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Sex and Secularism: Humanists and Reproductive Rights

Humanist advocacy for reproductive rights has always been rooted in a belief in personal autonomy, rational attitudes to sex and sexuality, and a compassionate interest in human welfare. These ideals have led many humanists to champion reproductive rights – from comprehensive sex education and access to contraception, to the legalisation of abortion and the creation of ‘buffer zones’ around abortion providers. Humanists and freethinkers profoundly influenced shifts in attitudes and changes to laws, which have led to greater reproductive rights and human freedoms in the UK.


Influential on much early advocacy for birth control was the economist and Anglican cleric Thomas Malthus’ 1798 work An Essay on the Principle of Population. Malthus argued that unchecked population growth would outstrip food supply, tending ‘to subject the lower classes of… society to distress and to prevent any great permanent amelioration of their condition’. Malthus saw this as ordained by God to aid in the improvement of humanity, and advocated ‘moral restraint’ (delayed marriage and abstinence), rather than any ‘unnatural’ methods of birth control. Despite his own objections to contraceptives, Malthus’ name would later be used by groups encouraging their use.

19th century

I sit down to write a little treatise, which will subject me to abuse from the self-righteous, to misrepresentation from the hypocritical, and to reproach even from the honestly prejudiced. 

Robert Dale Owen, Moral Physiology (1846)

In the 19th century, freethinkers were at the forefront of campaigns for the frank discussion and provision of birth control. Francis Place, known as the ‘radical tailor of Charing Cross’, was a working class freethinker and radical, who became the first person to publicly recommend the use of contraceptives. Place’s Illustrations and Proofs of the Principle of Population (1822) challenged Thomas Malthus’ ignorance of the lives of the poor, and argued that only with information about birth control methods – and encouragement to use them – could people take control of family size. Himself an ‘illegitimate’ child, and with personal experience of childhood poverty, Place was firm in his convictions, though they lost him friends, and earned him much public scorn. He was accused, for example, of making a ‘most foul and devilish attempt, at corrupting the youth of both sexes in this country’.

The object of the Publisher is to war with that sort of prudery which is tantamount to hypocrisy… Instruction, upon a matter, of which both men and women are by far too ignorant, is the sole object of this publication. It may shock prejudices; but it will be approved by reason and due deliberation.

Richard Carlile, preface to Every Woman’s Book (1828)
Every Woman’s Book, 1828

The moral outrage which accompanied arguments for contraception was anticipated and addressed by these early proponents. Richard Carlile, a pioneering champion of press freedom, was also an early advocate of reproductive choice and published in 1828, Every Woman’s Book. Its full title was Every woman’s book, or, What is love? containing most important instructions for the prudent regulation of the principle of love and the number of a family, intended, wrote Carlile, for use by ‘the young, the middle-aged, the healthy, the happy, the virtuous, and the sensible part of the community of both sexes’.

Such calls for a clear-eyed, honest discussion of birth control methods (often in direct contrast to the perceived hypocrisy of the Church) were echoed by other humanists of the period, such as Emma Martin, who wrote in 1848: I would rather give my daughters a set of physiological and obstetric books for their perusal than allow them to read the Levitical Law’.

Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant

Portrait and profile of Annie Besant in The Secular Chronicle, 10 February 1878

Perhaps the 19th century’s most infamous defence of birth control, and the right to publish on it, came with the widely publicised trial of prominent secularists Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant for publishing Charles Knowlton’s Fruits of Philosophy in 1877. The Fruits of Philosophy: or The Private Companion of Young Married People was first published anonymously in the US in 1832. When, in 1876, a Bristol publisher of the pamphlet was charged with selling an indecent work, Bradlaugh and Besant leapt into action, publishing and circulating an edition of their own. They were duly prosecuted. Their defence was not only one of reproductive rights, but of press freedom.

Many a better book than that of Dr. Knowlton might be written on the same subject to-day, for we have had 40 years of scientific improvement since “Fruits of Philosophy” was penned; until, however, the judgment against Knowlton is reversed, no better book can be published, for doctors will not write, and publishers will not sell, a work which may bring them within the walls of a gaol.

Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant, ‘Preface’ to In the high court of justice, Queen’s bench division, June 18th, 1877: The Queen v. Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant

Although their conviction was ultimately overturned on a technicality, in the wake of the controversy Annie Besant lost custody of her daughter, whose father argued that the publication demonstrated the laxity of Besant’s moral character.

Other prosecutions for the publication of birth control literature also took place around this time, including of the radical publisher Edward Truelove for reissuing Robert Dale Owen’s Moral Physiology. Like Besant and Bradlaugh, Truelove vigorously defended his decision.

To attempt to bring a medical or philosophical treatise, having for its object solely the temperate discussion of matters which affect the public good, and which, moreover, does not aim for a moment at mere amusement, is a monstrous outrage on the common sense of Englishmen and a grossly unconstitutional stretch of the English law.

Preface to The Queen V. Edward Truelove: For Publishing the Hon. Robert Dale Owen’s “Moral Physiology,” and a Pamphlet, Entitled “Individual, Family, and National Poverty.” (1878)

The Malthusian League

The Malthusian League (1877–1927) was formed from the trial of Bradlaugh and Besant, continuing to advocate for birth control as a means of checking population growth. The League sought the removal of penalties for discussing contraception, and public education on the importance of family limitation. It was led by freethinkers (including Alice Vickery Drysdale) but, wrote humanist and reproductive rights campaigner Madeleine Simms in 1977, ultimately ‘became so absorbed in its propaganda battles that it failed to notice the crying need for an organisation that would actually disseminate contraceptives – not merely talk about them’. In response to this ‘crying need’ came the birth control champions of the early 20th century, actively seeking law reform, providing education, and establishing clinics.

Edith How-Martyn by George Ridsdale Cleare, 1910s © National Portrait Gallery, London

One such campaigner was the humanist and feminist Edith How Martyn, who joined the League in 1910. Martyn’s outspoken promotion of contraception – and its open discussion – arose from her feminism: a belief that women had the right to knowledge of their own bodies, to sexual fulfilment, and to self-determination. She assisted, in 1921, with the Malthusian’s League’s opening of one of Britain’s first birth control clinics, and actively campaigned for local authority provision of birth control information. Martyn also worked on an international level, cooperating with American birth control advocate Margaret Sanger for women’s right to contraception the world over. Her Birth Control International Information Centre, established in Geneva in 1927, was one of the organisations which eventually led to the Family Planning Association and International Planned Parenthood.

In 1930, The National Birth Control Council was founded, with Charles Vickery Drysdale (son of freethinkers Charles Robert Drysdale and Alice Vickery) instrumental in its formation. Margaret Pyke was appointed secretary. This became the National Birth Control Association (NBCA) in 1931, and the Family Planning Association (FPA) in 1939.

The British Society for the Study of Sex Psychology

Another organisation working for the reform of laws and attitudes around sex and sexuality was The British Society for the Study of Sex Psychology, formed in 1914 and spearheaded by humanists. The BSSSP advocated ‘for the consideration of problems and questions connected with sexual psychology, from their medical, juridical, and sociological aspects,’ intending to take a rational and non-judgmental approach to questions of sex and sexuality, informed by science and aspiring to ‘greater sexual freedom in society’. Among its members were medical professionals, writers, researchers, and activists in numerous reformist movements. A number of prominent humanists were active members, including Stella Browne and Dora Russell, both lifelong activists for reproductive rights.

Guy Aldred and Rose Witcop, 1926

In spite of efforts to inform public opinion and bring frank discussions of sexual matters into the mainstream, activists of the early 20th century continued to face obstacles. Among these were the anarchists Rose Witcop and Guy Aldred, charged in 1922 with obscenity for publishing an illustrated edition of Margaret Sanger’s Family Limitation. The couple were supported by humanists Dora and Bertrand Russell, and John Maynard Keynes, but lost their appeal against an order to destroy the works. The Times reported the magistrate, A.J. Lawrie, as being ‘convinced that both Mr. and Mrs. Aldred acted honestly and innocently, and with the best intentions, but in the interests of the morals of society he had no hesitation in saying that the book was obscene’. In 1925, Witcop opened her People’s Clinic for Birth Control and Social Welfare, which she maintained first in Fulham and later in Shepherd’s Bush until her death in 1932.

Workers’ Birth Control Group

The Workers’ Birth Control Group was founded in 1924, in the wake of the women’s conference of the Labour Party, by a group which included the humanist activists Dora Russell and Frida Laski. They sought to enable working class women to access birth control information and treatment, safely and free of charge, deliberately distancing themselves from other birth control organisations, which were typically middle class and inspired by ideas of eugenics.

Leaflet of the Workers’ Birth Control Group, 1927

Many of the group’s founders and members had already been active in the promotion of access to birth control prior to the group’s formation, including Dora Russell. Rose Witcop, along with Russell, Laski, Marjory Allen, Joan Malleson, and Leah L’Estrange Malone were signatories on a 1924 petition circulated by women members of the Labour Party and the Independent Labour Party outlining ‘the large and growing demand among working mothers that information as to the methods of birth control be frankly, and decently given by public authority’. In addition to campaigning for increased access to contraception information from public health providers, members of the Workers’ Birth Control Group lectured throughout the country on the subject of birth control.

Abortion Law Reform Association & BPAS

In addition to activism for contraception, humanists were central to the formation and organisation of two of the 20th century’s most influential abortion rights groups: the Abortion Law Reform Association and BPAS.

Stella Browne, Dora Russell, and two other activists talking to Bertrand Russell in 1923

The Abortion Law Reform Association was formed in 1936 to campaign for the legalisation of abortion in the UK. In its efforts towards reasoned, compassionate reform, many humanists were involved with ALRA from its earliest stages, notably Stella Browne, Janet Chance, Alice Jenkins, and Dora Russell. The Ethical Union (now Humanists UK) became affiliated with ALRA in 1953. ALRA and its activists were instrumental in securing the passage of the 1967 Abortion Act, which legalised abortion under certain circumstances.

Diane Munday

The British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) began as the Birmingham Pregnancy Advisory Service, created to provide access to safe, legal, and affordable abortions after the enactment of the 1967 Abortion Act. Birmingham had been a centre of opposition to the legalisation of abortion, and members of the local branch of the Abortion Law Reform Association (ALRA) sought ways of ensuring the new Act was implemented, and women given access to the services they needed. Soon after the Act came into force in 1968, the need for similar help throughout the nation became evident, and as more BPAS branches and surgical clinics were established, ‘British’ replaced ‘Birmingham’ in the charity’s title.

Central to BPAS’ emergence and development were the humanist Martin Cole (chair of Birmingham ALRA branch), Nan Smith (who became BPAS’ first Director), and François Laffite (BPAS’ first chairman). Lifelong humanist Diane Munday – at that time vice chairman of ALRA – was also instrumental in establishing BPAS, later becoming its parliamentary, press, and public relations officer and main spokesperson. She lectured, broadcast, and debated tirelessly for women’s right to safe, accessible, and compassionate care.

Policy and the pill

Sexual Morals – a Humanist view written by Connaire Kensit and Ruth Buchanan, published by The Student Humanist Federation c. 1966

Gregory Pincus, the American who developed the first effective contraceptive pill during the 1950s, was himself a humanist. In the UK, the pill became available on the NHS (for married women) in 1961, and to all in 1967.

As well as being affiliated with ALRA, and closely connected through personnel and policy with reproductive rights campaigning, the British Humanist Association (now Humanists UK) consistently championed reproductive choice throughout the 20th century and beyond. The BHA’s 1976 General Statement of Policy included the assertion that:

We consider that unrestricted availability of family planning facilities, and abortion where this fails, is a social necessity and a human right.

Today, Humanists UK continues to campaign for sexual and reproductive rights, including for access to abortion, contraception and high-quality, comprehensive relationships and sex education.

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