Mothers' Clinic and Its Successors (birth control)

On March 17, 1921, Marie Stopes (1880-1958) founded the Mothers’ Clinic in London, with the aims of providing poor women with the latest contraceptive methods and demonstrating its effect on their health and marital relations. As such, Stopes’s clinic was a practical application of Married Love, her 1918 best-selling sex manual. Stopes’s clinic was decidedly nonmedical in its orientation. The atmosphere in the clinic was friendly and sympathetic, with staff chosen for their ability to make the patients feel at home. The clinic itself resembled a parlor more than a medical facility, with photographs of Stopes’s family and the children of patients adorning the walls.

Stopes and her husband Humphrey Roe funded the clinic personally and created the Society for Constructive Birth Control and Racial Progress to maintain it. They hired midwives and nurses as the staff. These women talked to patients about their marriages and families and then examined and fitted them with cervical caps designed to Stopes’s criteria. Patients were seen by a consulting doctor only when there was some medical condition that required additional expertise. Though few women came initially, by 1924 Stopes’s First Five Thousand (1925) testified to the clinic’s success. Stopes publicized the work of the clinic aggressively and saw it as a model for what she hoped would be a chain of publicly funded birth control clinics.

Other birth control clinics were founded in the years directly after the Mothers’ Clinic was founded, but not by the government. Birth control leagues began opening rival clinics, and their staffs were often critical of Stopes’s work. These physicians and birth control reformers organized their work in a more medical way, insisting that all patients must be seen by a doctor. Many also claimed that Stopes’s cervical cap was not as effective a method of contraception as the more widely used “Dutch cap,” or diaphragm. Lay and medical rivals attacked Stopes’s methods of computing success rates as unscientific and self-serving. Stopes defended her work as pure science and continued her practices unabated.

In 1927 she created the nation’s first mobile contraceptive clinic, called the Caravan Clinic, which traveled to rural northern England to aid women who could not easily reach London. A year later, the clinic was burned by Elizabeth Ellis, a Catholic opponent of Stopes’s work, but the resultant publicity enabled Stopes to gain a donation to open two clinics to replace it.

Stopes published the next clinic report, Ten Thousand Cases, in 1930. In the following decade, she expanded the clinical work by opening branches in Aberdeen (1934), Belfast (1936), Cardiff (1937), Leeds (1934), and Swansea (1943). Clinics in South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand also became affiliated with the Mothers’ Clinic. Despite this rapid growth, the Mothers’ Clinics were outpaced by the clinics of the National Birth Control Association, and by the mid- to late 1930s Stopes was no longer a leader of the national movement. Doctor-controlled contraceptive clinics became the norm in the United Kingdom.

During World War II, shortages of staff and rubber hampered all birth control clinics, forcing most to suspend their work. Stopes’s Mothers’ Clinic pressed on; despite taking bomb damage twice during the 1940 blitz, it remained open. When Stopes died in 1958, she left the Mothers’ Clinic to the Eugenics Society, which ran it from 1960 to 1976. In these years contraceptive clinics underwent rapid change and, functioning through the Marie Stopes Memorial Clinic, the Eugenics Society began offering services to unmarried and young patients, as well as providing vasectomies and abortions. The Eugenics Society gave up the clinic in 1976, when the government finally took over the responsibility for contraception as part of the National Health Service. The clinic was taken over by Marie Stopes International, which continues to provide private family planning services and fosters reproductive rights around the world.

Marie Stopes’s papers, including the clinic records, are located at the British Museum and the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine. Several biographies have been published, none of which cover the clinic in any great depth. Stopes’s own published reports, The First Five Thousand and Ten Thousand Cases, provide the best descriptions of the clinic and its work.

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