During the week of Christmas in 1926, G.K. Chesterton wrote an article about Birth Control.

It was published in a paper called Lansbury’s Labour Weekly. He explains the surprising and now forgotten history of how a social policy encouraging birth control came about. It was actually a reaction against a movement for social justice and the rights of the poor. It was the rich who did not want the poor to have children, because the poor would demand higher wages with which to feed larger families.

Chesterton says the Birth-Controller’s method of dealing with poverty is simply to do away with the poor. “The question he dreads is ‘Why has not the workman a better wage? Why has not the slum family a better house?’ His way of escaping from it is to suggest, not a larger house but a smaller family. The landlord or the employer says in his hearty and handsome fashion: ‘You really cannot expect me to deprive myself of my money. But I will make a sacrifice, I will deprive myself of your children.’”

The wealthy elite called upon science to support arguments against normal people doing the natural thing of having babies. They cited population theorist Thomas Malthus, who first raised the dark specter of overpopulation and widespread starvation. The Malthusian attack, says Chesterton, “was one of a whole class of scientific excuses invented by the rich as reasons for denying justice to the poor… One was talking about the Iron Laws of Political Economy, and pretending that somebody had proved somewhere, with figures on a slate, that injustice is incurable. Another was a mass of brutal nonsense about Darwinism and a struggle for life, in which the devil must catch the hindmost. As a fact it was a struggle for wealth, in which the devil generally catches the foremost. They all had the character of an attempt to twist the new tool of science to make it a weapon for the old tyranny of money.”

How was Chesterton’s article received? It was not attacked by any rich industrialists or economists defending capitalism or even geeks with statistics about overpopulation. It was attacked by a feminist named Dora Russell who complained that Chesterton did not talk about women. She said that it was apparent that he had never been left in sole charge of a family of eleven with the cooking, the cleaning, the washing and the mending all to do. His concern about the “family wage,” and improving housing does not help this problem, but only organizes “a state of little patriarchs, where wives are literally slaves, in that they must accept whatever size family happens to them and they are dependent on the husband’s mercy for their daily bread.” It was “this stupid organization of society,” maintained Mrs. Russell, “that makes mothers revolt.” She argued for the right to earn outside the home, and a “nursery school for our children staffed by other mothers and single women of expert training.”

Chesterton responds by first admitting that he has never been a woman. “It is well to have the mystery cleared up as soon as possible.” But while he has never known what it is be a mother who has to cook and clean for a large family on a small wage, he adds, that he has “never known what it is to be a master who paid a small wage and then justified himself by telling the mother not to have a large family.”

He reminds Mrs. Russell that at the very beginning of the whole discussion “stands the elementary fact that limiting families is a reason for lowering wages and not a reason for raising them.” She may like the limitation for other reasons, and she may, if she likes, “drag the discussion off to entirely different questions, such as, whether wives in normal homes are slaves.” The topic of Birth Control touches many different things, but it touches all of them in a bad way. It has, says Chesterton, “so rich an abundance of bad qualities, it offers so varied a choice of blunders and degradations, that nobody can deal with all its ugly features at once. I have only dealt with is exceedingly unpleasant origin. I said it was purely 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.”

And then Chesterton unleashes about the very term “birth control.” It is not about 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 nearest and most respectable parallel would be that of the Roman epicure, who took emetics at intervals all day so that he might eat five or six luxurious dinners daily. Now any man’s common sense, unclouded by newspaper science and long words, will tell him at once

that an operation like that of the epicures is likely in the long run even to be bad for his digestion and pretty certain to be bad for his character. Men left to themselves have sense enough to know when a habit obviously savors of perversion and peril.”

As for Mrs. Russell’s desire for the “right” to earn outside the home, Chesterton calls it “the right to be a wage-slave and work under the orders of a total stranger because he happens to be a richer man.” Her quarrel with motherhood is not “a quarrel with inhuman conditions, but simply a quarrel with human life.” And hiring other women to raise her children represents an abyss between the natural and the unnatural.

The feminists, however, triumphed. They got their birth control (including the “expedient” of  abortion), and also got their day care centers, and their right to be wage slaves rather than wives and mothers.

But Chesterton’s arguments are still as timely as ever, and he brings together many issues at once, a form of argument that is certainly a burden to those who can only think one thought at a time. All these things are connected, all come to bear on the dignity of the human person, and all demonstrate the wholeness of Catholic teaching. We have forgotten and neglected this teaching bit by bit. We have ignored the fact that an immoral economic system paved the way to the widespread of acceptance of contraception. We have tolerated the acceptance of contraception and now it has led to the normalization of abnormal sex. Habits that lead to “perversion and peril,” as Chesterton says. And suddenly we find ourselves fighting a once unthinkable battle to preserve the very definition of marriage as a union between one man and one woman.

Chesterton warned that this issue would eventually lead to a “tremendous controversial collision.” He saw one bright spot in the coming battle: “the more my opponents practice Birth Control, the fewer there will be of them to fight us on that day.”

What does all this have to do with Christmas?

Besides the fact that two thousand years ago a certain young woman who found herself facing a rather inconvenient pregnancy went ahead and had the baby, there is another significant event in conjunction with the birth of our Jesus: it was accompanied by the Slaughter of the Innocents.

Says Chesterton: “I do not know whether the Birth-Controllers approve of Christmas; but a Feast of Herod that great population expert, might well be made to fall about that same date.”


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