Marie Stopes was very keen on controlling fertility. Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty

January 14, 2021   6 mins

Is it possible to be free and also a mother? Sort of. Virginia Woolf famously called in 1928 for women to have “a room of one’s own” in which to pursue the life of the mind. But for bookishly inclined women, it’s less essential to have your own physical room than time and space — both of which are in short supply when you have young children.

Mothers do all sorts of things to solve this dilemma: I start work by 5am most days. In earlier times, women in search of “a room of one’s own” adopted even more extreme measures in pursuit of peace and quiet. Many opted to give sex the swerve altogether by joining a monastic community: in the Middle Ages there were some 138 nunneries in England.

Over the millennia, doubtless many more women have felt ambivalent about motherhood than is recorded. My grandmother, who worked as a doctor before World War II, told me once that she wasn’t that bothered. But having married, as she put it, “it was rather expected of one”.

Certainly, many of the women who wrote to early birth control campaigner Margaret Sanger found their fertility burdensome. In 1928, Sanger published Motherhood in Bondage, a collection of these letters which describe grinding poverty, struggles with physical health, multiple miscarriages, malnourished children and constant money worries. Frustrated, impoverished and still stubbornly fertile, women pleaded for greater control over their own reproductive biology. One wrote:

“I have been married six years, at the age of seventeen. Am twenty-three now. It seems I can’t keep out of the family way. Have had six children, four living and two dead… every year there is another arrival. I don’t have any enjoyment out of life, staying at home all the while. I will not have anything out of life but worry, children and cares.”

Sanger saw her cause as a progressive one, and reproductive healthcare remains cast in the same light. Recent celebrations in Argentina over the legalisation of abortion, and protests against its restriction in Poland, were led by feminists who understand the constraints imposed on women by our reproductive biology. As Sanger put it: “No woman can call herself free until she can choose consciously whether she will or will not be a mother.”

Thus control over fertility has been a central plank of women’s emancipation, more or less from the moment it became medically feasible to do so. Having fewer children really does afford women greater freedom — and as a culture we really do place a premium on freedom. As Mick Jagger sang in 1965: “I’m free to do what I want, any old time”.

But as I’ve argued before, motherhood cuts across this in ways you can’t really change. The moment you become pregnant you aren’t free to do what you want. You’re not free to drink or eat what you like, and you get progressively less free in your movements as the bump gets bigger. When babies are tiny, you aren’t free to sleep uninterrupted. You can kiss goodbye to the freedom to have a lie-in for a good decade, and to the freedom to spend your money as you please pretty much forever. At best, freedom — in the Rolling Stones’ sense — mixes uncomfortably with kids.

In the same decade as Jagger sang about liberation, women gained an unprecedented new freedom with the legalisation of the contraceptive pill. It was made available in 1961 to married women, then in 1965 extended to all. At that moment, women gained a form of freedom that had previously been the preserve only of (irresponsible) men: the freedom to have sex with limited consequences. To be free, as the Stones put it, “any old time, to get what I want”.

Even more profoundly, the Pill delivered the freedom Sanger sought for all women: the freedom to choose motherhood consciously. Fast-forward a few decades, and Sanger’s campaign has been realised. Barring the odd accident, in the West motherhood is largely something women opt into, rather than struggle for ways to opt out of. And it turns out that more women were ambivalent about it than anticipated: birth rates are collapsing across the developed world, leading researchers to warn of a ticking demographic time bomb.

This connection between emancipation and childlessness seems to work both ways. In the West, an emphasis on individual freedom in the women’s movement has depressed fertility among high-flying career women, with egg-freezing rising five-fold in the UK since 2013. In China, meanwhile, the current flowed the other way: the “one-child policy” fostered an explosion of career women.

Thus freedom, feminism and fertility have long been nested issues in progressive politics. But historically, there has also been another, darker aspect to reproductive technology: the vision of using it to improve the human species through selective breeding. In fact, eugenics enjoyed widespread popularity in the early 20th century as a progressive cause, and was discussed by both Margaret Sanger and her English counterpart, Marie Stopes.

For as soon as one can control fertility, the question arises: who gets to do so, and to what end? Stopes argued that reproductive technologies should be used in the interests of improving humanity by eliminating the stupid, the weak, the disabled, those she considered morally deficient and those belonging to racial groups she thought inferior. In the interests of the greater good, all such human specimens should be sterilised:

“When Bills are passed to ensure the sterility of the hopelessly rotten and racially diseased, and to provide for the education of the child-bearing woman so that she spaces her children healthily, our race will rapidly quell the stream of depraved, hopeless and wretched lives which are at present ever increasing in proportion in our midst.”

Such casually dehumanising language rightly appals us today, and the foundation started by Marie Stopes recently changed its name to MSI Choices to downplay the association with a eugenics advocate. It was an understandable effort to untangle the acquisition of women’s freedom afforded by reproductive technology from the horrifying potential of such advances. And yet the genie is out of the bottle. Stopes’ nightmare vision of eugenics as public policy is a reality today, in the programme of forced sterilisation being perpetrated by the Chinese Communist Party upon Uighur minority women in Xinjiang.

Revulsion at such a monstrous policy is instant and instinctive. Yet similar methods are embraced as liberating in a vastly different context. And that’s how the CCP was able this week to throw the thin moral gruel of individual freedom back at us, in an attempt to reframe a campaign of genocide as a grotesque story of feminist emancipation. In a post which has since been deleted by Twitter, the Chinese Embassy in the US shared a link to an article in a state-run newspaper which said that, as a result of being sterilised, Uighur women were no longer “baby-making machines” and therefore had “more autonomy”.

The way out of this bind is to be franker about the nature of reproductive healthcare, something usually only done by people who oppose it. I support the legal availability of contraception including abortion but, but as one anti-abortion campaigner Lila Rose starkly put it: “Abortion is violence”. Inasmuch as it interrupts and terminates the normal biological process of gestation, it’s hard to disagree: there is an inescapably violent aspect to abortion. Yet Rose soon found herself accused by a pro-choice activist of “violent rhetoric” and “domestic terrorism” – for stating something that is factually true. Liberal, freedom-minded defenders of sometimes objectively violent reproductive healthcare procedures here sought to forcibly prevent further mention of that violence. It seems that where reproductive politics is concerned, violence has a way of creeping into the picture.

The women’s movement that took off in the same decade as the introduction of the contraceptive pill asserted that the personal is political. Today, we should perhaps acknowledge the extent to which the political is also personal. We nod sagely at the insistence that babies should be solely a private matter, but how can human fertility be solely a private matter?

On an intimate level, reproduction is about love, bodies and family continuity. For women, it’s also about what happens inside our very bodies. Motherhood is, literally, a visceral question. At scale, though, fertility is a question of the future workforce, growing or shrinking economies, immigration policy, competing ethnic groups, even of the survival (or not) of a people or culture. These are not small questions. We should not pretend they can be treated as purely private matters.

I believe abortion and contraception should be safe and legal. But it should also be understood as a grave action. There is, inescapably, violence implicit in bringing technology to bear on the creation of new human life, and we can’t bat away that violence away with talk of ‘freedom’. By failing to grasp this nettle, we risk inviting a loveless and easily politicised science into the heart of our society, whose face – behind the surgical mask – is the stuff of nightmares.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.