The way we provide contraception and safe abortion services has been shaped, to a large extent, by our history.
Both built reputations for their client-centred approach and their willingness to push boundaries – qualities that are central to how we work today.
Dr Marie Stopes was born in 1880 in Edinburgh in Scotland, and although a pioneer in providing family planning services, she wasn’t a medical doctor, something that outraged the medical community at the time. Her first marriage was annulled after five years on the grounds of non-consummation, and it was this that prompted her interest in female sexuality.
She recognised that if she, as a university educated middle-class woman, could lack all knowledge of sexual issues, then poor, less educated women must be even worse off. This realisation prompted her pioneering crusade.
She opened her first family planning clinic, with her second husband Humphrey Roe, in 1921 – and was attacked by the medical establishment for being female, not medically qualified and for employing nurses rather than doctors to consult with most of her clients.
Marie Stopes and her husband set out to prove that a small team in simple, clean surroundings could provide services to poor women – which they duly did. Her first clinic was based in Holloway in north London, before it moved to its current location at 108 Whitfield Street in Fitzrovia in Central London.
She chose to move her clinic to the area because of its relative social deprivation at the time and it continues to be our spiritual home. The London support office is based just two streets from the original centre, now known as Marie Stopes House. The House’s iconic door continues to feature in the logos of Marie Stopes International and our country programmes.
As well as setting up the UK’s first static family planning centre, Marie Stopes also pioneered the concept of mobile outreach. She adapted a horse-drawn caravan and took it into the communities she was trying to reach. Her endeavours proved successful and she gradually built up a small network of clinics across the UK.
We remember Marie Stopes for her pioneering work in providing contraception to underserved women, and this lives on today, bearing her name, in our current organisation founded by Dr Tim Black, his wife Jean Black and Phil Harvey.
In the late 1960s, Tim Black was working as a district health officer in the Sepik district of New Guinea, and it was around that time that he began to reassess his focus on trying to cure or save lives as a matter of course. After saving the life of a three-month old girl, he was shocked that her widowed mother – who already had five children and no steady income – didn’t want her to survive.
“My shock was absolute. My immediate reaction was one of utter indignation. The gulf separating my life experience and that of this poor woman was complete. She had wanted the baby to die – not live – during the operation.
“I suddenly realised that I had presented her, not only with her baby, but with another mouth to feed, another dependent human being to whom she could offer nothing: no father, no education, no future."
It was at that point that I began to realise that preventing a birth could be as important as saving a life.
Tim decided then to switch his career to birth control. In 1969, he was awarded fellowships to study for a Masters at the Population Center at the University of North Carolina, USA. While in the States, he met Phil Harvey and in 1970, they co-founded Population Services International (PSI).
After implementing PSI’s first USAID-funded condom social marketing programme in Kenya, Tim returned to London. In November 1975, he learnt that the historic Marie Stopes clinic was closing. Together with his wife Jean Black and Phil Harvey, Tim took on the lease, founded Marie Stopes International and reopened Marie Stopes House in January 1976. They set about rebuilding its finances and reputation as a family planning services provider.
MSI’s overseas work began when the Dublin Well Woman Centre was set up in 1977, followed by a Marie Stopes centre in New Delhi in 1978. Dr Black built the organisation using a commercial business model, and treating each woman who came through our doors as an individual – a client, not a patient.
This approach allowed him to open more clinics around Britain within a year, and then across the globe. Marie Stopes International now has more than 12,000 team members working in 37 countries across the globe.