Birth Control in Nineteenth-Century England

Birth Control in Nineteenth-Century England

Birth Control in Nineteenth-Century England

Birth Control in Nineteenth-Century England

Excerpt

In 1906 the Nineteenth Century published an angry article by John W. Taylor, president of the British Gynaecological Society. Taylor had rushed into print to declare that he and other doctors viewed the simultaneous declines of the birth and death rates as a source of 'supreme dissatisfaction and disgust.' Why should figures which suggested an improvement in public health have occasioned such hostility? Because, as Taylor petulantly explained, selfish couples, in employing contraceptives, countered the efforts of patriotic physicians building up the population by the saving of lives: '...all this work is swept away as though it had never been, by the vicious and unnatural habits of the present generation...' Taylor's outburst represented one response, and by no means the most bizarre, to the subject of this study — the emergence in the nineteenth century of the idea and practice of birth control.

The decline of the birth rate was arguably the most important social change to occur in Victorian England, but historians have shown remarkably little interest in the phenomenon. Sociologists and demographers have led the way. They have informed us that marriages of the late 1860s, when they lasted twenty years or more, produced an average of 6.16 births; the marriages of the 1870s, 5.8; those of the 1880s, 5.3; those of the 1890s, 4.13 and those of 1915, 2.43. Professor Matras, using statistical analyses to demonstrate the spread of control of fertility, estimated that of those women born between 1831 and 1845, 19.5 per cent controlled or attempted to control their fertility, 42.7 per cent of those born between 1861 and 1870, and over 72 per cent of those born between 1902 and 1906. How was fertility controlled? There was a decline in the marriage rate in the last decades of the nineteenth century which must have had some effect but there was little change either in the sex ratio or in the proportion of women of child-bearing age. The crucial factor appears to have been 'volitional limitation'. Lewis-Faning, in his account to the Royal Commission on Population, reported that in his sample 15 per cent of the women married before 1910 used birth control, 40 per cent of those married between 1910 and 1919, and 58 per cent of those married between 1920 and 1924.

These quantitative studies are illuminating but they do have their . . .

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