There are days when one has to wonder whether there might just be a secret competition under way for the title of the most viscerally unpleasant clergyman in Britain.
If there is such a competition – and if there isn’t there should be – then it’s one for which there is no great shortage of contenders. Martin Robbins, for example, has only very recently done a fine job of setting out Lord Carey’s qualifications for the title and he certainly makes a compelling case for Carey, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, to be considered a serious contender. However, as someone who is always up for a challenge, I can only respond to Martin’s nomination by stating that I’ll see his former Archbishop and raise him a former chaplain to the London Stock Exchange whose comments on homosexuality are so repellent that Douglas Murray – yes, the Douglas Murray – chose to leave Mullen’s parish in protest to worship elsewhere.
The clergyman in question goes by the name of Rev’d Peter Mullen and… well here’s his latest missive from his blog at the Daily Telegraph on the subject of abortion and Marie Stopes International.
Marie Stopes: the clinics named after a Jew-baiting racist
Mullen, as I’ve previously intimated, is in no position to start throwing stones in the glasshouse of bigotry and prejudice. Amongst the incidents which. it’s been suggested, prompted Douglas Murray to take his choral activities elsewhere was a blog post in which Mullen argued that homosexuals should carry tattooed ‘health warnings’ such as ‘Sodomy may seriously damage your health’, which he, inevitably, tried to pass off as #onlyjoking when the shit hit the fan and the Diocese of London formally distanced itself from his remarks. Mullen also threw in the ‘but I have gay friends’ defence, oblivious to the fact that this runs second only to “I’m not racist, but…” as a public admission of personal bigotry and was propelled into removing his comments after being publicly unpersonned by the Diocese before, belatedly, apologising for his remarks.
A Marie Stopes clinic is to open in Northern Ireland and will perform abortions on women up to nine weeks pregnant. I wonder what sort of organisation it is which decides to name itself after Marie Stopes (1880-1958)?
I’ll come to question of why Marie Stopes International is called Marie Stopes International in due course but first Mullen has a few biographical details about Marie Stopes – the person not the organisation – to share with us.
As a child she met the eugenicist Francis Galton and in 1912 she attended the inaugural congress of the Eugenics Society. She had decided political opinions and referred to a section of the people who are “inferior, depraved and feeble-minded” and added, “the sterilisation of those unfit for parenthood should be made an immediate possibility, indeed made compulsory.” She announced that she wanted to create “a utopia” by means of “racial purification”.
Other leading lights in the eugenics movement – such as Havelock Ellis – criticised her for her anti-Semitism. This criticism was hardly undeserved, for in 1939 she sent, with her best wishes, a copy of her book “Love Songs for Young Lovers” to Adolf Hitler. And in 1942 she published a verse:
The Jews and the Russians
Are all a curse
Or something worse.
I do not suggest that present members of the Marie Stopes Society share those disgraceful totalitarian views, but I do wonder about the motivation of an organisation which takes Marie Stopes as its founding heroine.
All of which is more or less true although there are some important contextual omission in Mullen’s brief account of Stopes’ personal views.
There is, for example, some question about the exact circumstances in which Stopes sent a copy of ‘Love Songs for Young Lovers’ to Hitler in August 1939, just before the outbreak of World War II, with a personal note that read:
Dear Herr Hitler,
Love is the greatest thing in the world: so will you accept from me these (poems) that you may allow the young people of your nation to have them?
The young must learn love from the particular ’till they are wise enough for the universal.
I hope too that you yourself may find something to enjoy in the book.
Some people have been inclined to see this as demonstrating a degree of sympathy with/for Hitler although its is more generally thought that Stopes was doing nothing more sinister than a bit of judicious sucking up to the man in charge in the hope that he’d support her efforts to get the book distributed through Germany’s birth control clinics, which Hitler went on to shut down. What is also known about Stopes, but which goes unmentioned by Mullen, is that less than a year later she was actively seeking to do her bit for British war propaganda effort by writing to Churchill to offer him the slogan ‘Fight the Battle of Britain in Berlin’s Air’.
More importantly, in the context of Mullen’s efforts to mount proxy attack on the reputation of Marie Stopes International (the organisation) there is the question of what, exactly, Marie Stopes (the person) meant by the term ‘racial purification’. Her argument is to be found in a chapter that she contributed to Sir James Marchant’s ‘The Control of Parenthood’ (1920) in which she identified the main cause of ‘racial degeneration’ as overcrowding and sexually decision before going to argue that racial consciousness needs to be increased in order that “women of all classes have the fear and dread of undesired maternity removed from them …” as a prerequisite for the creation of her own version of Utopia. Notwithstanding the personal prejudices illustrated in her 1942 piece of doggerel – which was, of course, written in the middle of World War II – there is nothing whatsoever in her earlier writing to suggest that her use of the term ‘racial purification’ should be interpreted as anything other than a generic reference to the human race. As with others on the left who saw eugenics as a potential solution to the ‘problem’ of Britain’s poverty-stricken underclass, what Stopes had in mind was the improvement of the human species and not the elevation of one, arbitrarily defined, ‘racial’ group over others.
Otherwise, what Mullen has to say about Marie Stopes is true. She did advocate eugenics. She was taken to task by Havelock Ellis over her attitude toward Jews and she did refer to some people as ‘inferior’, ‘depraved’ and ‘feeble-minded’.
The truth about Stopes is that she was very much ahead of her time in her advocacy of birth control and her view that it would serve as a liberating force in the lives of millions of women, but she was equally very much of her time in many, if not most, other respects. She spoke, and wrote, of disability using the language of the period, and parliamentary language at – Mental Deficiencies Act of 1913 readily categorised people as ‘idiots’ and ‘imbeciles’ and included terms such as ‘moral defectives’ and ‘feeble-minded’. Her views on eugenics were, as already noted, shared by many left-wing intellectuals of the period and antiSemitism was, at the time, both commonplace and widely tolerated, a fact reflected analysed nowhere better than in George Orwell’s masterful essay ‘Antisemitism in Britain‘.
Had Mullen been just a little more assiduous and honest in his rifling of the Wikipedia entry for Marie Stopes – yes it is that obvious – he might easily have answered his own question about about the nature of the organisation which, today, bears Marie Stopes name. Stopes died in October 1958 but the birth control clinics she founded continued to operate for a further 17 years before sliding into voluntary receivership in 1975. Marie Stopes International was founded a year later to carry forward and expand, internationally, upon the work of the original Stopes clinics, taking over responsibility for what had been the main Stopes clinic in the process – and that’s all there is to it. The modern organisation that bears the Marie Stopes name has no connection whatsoever with Stopes’ advocacy of eugenics which, of course, had been roundly discredited both scientifically and ethically long before the modern organisation came into existence.
The are, of course, a number of obvious flaws in Mullen’s thoroughly dishonest line of argument, the most obvious being his attempt to play the guilt by association card while, at the same time, inviting us to judge to life and work of Marie Stopes by our own. modern standards, rather than by the standards of her own time. If he genuinely considers that a reasonable line of argument then one might just as easily ask what kind of modern church would happily associate itself with a raging antisemite (Martin Luther) who authored a 60,000 word treatise entitled ‘On the Jews and their Lies’.
Less obviously, perhaps, what Mullen’s argument illustrates is a key difference between the rational/scientific mode of thinking and certain religious modes of the thinking that tends to be referred to, in theological circles, as the problem of errant revelation.
As I’ve already noted, Stopes was correct in her views on the liberating effects of birth control but got things very wrong, both scientifically and ethically, when it came to eugenics, none of which presents those who continue her work in the field of birth control, today, with the slightest problem. In the sciences. and it rational though generally, the validity of a particular idea resides firmly in the idea itself and is wholly independent of the personal character, qualities and even other ideas of its originator. What makes a particular idea valid or not is whether it is underpinned by credible evidence or by a logical line of reasoning and so the wrongness of Stopes’ position on eugenics has no bearing on the rightness of her general position on birth control, much as Newton’s dabblings in alchemy (and his Christianity for that matter) have no bearing on the validity of his laws of motion and gravity.
The same cannot be said for certain religious idea, those which are put forward as the product of divine revelation, and this is perhaps best illustrated by reference to the early 20th Century German mystic, Rudolf Steiner.
Steiner, like Stopes, was a person of his own time, although in Steiner’s case there is no doubt that he was, by modern standards, a racist and an advocate of of racial superiority within the human species. Steiner not only believed in reincarnation but also that humans reincarnated, over time, through a strict hierarchy of races with, as might be expected, black ‘races’ at the bottom and white Aryans and Nordics at the top.
Steiner’s personal beliefs and philosophy survive, today, in the cult movement he founded – Anthroposophy – and most visibly in the modern schools that bear the Steiner name but unlike those who have continued the work of Marie Stopes in the field of birth control, Steiner’s racist ideas do present the latter day Steiner movement with a serious problem because Steiner professed to have obtained his ideas not though science or the application of reason by through divine revelation. As a direct consequence of this claim, the modern-day Steiner movement cannot easily disavow Steiner’s views on race and ethnicity without being forced to confront a very awkward question – if this part of Steiner’s ‘revelation’ is wrong then how can we be sure that anything else he claimed to have learned or discovered by the same means in not equally wrong?
The simple answer is that they can’t and so, while advocates of birth control can freely concede that Stopes got it badly wrong in her advocacy of eugenics, Steiner’s modern day followers are compelled to operate in a state of complete denial when it comes to Steiner’s views on race as they cannot openly disavow those race without calling into serious question the validity of Steiner’s entire ‘philosophy’.
This problem is inherent in all forms of supposedly revelatory ‘knowledge’ and is, consequently a major source of theological bullshit, sophistry and rhetorical trickery – even if many Christians sensibly choose to by pass this problem by the simple expedient of ignoring it completely and cherry-picking only the good bits out of scripture – and, of course, of wholly fallacious arguments like that put forward, here, by Mullen.
So, to sum up, Stopes’ personal views on eugenics are…
a) wrong, and
b) of no relevance whatsoever to either the contemporary debate on abortion or the work of Marie Stopes International.
Moving on to the rest of Mullen’s argument…
The abortions which will be performed in the new Northern Ireland clinic will be on foetuses up to nine weeks only. This looks like the thin end of a very fat wedge to me. How long before regulations in that province are “brought into line” with those operating in the rest of the UK?
We should penetrate all the euphemisms and say what an abortion actually is: it is the killing of a human being in embryo. I am not foolish enough to claim that the embryo is a person. A person is a developed living being capable at least potentially of self-awareness and interaction with other persons. But no one can deny that an embryo is a human being. No embryo – escaping the fate marked out for it by Marie Stopes and all the other abortionists – has ever, if surviving long enough to be born, turned out to be anything other than a human being.
And your point is..?
No one, so far as I am aware, has ever seriously suggested that human embryo or foetus is anything other than biologically human. What is debatable, and hotly disputed, is whether and at what point in its development, a foetus acquires the most basic attributes of personhood that are necessary for it to be deemed to have acquired certain rights independently of its maternal host and, indeed, what those basic attributes are.
What Mullen is doing here is indulging in rhetorical trickery by, in one breath, dismissing the notion that an embryo is a person while, in another, sneaking that same idea into his argument via the back door by using the term ‘human being in embryo’. The word ‘being’, of course, implies sentience and self awareness, two of the qualities that we unequivocally associated with personhood, so what Mullen is actually trying to do is covertly introduce the ‘argument from potential’ into the debate without acknowledging that is it, at best, seriously flawed and at worst, as Richard Dawkins suggests in ‘The God Delusion’, one that is exempt from a charge of dishonesty only by virtue of its obvious stupidity.
But when does life begin? On this issue, you pays your money and you takes your choice. Some say 14 days after fertilisation. Jeremy Hunt the Health Secretary declares with a sort of arbitrary precision that life starts at 12 weeks. How did you know, Mr Hunt? Think of a number, perhaps? It is obvious that the beginning of a new and unique human being is the moment of conception.
No it is not obvious that the beginning of a new and unique human being occurs at the moment of conception not least because, even if we ignore elective abortions, a sizeable proportion of conceptions do not, naturally, result in a pregnancy let alone the birth of a ‘human being’.
From memory, the odds of a fertilised egg successfully implanting in the wall of the uterus to give rise to an actual pregnancy are somewhere between 1 in 6 and 1 in 12, which not only explains why doctors are not unduly concerned if a woman who is actively trying for a baby does not fall pregnant in the first few months of her efforts but also why some theologians prefer to avoid the idea that life begins at the point of conception in the knowledge that this raises some very awkward theological questions about the obvious wastefulness of our supposedly ‘god-given’ reproductive system.
Again, Mullen is attempting to sneak an allusion to personhood into his argument, by the back door, in a manner that is no less covert or intellectually dishonest than his previous attempt.
On abortion, I often displease my Catholic friends because I do not think it is always wrong. If the life of the mother is at serious risk, then abortion might well be the least worst action to take. Or if the embryo is so damaged in utero that it would emerge catastrophically handicapped, then again abortion is perhaps the humane course of action.
All of which serves to remind us of only of the monstrous inhumanity of Catholic dogma.
What is neither humane nor moral is the slaughter of 190,000 unborn children every year in the UK for the convenience of its parents who could not be bothered to take advantage of the many free and universally available forms of contraceptive. I have no doubt that to use abortion as a means of contraception is what, in the days before our depravity, we used to call a sin.
Well, of course, it wouldn’t be a proper ad hominem without Mullen tossing in bit of thoroughly dishonest and disreputable ‘slut-shaming’ at the end, even if it only serves to demonstrate just exactly how divorced from reality his views on abortion, and indeed women, are.
So there you go, Rev’d Peter Mullen, a clear contender for the title of the most viscerally odious, bigoted and repellent clergyman in Britain.
Back to you, Martin…