‘Reframing the Laws of Life? Birth Control Advice and the evolution of English Catholic Sexology, 1921-1938


Alana Harris

In 1938 the Senior Medical Officer for the London County Council, Dr Letitia Fairfield, undertook a social-scientific mission to the then predominantly Catholic colony of Malta to examine the prevalence and prevention of the spread of venereal disease. It was a revelatory experience, leading the staunch Catholic convert to acknowledge, empirically, the links between poverty, clericalism and unconscionable infant morality and thereby revisit her earlier opposition to birth control at home and throughout the Catholic world.

Honoured with a papal medal in 1965 for her services to the Church, and a well-known public speaker on a variety of Catholic issues, there is a marked tendency within the scant historiography discussing Fairfield (cf. her sister Rebecca West and her affair with H. G. Wells) to compartmentalise Fairfield’s medical expertise and leftist politics from her faith and ethics. This paper therefore seeks to explore the intellectual and theological evolution of Fairfield’s position on birth control from the 1920s to 1940s, as a depth sounding of the instability of Catholic teaching on contraception in the interwar period and a case study of the differing intellectual influences and ethical priorities operational in the judgment of one (now) little known but immensely influential Catholic doctor.

This biographical excavation forms part of a larger study seeking to redress a curious historiographical neglect of a number of Roman Catholic medical men and women active in the field of birth control, including Dr Fairfield’s contemporary Dr Halliday Sutherland who is name-checked but little studied beyond his role as the defendant in the Marie Stopes libel trial.

This paper therefore seeks to explore the contribution of English Catholic medical practitioners to the evolution of British sexology in the interwar period and thereby to chart the complexities, intra-ecclesial conflicts and theologically-inflected lines of development in making judgments about the ‘laws of nature’ (citing one of Sutherland’s best-known publications). It argues that there is a distinctive form of ‘Catholic sexology’ which has been unrecognised in existing histories of twentieth-century gender and sexuality, which complicates traditional ‘secular’ accounts and challenges complacent chronologies which date the advent of a ‘modern sexual (Catholic) self’ to the Humanae Vitae (1968) furore.

Alana Harris

Dr Alana Harris received her doctorate from Wadham College, University of Oxford and after teaching at Lincoln College, Oxford for six years is now a Teaching Fellow in Modern British History at King’s College London. Her research interests encompass the transnational study of Catholicism, gender history, sexuality and the history of emotions, identity and subjectivities – including the practice of oral history and material culture. Recent publications include: Love and Romance in Britain 1918-1970 (Palgrave 2014, co-edited with Timothy Willem Jones), Faith in the Family: A Lived Religious History of English Catholicism (Manchester University Press, 2013) and ‘Astonishing Scenes at the Scottish Lourdes: Masculinity, the Miraculous and Sectarian Strife at Carfin, 1922-1945’, 66(1) (2015) The Innes Review, 102-29.

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