Sexuality, parenthood and population
Sexuality, parenthood and population

This free course is available to start right now. Review the full course description and key learning outcomes and create an account and enrol if you want a free statement of participation.

Free course

Sexuality, parenthood and population

3.6 Population policy

The period of fertility decline in Britain coincided with a time when anxieties about population control came to dominate a wide range of debates about social policy. These debates originated in two different theories of population: Malthusian ideas about overpopulation and eugenics – the ‘science’ of selective breeding.

An Essay on the Principle of Population by Reverend Thomas Malthus, published in 1798, argued that populations would inevitably increase more rapidly than the production of food to sustain them. Malthus held that only the ‘positive checks’ of disease, war or starvation would keep the population at a sustainable level. To avoid such disasters, he called for ‘preventative checks’ of marital restraint and deferred marriage. He also argued that poverty was caused by overbreeding by the poor, as the social controls that had limited early marriage through apprenticeship and farm service were diminishing and young adults were having children ‘improvidently’ before they had the means to support them. Malthusian ideas underpinned much social policy of the nineteenth century; the most striking example was the establishment of workhouses by the New Poor Law of 1834. Families faced with poverty were no longer able to obtain financial assistance or ‘outdoor relief’ , but were forced to move into a local workhouse where they were separated, with men, women and children living in strictly segregated quarters, a highly visible disincentive to those seen as financially and sexually profligate. The use of the workhouse to discipline the poor, although much amended, continued until the 1930s, despite constant demands for its abolition (Widdowson, 2004).

If Malthusians were concerned with overpopulation, eugenicists focused on the consequences of population decline. The term ‘eugenics’ was first used in 1883 by Francis Galton, Darwin's cousin, to describe a science of selective breeding to improve the qualities of the population, or ‘the race’ as it was popularly called at this time. It was based on the assumption that many physical, mental and moral characteristics were determined by heredity, although its physiological mechanisms were not known. By encouraging ‘fit’ members of the population to breed and discouraging or preventing the ‘unfit’, it was argued that the ‘national stock’ would be improved. By the end of the nineteenth century there was an increasing sense of national decline as other countries (particularly Germany after unification in 1870) began to challenge Britain's industrial and economic predominance. This feeling came to a head during the Boer War (1899–1902) when the poor physical condition of recruits became a national scandal. The eugenic movement called for social action to prevent any further decline of the national stock, evoking ‘national efficiency’ as a key weapon in a Darwinian struggle for survival and dominance in the world. Eugenic anxieties were heightened by emerging evidence that upper- and middle-class parents were having fewer children, while the poor and groups defined as ‘racially’ ‘other’, such as Irish Catholics and Jews arriving from Eastern Europe, continued to have large families (Hickman, 1998). Middle-class couples were accused of selfishly refusing to take on the burdens of parenthood. And in response to the increasing influence of feminism, women were blamed for refusing to marry, taking on careers or higher education instead, and avoiding their responsibilities to the ‘race’ (Holden, 2004). Eugenicists were divided about which social ills could be ameliorated by environmental improvements and which were subject to laws of heredity, with alcoholism, feeble-mindedness and having illegitimate children often seen as inherited characteristics.

At this time the term ‘race’ pointed to a language of differentiation between peoples on the basis of a few, selected physical characteristics and their categorisation into distinct ‘racial’ types, hierarchically arranged with the white Anglo-Saxon ‘race’ at the pinnacle. Such constructions were deeply embedded in the language of population policy, articulated through an elision of national efficiency with ‘racial’ supremacy. Significantly, they were incorporated into the Liberal Party's policies of Social Imperialism between 1906–14, when unemployment and sickness benefits and old age pensions were introduced for the first time, when reform was justified in order to ‘assist in breeding the Imperial Race in Britain to defend and maintain the Empire’ (Williams, 1989, p. 126). By 1914, eugenic discourses had become very influential across a wide range of social issues (Bland, 1995, pp. 222–8). Particularly important was the Fabian Society. Formed in 1884, the Society favoured gradualist reform for socialist ends, believing that capitalism should be replaced by social ownership and the state should alleviate social deprivation. Many Fabians drew on the language of eugenics, particularly in arguing that the state should take responsibility for the health and wellbeing of the population.

It is difficult to overstate the influence of eugenic thinking, although in Britain it failed to significantly impact on particular policies. Unlike the USA, there were no measures for compulsory sterilisation of the unfit, and unlike France, there was no financial support for mothers paid by the state. However, some limited measures which addressed national efficiency were introduced, such as the provision of free school meals for the poor in 1906 and the growth of infant welfare services. The language of eugenics was also used by Marie Stopes to tie together feminist demands for motherhood to be more highly valued and for women to have control over fertility and sexuality, with a nationalist agenda for the renewal of the population. As such it became possible to present knowledge about birth control as respectable and socially responsible rather than obscene and immoral, linking together the personal with population policy.


Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to university level study, find out more about the types of qualifications we offer, including our entry level Access courses and Certificates.

Not ready for University study then browse over 900 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus