Birth control

{See also Birth control press cuttings}

No useful information on contraception was published prior to the 1820s, and then only to a very narrow readership. The church opposed contraception. Several people, including Richard Carlile, had been jailed for publishing books on birth control; in 1823 John Stuart Mill was jailed for distributing pamphlets Abortion was practised more frequently than contraception, though there is evidence of withdrawal among peasants in the 1600s. Contraceptive devices and information were available in the mid-1800s but did not reach the masses until the 1930s. The middle classes had the knowledge and devices first, and eventually these spread to the working classes.

From the 1890s (the time contraception became available to those who knew where to get it) until at least the 1940s, men were much keener than women on contraception; women preferred abstinence. Contraceptive contraptions were associated with prostitution and venereal diseases, and so the use of them tainted married love.

In 1877 Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh decided to publish The Fruits of Philosophy, Charles Knowlton's book advocating birth control. Theyh were charged with publishing 'a dirty, filthy book'; material that was 'likely to deprave or corrupt', found guilty of publishing an obscene libel and sentenced to six months in prison. At the Court of Appeal the sentence was quashed. Annie Besant then wrote and published her own book advocating birth control entitled The Laws of Population.

In 1918 Marie Stopes wrote a concise guide to contraception called Wise Parenthood. This angered leaders of the Church of England and Roman Catholics. In 1921 she founded the Society for Constructive Birth Control and opened the first of her birth-control clinics in Holloway, North London on 17 March 1921.

In 1923 Dora Russell and John Maynard Keynes paid the legal costs to obtain the freedom of Guy Aldred and Rose Witcop after they had been found guilty of selling pamphlets on contraception. By this time contraceptive advice was freely available to the upper classes, and the prosecution arose because Aldred and Witcop wished to enlighten the poor. The following year, Dora, with the support of Katharine Glasier, Susan Lawrence MP, Margaret Bonfield MP, Dorothy Jewson MP and H. G. Wells founded the Workers' Birth Control Group. Dora also campaigned within the Labour Party for birth-control clinics; this was rejected as they feared losing the Roman Catholic vote.


From 1765 post-quickening abortion was no longer considered homicide in England. In 1803 Lord Ellenborough's Act made abortion after quickening a capital crime, and provided lesser penalties for the felony of abortion before quickening. The 1861 Offences Against the Person Act which outlawed abortion. In 1938 Dr Aleck Bourne aborted the pregnancy of a girl who had been raped by soldiers. Dr Bourne was acquitted after turning himself into authorities. The legal precedent of allowing abortion in order to avoid mental or physical damage was picked up by the Commonwealth of Nations. The 1967 Abortion Act legalised abortion. In 1979 the Health (Family Planning) Act allowed sale of contraceptives in Ireland, upon presentation of a prescription. Abortion is still illegal in Ireland, except as urgent medical procedures to save a woman's life. In 1985 the Health (Family Planning) (Amendment) Act allowed sale of condoms and spermicides to people in Ireland over 18 without having to present a prescription. In 1990 the Abortion Act was amended so that abortion is legal only up to 24 weeks, rather than 28, except in unusual cases. In 1993 the Health (Family Planning) (Amendment) Act allowed sale of contraceptives without prescription in Ireland.

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All pages © Helena Wojtczak 2009. Corrections and additions are warmly welcomed. Email me