A lot of attention has been paid in recent weeks to the anti-abortion law passed in Texas. This is the law that enables an individual to profit by denouncing anyone they believe is helping someone to obtain an abortion. Legislators claim this will cut down on the number of abortions performed in Texas, yet research and experience have shown that the best way to reduce the number of abortions is to provide information about contraception. But Texas, according to a National Institutes of Health report, is not one of the 20 states that the requires schools to offer information about contraception. You have to wonder whether the Texas legislators are seriously interested in reducing abortions at all.
As we hear about the ways in which some conservatives are trying to do away with the knowledge and services that help people control their fertility, we should remember how difficult it was to start making that information available to anyone. The use of contraception makes it possible for women to play a variety of roles in the world. Yet, over the years, many people in public positions tried to withhold information instead of sharing it with those who need it. It’s about time to start honoring the women (and some men) who finally started to tell people how they could manage their sexuality and live more fulfilling lives.
Marie Stopes was an unlikely figure to play a role in this field, but in fact she played an important role. Born in Scotland in 1880, and educated in England, she was a paleobotanist. What is a paleobotanist? Someone who studies the way plants have evolved and developed through the centuries. She became the youngest person in Britain to receive a Doctor of Science degree in 1904 and became one of the first women to be elected a fellow of the Linnean Society of London.
During the first years of her career, Stopes devoted herself to science, but her interests expanded a she grew older. In 1918, she published a book called Married Love, which was one of the first books to give men and women frank and explicit details about sex. The book was a great success and sold widely throughout Britain and all of Europe.
Marie Stopes opposed abortion and strongly advocated that an expanded knowledge about contraception would eliminate the need for abortions. She founded the first birth control clinic in Britain and edited the newsletter Birth Control News. Few people have done so much to benefit women’s health and progress.
Despite all the good work she did for many people, Marie Stopes is often left unmentioned in histories of birth control. She was not a perfect person. At times, she advocated eugenics, a belief that society would be improved if people of low physical and mental health did not have children. Although she herself was not a racist, many people who advocated eugenics did believe that the white race was somehow better than other races. Today these beliefs have been rejected by scientists and social leaders, but Marie Stopes’ reputation has been permanently damaged.
Even though Stopes was not always right, I still believe we can honor the good work she did at a time when very few other people were willing to educate the public about birth control. We ought to acknowledge the good that she did and try to forgive her mistakes.