G.K. Chesterton on Birth Control

I saw a quote this morning by G.K. Chesterton that I liked very much. It was about feminism, and I wondered about it’s context. With the help of Google Books, I found that it came from a piece of writing titled “Social Reform versus Birth Control,” which was written in 1927 as two articles for Lansbury’s Labour Weekly and published later that year as a pamphlet.

I have reprinted a portion of it here.

The real history of the world is full of the queerest cases of notions that have turned clean head-over-heels and completely contradicted themselves. The last example is an extraordinary notion that what is called Birth Control is a social reform that goes along with other social reforms favoured by progressive people.

It is rather like saying that cutting off King Charles’ head was one of the most elegant of the Cavalier fashions in hair-dressing. It is like saying that decapitation is an advance on dentistry. It may or may not be right to cut off the King’s head; it may or may not be right to cut off your own head when you have the toothache. But anybody ought to be able to see that if we once simplify things by head cutting we can do without hair-cutting; that it will be needless to practise dentistry on the dead or philanthropy on the unborn–or the unbegotten. So it is not a provision for our descendants to say that the destruction of our descendants will render it unnecessary to provide them with anything…

If you can make the wage larger, there is no need to make the family smaller. If you can make the family small, there is no need to make the wage larger. Anyone may judge which the ruling capitalist will probably prefer to do. But if he does one, he need not do the other.

There is of course a great deal more to be said. I have dealt with only one feature of Birth Control–its exceedingly unpleasant origin. I said it was purely capitalist and reactionary; I venture to say I have proved it was entirely capitalist and reactionary. But there are many other aspects of this evil thing. It is unclean in the light of the instincts; it is unnatural in relation to the affections; it is part of a general attempt to run the populace on a routine of quack medicine and smelly science; it is mixed up with a muddled idea that women are free when they serve their employers but slaves when they help their husbands; it is ignorant of the very existence of real households where prudence comes by free-will and agreement…

The very name of “Birth Control” is a piece of pure humbug. It is one of those blatant euphemisms used in the headlines of the Trust Press. It is like “Tariff Reform.” It is like “Free Labour.” It is meant to mean nothing, that it may mean anything, and especially some thing totally different from what it says. Everybody believes in birth control, and nearly everybody has exercised some control over the conditions of birth. People do not get married as somnambulists or have children in their sleep. But throughout numberless ages and nations, the normal and real birth control is called self control. If anybody says it cannot is possibly work, I say it does. In many classes, in many countries where these quack nostrums are unknown, populations of free men have remained within reasonable limits by sound traditions of thrift and responsibility. In so far as there is a local evil of excess, it comes with all other evils from the squalor and despair of our decaying industrialism. But the thing the capitalist newspapers call birth control is not control at all. It is the idea that people should be, in one respect, completely and utterly uncontrolled, so long as they can evade everything in the function that is positive and creative, and intelligent and worthy of a free man. It is a name given to a succession of different expedients, (the one that was used last is always described as having been dreadfully dangerous) by which it is possible to filch the pleasure belonging to a natural process while violently and unnaturally thwarting the process itself…

The fact is, I think, that I am in revolt against the conditions of industrial capitalism and the advocates of Birth Control are in revolt against the conditions of human life. What their spokesmen can possibly mean by saying that I wage a “class war against mothers” must remain a matter of speculation. If they mean that I do the unpardonable wrong to mothers of thinking they will wish to continue to be mothers, even in a society of greater economic justice and civic equality, then I think they are perfectly right. I doubt whether mothers could escape from motherhood into Socialism. But the advocates of Birth Control seem to want some of them to escape from it into capitalism. They seem to express a sympathy with those who prefer “the right to earn outside the home” or (in other words) the right to be a wage-slave and work under the orders of a total stranger because he happens to be a richer man. By what conceivable contortions of twisted thought this ever came to be considered a freer condition than that of companionship with the man she has herself freely accepted, I never could for the life of me make out. The only sense I can make of it is that the proletarian work, though obviously more senile and subordinate than the parental, is so far safer and more irresponsible because it is not parental. I can easily believe that there are some people who do prefer working in a factory to working in a family; for there are always some people who prefer slavery to freedom, and who especially prefer being governed to governing someone else. But I think their quarrel with motherhood is not like mine, a quarrel with inhuman conditions, but simply a quarrel with life. Given an attempt to escape from the nature of things, and I can well believe that it might lead at last to something like “the nursery school for our children staffed by other mothers and single women of expert training.”

I will add nothing to that ghastly picture, beyond speculating pleasantly about the world in which women cannot manage their own children but can manage each other’s. But I think it indicates an abyss between natural and unnatural arrangements which would have to be bridged before we approached what is supposed to be the subject of discussion.

Times have changed since 1927. According to one source, 62 percent of U.S. women of childbearing age are using contraceptives, and 99 percent of women who have been sexually active have used at least one contraceptive method. Today, 71 percent of mothers with children under 18 work outside the home. Childcare is a $40 billion dollar industry in the U.S. and more than half of three- to five-year-olds receive care from professional childcare facilities.

It seems Chesterton’s prophesy has come true.

4 thoughts on “G.K. Chesterton on Birth Control”

  1. The best line…'it is mixed up with a muddled idea that women are free when they serve their employers but slaves when they help their husbands'

  2. I know this is an old post. But until you've been home with a screaming baby all day and night, endlessly – unable to bake delicious homecooked meals or even do laundry because you're exhausted, isolated, and despairing of ever getting the baby to quiet down – you have no idea why Chesterton's claims here ring so false to mothers. (And I love Chesterton! And I'm Catholic!)To his credit, in his day mothers were not isolated slaves in their own household, singlehandedly having to carry a baby around on one breast while stirring a pot of spaghetti with the other hand, with never another adult to speak to for fourteen hours a day because the \”man she has chosen\” for companionship is at work holding down two jobs so she can have the \”luxury\” of staying home. In Chesterton's time, women either lived in multigenerational households where their own mothers and aunties were there to help, or had a full-time domestic staff (read: other women taking care of their babies!). The idea that most women should or could be happy alone at home all day with kids , without any adults to talk to, without a moment to herself, without a moment to shower, is a fantasy. One that I bought into until about three days after my first daughter was born. And then I realized why something like 75% of new mothers have clinical depression. Because stay-at-home motherhood in isolation is not something you can do without losing your mind.

  3. Thank you Caroline for sharing your perspective! I think you raise an important point — there is more than just one issue at play here. I still don't think the answer is artificial birth control. I think people can make counter-cultural life choices that allow them to live in ways closer to what God intended. It may mean living closer to extended family so that support is available. It may mean seeking out truly supportive communities. I have seen people make this work. But still — this can be a process, and each situation is different.

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