Birth Control in the Netherlands


From an NMB contraception booklet, 1893This is a digital exhibition on the introduction of birth control in the Netherlands between 1870 and 1940, and the accompanying debate. The leading part is taken by the Nieuw-Malthusiaanse Bond ("Neo-Malthusianism League"), whose archives are housed in the IISG. How this Dutch organization for birth control came by its name is explained in the first section of the exhibition. The following sections highlight Dutch pioneers of birth control, among them Aletta Jacobs and Johannes Rutgers. The opinions of both advocates and opponents of birth control and contraception are presented in digitized book chapters, newspapers, letters, pamphlets, posters, newspaper cuttings, and booklets. The exhibition features a collection of information booklets dating from around 1900, describing and depicting condoms, pessaries, and other contraceptives. These and other booklets, some of which are very rare and fragile, are fully digitized and can be viewed online, along with a few issues of Het Gelukkig Huisgezin ("The Happy Family") and Verstandig Ouderschap ("Wise Parenthood"), the official house organs of the Nieuw-Malthusiaanse Bond.

From Malthus to neo-Malthusianism

The debate about contraception started in the nineteenth century and was mainly driven by fear of overpopulation. Thomas Malthus (1766-1834), an English clergyman and economist, had calculated that the increase in population would eventually surpass the food supply. Hunger and misery would result unless people began to marry later in life and practice sexual continence. His predictions made a profound impression. Among those who took his warnings seriously were the English freethinkers Annie Besant, Charles Bradlaugh, and George and Charles Drysdale. Unlike Malthus, however, they did not reject the use of contraceptives as a means to curb population growth. On the contrary, they felt people should be educated in sexual matters and the use of contraceptives.

Their ideas were taken on by Samuel van Houten, a radical politician best known in the Netherlands for a law to restrict child labour, and his political friend Carel Victor Gerritsen. In 1881 Gerritsen and a couple of other radicals founded an organization to propagate the new demographic ideas. By naming it "Nieuw Malthusiaansche Bond" (NMB), or Neo-Malthusian League, they indicated that they shared Malthus's ideas on population but not on contraception. In the Netherlands new-Malthusianism or neo-Malthusianism long remained the general name for birth control by contraceptive means. The first NMB board included representatives from the Algemeen Nederlandsch Werklieden Verbond, the earliest trade union federation of the Netherlands, and a striking number of army and navy officers. Fighting poverty by limiting the number of children was the main objective of the Dutch neo-Malthusians. By spreading information on contraceptive methods, working-class families in particular would be taught to reduce the size of their families and thus enhance their standard of living. For poor women consultation hours for free sexual advice and contraceptives were organized. Among the best known doctors who did pioneering work in this area were Aletta Jacobs, the first woman doctor in the Netherlands, and Johannes Rutgers, physician and long-time NMB secretary.


Opposition arose from all corners of society: neo-Malthusianism was immoral and would pave the way to sexual abuse, prostitution, and abortion. For religious believers the use of contraceptives was a 'sin crying out for vengeance'. Since the church rejected the separation of sex and reproduction, it is not surprising that it condemned the use of contraception. Yet among the opponents were also large numbers of socialists who were suspicious of neo-Malthusianism because in their view poverty was not the result of large families but of unequal social and economic conditions. Feminists had diverse opinions about neo-Malthusianism, but avoided an open debate on this controversial issue for fear of jeopardizing the movement for women's suffrage. Most doctors were afraid to be associated with the issue and remained noncommittal at best.

Despite the opposition, the NMB could carry out its programme relatively undisturbed. Between 1885 and 1938 it produced a large number of publications, such as the famous "middelenboekjes", booklets that explained how to use condoms, pessaries, and other rubber articles. Following a campaign by religious politicians, the Dutch parliament passed an anti-vice law in 1911 that banned advertising contraceptives, but it did not seem to have affected their sale and further acceptance.

From ideological organization to interest group

In the meantime the NMB had changed from being an organization with a social-political mission to a practical interest group. In the 1930s it opened several sexual health centres; in Amsterdam the centre was named after Aletta Jacobs, elsewhere after Johannes Rutgers. In this respect the NMB may be considered a precursor of the post-second World War Nederlandse Vereniging voor Seksuele Hervorming (NVSH), or Dutch Association for Sexual Reform. In other sexual matters, however, the Dutch neo-Malthusians were not pioneers. Their activity was exclusively aimed at married couples and they considered homosexuality a taboo subject. The Dutch section of the World League for Sexual Reform, established in 1932 by NMB physician Bernard Premsela in cooperation with the many-sided social democratic politician Floor Wibaut, was more progressive. Both organizations ceased to exist after the German invasion of the Netherlands.


• Hugo Röling, De tragedie van het geslachtsleven. Dr. J. Rutgers (1850-1924) en de Nieuw Malthusiaansche bond Amsterdam, Van Gennep, 1987
• Hugo Röling, 'Bernard Premsela, Pionier van de seksuologie: beminnelijk en inconsequent', Ons Amsterdam 46 (1994) pp 240-244.
• Frans van Poppel and Hugo Röling, Physicians and Fertility Control in the Netherlands, Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 34(2003)2, 155-185.
• Gé Nabrink, Seksuele hervorming in Nederland: achtergronden en geschiedenis van de Nieuw-Malthusiaanse Bond (NMB) en de Nederlandse Vereniging voor Seksuele Hervorming (NVSH), 1881-1971, Nijmegen, Socialistische uitgeverij Nijmegen, 1978.
• Mineke Bosch, Een onwrikbaar geloof in rechtvaardigheid: Aletta Jacobs 1854-1929, Amsterdam, Balans, 2005.
• Henny Brandhorst, 'From neo-Malthusianism to sexual reform: the Dutch section of the World League for Sexual Reform', Journal of the History of Sexuality, 12 (2003) 1, pp 38-67.

About this exhibition

This is the first part of an online exhibition on the history of the birth control movement in the Netherlands and France. It is based on a Dutch-French exhibition organized in 1995 in the IISH building in Amsterdam to mark the transfer to the IISH of the papers of French anarchists, pacifists and neo-Malthusians Jeanne and Eugene Humbert. Curators at the time were Hugo Röling, author of De tragedie van het geslachtsleven. Dr. J. Rutgers (1850-1924) en de Nieuw Malthusiaansche bond (1987) and Francis Ronsin, author of La Grève des ventres - Propagande néomalthusienne et baisse de la natalité en France 19e-20e siècles (1980) and co-author of Le sexe apprivoisé. Jeanne Humbert et la lutte pour le contrôle des naissances (1990), in cooperation with Huub Sanders (IISH). The French part of the exhibition can be viewed at socialhistory.org/en/exhibitions/neomalthusianisme-en-france.
With a few exceptions, all documents are from the IISH collections, including the archive of the Nieuw Malthusiaanse Bond (the Dutch neo-Malthusian league), the Gé Nabrink papers, and the Eugène Humbert / Henriette Jeanne Humbert-Rigaudin papers. See also the archive of the Nederlandse Vereniging voor Seksuele Hervorming (NVSH) (Dutch Association for Sexual Reform).
The introductory texts to the various chapters are taken from the original exhibition catalogue, Le néo-malthusianisme en France et aux Pays-Bas. Catalogue d'Exposition par Hugo Röling and Francis Ronsin (Amsterdam 1995; IISH call nr PUB 110) and have been slightly edited for the present online version. This introduction and the annotations to some documents were written by Jenneke Quast.