HL Deb 14 November 1934 vol 94 cc423-32

LORD KILMAINE had given Notice that he would move to resolve, That the marriage laws should be so amended as to make it obligatory for both parties to the proposed marriage to produce medical certificates of fitness when they come before a minister of religion or the civil authority.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I hope that the Motion which I have on the Order Paper may meet with the general consent and agreement of this House as well as of the Government, for I cannot but feel that the subject with which it deals is of such vital importance that it must concern any Government with the true welfare of the people at heart. I have talked over the matter with many medical men and I find general agreement that some legislation on the lines which I am venturing to suggest is very badly needed. Those of your Lordships who, like myself, have passed middle age have, I am sure, met with many cases of men and women leading unhappy, spoilt lives through no fault of their own but owing to some hereditary taint or illness transmitted to them by their parents or ancestors. Some of your Lordships also may have witnessed a very remarkable Canadian film which was shown in London during the past summer; it was called "Damaged Lives," and it dealt with one of the worst of the hereditary evils. My proposal as expressed in my Motion is that henceforth it should be made illegal that any marriage should be solemnised in this country unless both the contracting parties when they come before the minister of religion or the registrar can furnish medical certificates of fitness to marry and to raise a family. These certificates should, in my opinion, be signed by some competent medical authority; the fee for them should be fixed, and should be fixed as low as possible; and some steps should be taken to ensure that the answers given are true.

I propose that there should be four certificates: Certificate "A," the "All clear," showing that the parties are perfectly fit to marry and to raise a family; then certificate "B," which will show that for some reason of health it is advisable that there should be delay, but that the parties may present themselves again three or six months hence. This would be a most important provision in the case of suspected venereal infection. Then there would be certificate "C," which would say that the parties can marry without danger to each other, but that for family or other reasons it must be a childless marriage. I admit that that question of childless marriages is the real difficulty. People may say that it is arbitrary and immoral, but I hold very strongly that it is wicked and criminal to bring children into this world unless there is a reasonable prospect of their being able to lead healthy, happy and useful lives. If that be agreed to, then it must follow that some form of birth control must be employed for the unfit. I hesitate to suggest sterilisation, though it has been suggested, but if the Government want advice they have the whole medical profession upon which they can draw for it. Lastly, there would be certificate "D" which would prohibit marriage altogether.

That certificate would be given in a case in which it would be considered that not only would there be danger to the children but that there would be definite danger to the parties themselves. It will be seen that only in the last case is marriage absolutely prohibited, and I hope and believe that by that certificate the parties concerned would be helped to realise that they had a lucky escape. I also hope that certificates "B" and "C" would come to be regarded by the parties themselves as necessary safeguards against much misery and unhappiness, both to themselves and to any possible offspring. Most parents are fond of their children; a mother, especially, thinks that her baby is the best baby that ever was born. I cannot imagine any greater grief or distress than for parents to see their child grow up mentally or physically defective.

Besides this menace of hereditary disease there is the further problem of close in-breeding. Many of your Lordships know that in the more remote parts of this country, as in others, there are communities who live isolated lives in a sort of small world of their own. In due time the young men and maidens grow up and marry, but too often the result of these marriages, owing to close blood relationship, is that the children of the marriages, though physically well developed, are mentally deficient. The asylums of the country are full of such people, and there those poor people are likely to continue for the rest of their natural lives. The cost to the State of the public mental institutions of this country must be enormous. I have not all the statistics before me but I have been given the statistics of one large county asylum, and they are simply staggering. I cannot reconcile the extraordinary care taken by breeders of pedigree stock, pedigree herds, pedigree dogs and other animals where money is concerned, to keep the herd or breed pure and healthy, with the almost total neglect of the human race. Practically nothing is done to protect the next generation. If my Motion results in legislation on the lines suggested it will, at any rate, lead to a great diminution in the number of such spoilt lives.

At present it is possible for marriages to take place in this country, with the full blessing of Church and State, which almost certainly mean damaged and hopeless lives for the children. The Roman Catholic Church, as your Lordships probably know; prohibits the marriage of first cousins; the English Church gives its blessing to it. Why is it that when other countries are doing everything in their power to remedy this defect, we cannot do it? This fearful increase of damaged and useless lives must be prevented somehow, both for the sake of the race as a whole and for the sake of the individuals themselves.

May I before I sit down read to your Lordships three extracts from the Press? One is a letter which appeared in the Daily Telegraph: The Bill to enforce obligatory medical certificates of fitness before marriage, of which Lord Kilmaine has given notice, is surely one that is long overdue. Only those who endure, or see the endurance of, inherited physical or mental taint can realise the tragedy of lives that must be lived handi- capped by disabilities as hopeless to avoid as impossible of cure. It is useless, seemingly, to caution unsound people about the disastrous consequences attending the procreation of children. Marriages are contracted in order to gain wealth or position, while too often health becomes a secondary consideration.

Here is another letter which appeared in the Manchester Evening News: It would be the height (or the depth) of presumption for a nonentity in a provincial town to think of swaying that august assembly the House of Lords, yet I think the opportunity occurs for the Lords to distinguish themselves over Lord Kilmaine's Motion. What a fine thing it would be if they were to astound the world by giving a real lead. Our public men and women seem to be so nervous about doing anything rash, and your correspondent suggests that 'liberty-loving couples might resent the innovation and the expense of it.' Certainly marriage is a private and intimate matter up to a point, but no responsible person could wish to transmit disease or incapacity; to do so is a great injury to the individual, to society, and finally to oneself and one's partner. As to the expense of a medical examination—what a fearful thing it is in these days for people who cannot find such a fee to contemplate bringing children into existence.

Lastly, there is a quotation from the Wigan, Examiner as follows: I see that Lord Kilmaine has given notice of a Motion in the House of Lords "— the writer then sets out the Motion and continues: This may seem, to many people, revolutionary or unfair; but I think that if we consider seriously what it means we must come to see that it not only would be a sound measure, but also that it is fast becoming a very necessary one. The future of the human race is in this country doubly handicapped at the present time; there is first the low standard of living of a proportion of the population (and this proportion, as I pointed out above, has a high birthrate), and secondly—another indisputable fact, though we fight shy of it—the gradual degradation of the race through the increasing reproduction of its worst specimens. I shall watch with great interest the progress of Lord Kilmaine's idea.

I would like to add that one of the objections to my proposal is that couples might very much resent undergoing medical examination. I do not propose that they should undergo medical examination. That would only be necessary in the case of venereal disease. In all other cases it would simply be necessary to answer questions relating to general heath and family history.

Moved to resolve, That the marriage laws should be so amended as to make it obligatory for both parties to the proposed marriage to produce medical certificates of fitness when they come before a minister of religion or the civil authority.—(Lord Kilmaine.)


My Lords, there was so much in the earlier words of the noble Lord with which I agreed that I should have liked to be able to associate myself with him in this proposal, but as his speech developed itself I found myself unable to do so. I do not think it is possible to draw a parallel between the breeding of the human race and the breeding of stock. First of all there is a dignity attaching to the human race of which one must never lose sight. Secondly, those who work in country districts are only too well aware that marriage is not the only door to procreation, and I am afraid there are many who, failing to receive any of the certificates suggested, would still not be restricted from forming alliances from which children might result. The certificates themselves seem to me to involve much greater difficulty than the noble Lord has himself suggested. I cannot imagine that they could be removed from careful medical examination, and there we touch on the dignity of the human race.

Speaking generally, I think this proposal must be viewed with a very much larger background behind it. It touches on the whole view of mental defectives or ineffectives. There are a great many gradations in the want of complete mental power, and at the present time our knowledge of these disorders, and our equipment for dealing with them in private and public ways, are so limited that I cannot suppose we could handle this isolated point as separate from all these larger questions, which certainly need a closer investigation. Would it be effective? Physically, sometimes, Yes; but when you touch the mental ground I am afraid the answer must be, No! Many of these mental disorders are intermittent in their effect. You may find someone perfectly clear, mentally, in himself or herself, and yet he or she may carry a taint into a further generation. I can see extreme difficulty in disqualifying people for marriage who are apparently perfectly sane, who have shown no sign of disorder, simply because their fathers or grandfathers, or some other generation behind them, have shown tokens of some kind of mental disaffection; and yet all the time these people, adequate and perfect in themselves, might be the very ones who could not be safely trusted to rear families.

At the same time I think we may be grateful to the noble Lord for raising the question. We need a ripe opinion on all these questions of eugenics, and in that sense we are indebted to him for raising the subject. He has pointed out to us that while our birth rate as a whole is not increasing we do find that the birth rate amongst undesirable stocks proceeds more rapidly than among the more promising stocks of the community. These undesirable stocks appear to be particularly lacking in self-control, and this self-control is not much found in the marriage relationship. It is a very grave matter. Perhaps it is a national menace, but I do not think that any isolated action of this sort would be any good. I find myself therefore constrained to oppose the Motion, while sincerely thanking the noble Lord for having given the matter this publicity, which may set us all thinking.


My Lords, I find so much, general talk on this large subject that I think it is rather desirable, when it is discussed in such a place as this, that we should endeavour to reduce it to a greater degree of definiteness than that with which the noble Lord has introduced it. I agree that it is a matter of great importance, and one which will demand very soon very careful consideration by the Government, but before that is done I think it is well to get rid of the rather loose assumptions which, with the best possible intentions, the noble Lord has made. First of all, if we look at the Resolution which your Lordships are asked to pass, we would ask what is the nature of the fitness into which inquiries are to be made. Is it merely for the production of children, or for reasons of health and nerve, and the like? But, most of all, who is to certify? If every married couple is compulsorily to produce a medical certificate, is it to be some State official before whom they are to go? Are we to understand that they are to pay a small fee for an investigation by some State official as if they were to be "vetted" like horses? Then how is the private practitioner to take the responsibility except perhaps in the case of a clear-cut "All is well"—the certificate "A" of the noble Lord, or the quite definite certificate "D"—prohibition. How is he to take upon himself the responsibility of saying, "You must delay," or of saying "I think you must be prepared to render yourself childless."? That is putting an onus upon a private practitioner which wants a great deal more thinking out before we can agree to it.

My last point concerns the difficulty of who is to certify and how. What are we to say of the difficulty of the minister of religion or civil authority before whom the parties come? No doubt they will not be troubled if the parties receive certificate "D," which prohibits, and there will be no trouble if they bring certificate "A," which is "All clear." But what is the unfortunate minister of religion to do if they bring the certificate "B"? Is he to say to them: "Have you delayed long enough to conform with this certificate "If it is certificate "C," is he to say; "I am sorry to trouble you with this question, but are you quite sure you have made it impossible for you and your proposed wife to have children"? It is putting the minister of religion and equally the civil authority in a quite impossible position. I do not mean to say that this is not a matter which requires very careful consideration, but with the greatest possible appreciation of the motives of the noble Lord, I think it wants much clearer statement and much fuller thought than we can give to it on the basis of this particular Resolution. There is awaiting your Lordships, I suppose some time, a full discussion on the recent Report which has been prepared, at the request I think of the Home Office, on sterilisation and kindred subjects. That merits the most careful consideration, but, taking the actual terms of the noble Lord's Resolution, I must say that, in spite of the impressive testimony of the Press which he quoted, I hope your Lordships will not "astound the world" by taking the lead and passing the Resolution as it stands.


My Lords, as the Ministry of Health regard this matter as of some importance I want to say a few words on their behalf. In dealing with a proposal of this sort, which affects the life of the people on a very personal and intimate point, we must be very certain, not only that the objective itself is one that is desirable, but that the method proposed is likely to have the result anticipated. There has been a good deal of outcry in recent years about the restrictions on liberty. When applied to matters which, I suppose we all admit, are human weaknesses, like drinking and gambling, the restrictions may arouse feelings of irritation; but when restrictions are applied to such matters as the right to marry they are obviously likely to stir far more fundamental feelings, and may easily involve the religious convictions of large sections of the community.

May I say a word first on whether the objective is desired? I think it might be said that there is at least strong evidence of the desirability of limiting the right of marriage in regard to one class of person, the mentally defective. A recent Committee on the sterilisation of mental defectives really dealt with the matter from a somewhat different angle from that which we are considering today. But the evidence of that Report has interest as showing the extraordinary volume of suffering and misery that so often afflicts the children of defective parents; and I am sure that those of your Lordships who have had to inspect lunatic asylums and institutions can never forget the terribly sad and harrowing cases which I am sure they have encountered there. With the subject of the legal marriage of mental defectives that Committee does not deal, but the Board of Control have on several occasions recommended in strong terms that the marriage of mental defectives under order should be prohibited by law. At present the position of the control of marriage of mental defectives, as far as I can ascertain, is that when they are in institutions they are incapable of marriage. In the case of mental defectives under guardianship, the consent of the guardian is required but, as with minors, if a defective manages to get married by evading the guardian's consent, then the marriage is valid.

The Report of the Board of Control says this, referring to the evidence which has been mentioned previously: On these grounds our Board have in previous Reports strongly recommended that the marriage of defectives under order should be prohibited by law. We realise that the proportion of defectives under order is so small that such a prohibition would only touch the fringe of the problem; but we believe that the statutory prohibition of marriage in these cases would have a value far beyond the actual number of cases to which it would apply, because of its effect in bringing home to the public conscience the unwisdom of countenancing unions the results of which are, from every point of view, nothing less than disastrous. Your Lordships will remember that the Departmental Committee on Sterilisation did recommend a form of voluntary sterilisation, but they also dealt with the proposals for compulsory sterilisation. They were clearly of opinion that any hint of institutions being associated in any degree with compulsory sterilisation would keep people from going to those institutions for treatment which, in many cases, would be highly beneficial to them, and would also lead them and their relatives to try to conceal from their medical attendants that they were affected at all.

The loss of rights of marriage, or the qualification of rights of marriage which the noble Lord proposes, is a less severe step than compulsory sterilisation, but I think it might be argued that any investigation by the State of this kind would still have the tendency to drive underground facts which ought, both in the interests of the individual and of the nation, to be brought to the notice of the medical profession as soon as any suspicion is aroused. I do not think there has ever been any serious consideration of proposals to limit the right, of marriage to anybody except mental defectives, but I imagine that the same considerations would weigh with even greater force where an individual was able to apply a sound mind to the concealment of his complaint. Indeed I think it is not entirely improbable that to some people of rather nervous temperament the dread of a medical examination would be a severe deterrent, to a legalised marriage, and might, in fact, tend to increase the number of illegitimate births. I think we might agree with the most reverend Primate that a medical certificate based on anything but a medical examination would hardly be a medical certificate at all.

I think one might summarise the attitude of the Ministry of Health to these matters by saying that they do feel that there is sufficient evidence, from experience extending over a large number of years, to justify them in testing public opinion very thoroughly in regard to the Reports of the Board of Control and the Committee on Sterilisation. This is what they are doing now. The Report of that Committee on Sterilisation has been circulated, and is being considered at present by large numbers of institutions and bodies interested in these matters. But beyond what we have done we cannot go, at any rate for the time being. We realise, of course, that there are undeniable evils in the present situation, some of which may be prevented, but we feel that in these very delicate matters it is absolutely necessary to carry the public with us at every step. Consequently we are convinced that to go now a long way beyond what we are doing, on the lines suggested by the noble Lord, without very large evidence of public and medical support, would be disastrous to the very cause which the noble Lord has at heart. Though I cannot therefore accept in any way the Motion of the noble Lord, we are grateful to him for raising this subject. We desire to listen carefully to expressions of opinion from the public on these matters, and we shall continue to watch the whole situation with the greatest attention, as I think everyone will agree it is a matter of the greatest possible importance.


My Lords, having regard to the reply of His Majesty's Government, of course I shall willingly withdraw my Motion, but I should like, before doing so, to answer one point raised by the most reverend Primate, the Archbishop of Canterbury, about certificate "C" and childless marriages. I happen to know myself of three or four cases where couples have married and are living happily together and who, by mutual consent, have no family because they are well aware that, if they do, that family probably would be seriously tainted. I should say that any doctor examining people should put down consumption, insanity, venereal disease, or close blood relationship as bars to the production of children. I beg to withdraw my Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn