at least, without widespread famine caused by inability to produce sufficient food) – and therefore contemporary fears about sustainability are, or may be, equally misplaced.

      But, of course, David may have intended yet a third lesson, which has not occurred to either Paul or myself.

      So, how about it David? Don’t be coy! What do [i]you[/i] think these articles tell us?

  4. Matthias says:

    Ilande Troth,who was a heroine of the Hungarian revolution and was hanged by the Communists said that “if we forget history ,it will grab us bt the throat”

  5. Schütz says:

    So, how about it David? Don’t be coy! What do [i]you[/i] think these articles tell us?

    There is always a danger in saying “Let the reader understand”, vis. They might not! :-)

    So let me tell you what I find interesting.

    The dates are significant. This is the year of the rise of the National Socialist party to power in Germany. This is also just three years after the Lambeth Conference gave limited approval to the use of artificial birth control within marriage. In the background is also the population argument and the eugnics argument – both of which are somewhat related to the context of the first two facts. Of course, this was years before the invention of the pill and the many other artificial birth control options available today, but it does set the whole discussion in an historical context.

    We learn the origins of the original debate, and realise that some of the most ardent supporters of birth control were those who wanted to put a check on the growth of populations in Asia (and also in Africa). It also had to do with Western imperialism, as indicated by the references to the better standard of living in those countries that did not have a growing population.

    Of course, the eugenics movement found other ways to eliminate undesirables other than birth control in the next decade or so.

    I found these two articles while researching information about Archbishop F. W. Head, the Anglican Archbishop of Melbourne at the time. He had barely been in Australia for a few months, before he had to return home to England to attend the 1930 Lambeth Conference. He came back, as far as I can tell, a fierce supportor of artificial birth control. It appears that this was a hot topic in press at the time, predating the 1969 controversy.

    • Peregrinus says:

      It is interesting.

      It’s worth noting, though, that there are two different – but sometimes intersecting – objectives being pursued here:

      – The eugenic objective: we want a happier, healthier, stronger, etc, people – none of those weedy, sickly, defective types. Oh, and no Jews [or insert racial or ethnic group of choice here].

      – The population control objective: we have – or fear that we will have – too many people, and want to have fewer.

      They overlap, in that the advocacy or provision of contraception and/or abortion may be among the tools employed to achieve either objective.

      But they can be quite separate, and even opposed. The Nazis, for instance, were keen to achieve “racial purity” by eliminating the mentally and physically disabled (especially if their disabilities were hereditary), Jews, etc. But at the same time they wanted to make the German population larger; they adopted various measures to foster larger family sizes, including greater restrictions on abortion (except in the case of anticipated birth defects, naturally).

      In Australia, we currently have a debate about the population control objective – should we seek to increase our population, or to stabilise it at more or less the current level? And this debate intersects in sometimes odd ways with the eugenic question. Historically, the main way in which the Australian population has increased has been through immigration. But not all of those who favour an increased population favour increased immigration. We have people supporting, e.g., the baby bonus, the maternity pay scheme and other tax and policy measures designed to increase the birthrate. And we have other people engaging in often silly hysteria about boat people and asylum seekers, and the national threat they represent. It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that there are people who want an increased population, but only of a particular sort of person who, by and large, won’t have brown eyes and black hair.

      Government action for eugenic purposes – common in the mid-twentieth century in, e.g., Germany, the United States – is now deeply unfashionable. But, at the societal level as opposed to government level, action for eugenic purposes is commonplace, even in Australia. I’m willing to bet that a fair proportion of Australian abortions are undertaken following a diagnosis of a congenital deficiency of some kind. And, in surveys about people’s attitude to abortion, a great many people indicate that they are opposed to it as a method of family planning, an alternative form of contraception, but that they would regard it as justifiable for eugenic purposes, e.g. following a diagnosis of Down’s Syndrome.

      • Clara says:

        Eugenics is alive and well in Australia. My sister had to change obstetricians after a diagnosis of Down’s Syndrome in her unborn child. She had arguments with the specialist cardiologist – who also thought abortion a more sensible option and then had to deal with other healthcare professionals – speech therapists, physiotherapists, etc. who made her feel that she had no right to complain about her lot in life because she made the choice to carry the child to term so she should put up with the difficulties!

  6. Louise says:

    Interesting too that the founder of Planned Parenthood, Margaret Sanger, wanted both birth control and abortion to keep the population of the “coloured people” down.

    GK Chesterton called birth control “no birth and no control.” As hard as natural family planning is, “birth control” really is just hideous.

    • Faz says:

      Interesting too that the founder of Planned Parenthood, Margaret Sanger, wanted both birth control and abortion to keep the population of the “coloured people” down.

      And yet the Wiki entry for Margaret Sanger has this quote:

      “To each group we explained what contraception was; that abortion was the wrong way—no matter how early it was performed it was taking life; that contraception was the better way, the safer way—it took a little time, a little trouble, but was well worth while in the long run, because life had not yet begun.”

      • Tony says:

        er … sorry … should never have had more than one on-line ID.


        • joyfulpapist says:

          At that time, prior to WWI, no religious denomination supported abortion. And abortion was illegal. What else was she going to say? Indeed, the link between higher contraception and lower abortions is still being made today – despite the experience of the intervening years.

          In her book Women and the New Race Sanger asserted that the “most merciful thing a large family can do to one of its infant members is to kill it.”

          This, of course, could just be hyperbole.

          Certainly, most of her writings insist that limiting family size should be the choice of the mother, and could be done using contraceptives.

          Indeed, at this distance, I don’t think it is possible to say whether she did, or did not, secretly believe abortion was a good idea in other than medical emergencies.

          She believed in forced sterilisation of the ‘feeble-minded’. For others who had genetic traits that she regarded as negative or with transmissible diseases, she recommended giving them a choice of sterilisation or segregation – basically, single-gender prison farms.

          Born in this generation, would she repudiate or embrace the organisation she founded?

        • Gareth says:

          That’s what happens when you start defending Margaret Sanger.

          • Tony says:


            A legitimate ‘attack’ on Margaret Sanger is not served by reducing her to a two dimensional caricature or ascribing things to her that are, at least, questionable.

            At least the response of ‘joyfulpapist’ had some substance and thought to it and didn’t resort to drawing long bows and knee jerks.*

            * I know, I know … as the Gooder English Guide says, ‘Take the bull by the hand and avoid mixed metaphors — even if a mixed metaphor sings, it should be derailed’.

      • Louise says:

        Which kind of contraception was she thinking of though? The Pill, IUD, implants (yuck!), injections etc all work, wholly or in part, by causing a very early abortion; “prevent a fertilised ovum from implanting”

        • Tony says:

          Which kind of contraception was she thinking of though?

          No idea, L. I know very little about her and, if the Wiki entry is a fair summation, I’d have more than one concern about her attitudes and opinions.

          I don’t know either if the her view at the time was that life began at conception or at some later stage.

          • Gareth says:

            Didn’t the Disciple of Death once call African-Americans ‘human weeds’ – doesnt seem like the type of woman I would be running to defend, Tony.

        • Peregrinus says:

          Which kind of contraception was she thinking of though?

          At the time that Sanger was writing, the contraceptive pill was of course unknown, as were IUDs and implant devices. The principal contraceptive methods were:

          – Barrier methods, principally the condom.

          – The withdrawal method

          – Post-coital douches, with water or with something more astringent.

          – Mildly poisonous drugs, mostly herbal, which worked to reduce the likelihood of conception and, to reduce the likelihood of implantation if conception did occur, and to increase the likelihood of miscarriage if implantation did occur. Mostly the women who took these did not recognise them as poisons. And, of course, because they were poisons, they could and did seriously harm the women who took them, especially if taken regularly over a long period.

          By Sanger’s time, the poisonous nature of most contraceptive drugs was well-known to the medical profession and she was aware of it. She did not recommend drugs. She was also aware of the limited effectiveness of the withdrawal method and of douches, though initially she promoted these as the best of the available options. Over time she came to favour barrier methods, especially the diaphragm. She favoured the pill when it became available, but that was at the very end of her active career.

          • Louise says:

            Ah yes, The Pill. Also a poison, I believe.

          • Louise says:

            Thanks, Pere.

          • Louise says:

            My understanding (possibly incorrect) is that various herbs have been used by women over the centuries, mostly to induce miscarriage, or prevent implantation i.e. to cause an early abortion.

            • Peregrinus says:

              I think that’s correct. At least one herb reputed to have this effect was harvested to extinction in ancient times. But it wasn’t just herbs; ergot, for instance, is a fungus which was used to induce miscarriage.

              Most of the preparations used worked in the threefold way I have described – prevent conception, prevent implantation, induce miscarriage – though they weren’t 100% effective at doing any of these things. Birth control preparations were marketed as “mantaining monthly regularity” or “preventing menstrual supression”. (As you can see, the use of euphemisms is not new.)

              The women who took these preparations would mostly have had no idea how they worked or exactly what they did. Indeed, for a long time neither did the medical profession. The nature of conception, and the distinction between conception and implantation, for example, were wholly unknown until quite modern times.

              Women generally reckoned that any precautions they took before or around the time of sexual intercourse prevented pregnancy. We might know that they did this in some cases by preventing the implantation of a fertilised ovum or by inducing very early miscarriage, but they did not know this.

              Anything they did after they had experienced the symptoms of pregnancy they understood to induce a miscarriage, which was (socially and morally) viewed as a much more serious matter.

              Preventing a pregnancy was socially disreputable, but only inducing a miscarriage was criminalised.

            • Peter says:

              You are correct. In fact the ‘magicians’ referred to in Scripture are likely to be connected with this kind of practice. The Greek word is “pharmakoi” which is properly translated as “mixers of poisons.” In Ancient Rome they were officially illegal until well after the time of Christ but fairly well frequented by the rich for love charms and potions for libido (cf. Viagra etc) as well as potions to prevent and terminate pregnancy.

              You can find a detailed description of the medical knowledge of such mixtures, and also mechanical abortions, in Galen who wrote in the late 2nd century but refers to recipies from much earlier times.

              We also have mention of recipes used for the same purposes in ancient Egypt, although we do not have accurate records of their composition or effectiveness, just the intention and application.

            • Peregrinus says:

              Well, in fairness to the pharmakoi, the modern distinction between “medicine” and “poison” did not exist at the time. The modern term “drug” encompasses both senses, and perhaps we should think of the pharmakoi as a druggist (or drug-pusher?) Drugs work by disrupting natural bodily processes; in that sense they are [i]all[/i] poisons.

              As well as selling contraceptive preparations and, ahem, “gentlemen’s restoratives”, the pharmakoi sold preparations for settling fevers, dressing wounds, treating stomach-ache or toothache, etc. A fair number of these were purgatives, laxatives or emetics – medical treatment was rough-and-ready, back in the day – and even those that weren’t were often pretty poisonous. And sometimes known to be so; a large dose of hemlock, for instance, was known to be fatal and was used as a method of execution, but smaller doses were used as painkillers, antispasmodics and sedatives, because at the appropriate dosage hemlock does produce numbness, paralysis or unconsciousness. Obviously, getting the dose right was crucial. But, of course, that remains true of may of the drugs that we use today, ranging from morphine all the way down to paracetamol.

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