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The Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts

The Northern Echo (June 21, 1875)

The man who makes a cesspool, not the man who cleans it out, is the offender against public health. It is strange that so palpable a truth should be so constantly forgotten. The fact, however, is indubitable. A cesspool, although a public danger, is often a public convenience. The convenience is immediate and constant; the danger is remote and uncertain. Within the depths of that cesspool fever may be mustering her emissaries. Miasma, the fetid breath of the Demon of Death, may rise daily from its stagnant surface, drains from the putrefying poisonous mess may be percolating into all the neighbouring wells; but so long as no one stirs it up, those who constructed it and maintain it are content. The miasma is unseen, the leakage into wells is almost imperceptible, and the fever has not yet delivered its messages of death. Thousands of such cesspools there are in this land, whose owners and proprietors appear to believe that the sanitary inspector who orders their removal is a foe to his species, and a disseminator of the germs of numberless diseases. When the scavenger commences his task, the indignation of the cesspool owners is excessive.

"What an effluvium arises from the place! If they would only have let it alone there would never have been so terrible a smell. It is all with stirring it up; it is enough to spread a pestilence. As for the scavenger, it is tempting Providence for him to venture among such foul gases." So what with care for their own health, disgust at the loss of an established convenience, dislike of the stench, and a philanthropic regard for the scavengers' welfare, they work themselves up into such a state of righteous wrath, that they are ready to curse the sanitary inspector by all their gods, and denounce him as the pestilent propagator of pestilence, the forerunner of grizzly death. Nevertheless, in spite of their outcries, the world refuses to spare their cesspools, and though the task is a dirty one and dangerous, it never hesitates in insisting that, come what may, they must be cleansed.

It is unfortunate that the world, which derides the interested denunciations of cesspool owners, has not yet discerned that the shrieks of the keepers of moral cesspools are equally absurd, and is, even now, in some considerable doubt as to whether the men who demand their removal are not worse offenders than those who insist upon perpetuating their existence. This week, an attempt will be made in the House of Commons to sweep away one of the moral cesspools which endanger the very existence of national purity, and we may prepare ourselves for an outburst of indignation from those who have persuaded themselves that, malaria notwithstanding, moral cesspools are, on the whole, best left alone. Sir Harcourt Johnstone's Bill for the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts, which comes on for a second reading on Wednesday, is certain to elicit much angry speech from the advocates of these measures, who will undoubtedly cast upon the reformers the odium of having raised the miasma, the causes of which they seek to remove. Scavenger work is loathsome, but scavenging must precede cleanliness; and, loathsome though the subject be, repulsive though it be to every pure-minded man, we hope not a single North Country Member will fail to be in his place on Wednesday to vote in favour of the Bill for Repeal.

We make no apology for urging this subject upon the attention of those who represent this district in Parliament; for we are well aware that the only persons who would look for one are those to whom we owe the Acts which we denounce, and who themselves have forced us, sorely against our will, to speak out with unmistakeable plainness on the one occasion in all the year when the subject comes before the consideration of the House of Commons. Believing, as we do—and our conviction is shared by the vast majority of the people of this country—that the Contagious Diseases Acts violate the fundamental principles of morality, of liberty, and of justice, it would be criminal to keep silence at this juncture. Four years ago, a Royal Commission, after long and careful deliberation over the results obtained by a minute and searching inquiry to the working of the Acts, recommended that the periodical compulsory examination of women suspected by the police of prostitution should be discontinued. Four years have passed since then, and still this provision continues to disgrace the Statute Book. Mr Gladstone's Government had too much to do to carry out the recommendations of the Commissioners; Mr Disraeli, who has apparently determined to carry on the Government of this country by Royal Commissions, has taken no steps to pass a Bill embodying the suggestions of the Royal Commission on the C. D. Acts. Unless something is done by independent members, officials will not stir a finger, and hence Sir Harcourt Johnstone but fulfils a sacred duty in urging upon the attention of the House of Commons the immediate necessity for amending the laws which deal with the Social Evil. We wish him every success in his crusade against this unconstitutional and immoral legislation, and we look to all our North Country Members to support him when he divides the House on Wednesday. Although our experience of the indifference of the majority to everything excepting the anger of the publicans forbids us to hope that he will secure the second reading of his Bill, none the less is it the duty of all honest men to do what they can to sweep away one of the foulest cesspools which ever endangered the moral health of the English people.

Alike according to the opponents and the advocates of these Acts, something should be done to deal with the question in the interests of public health. The most enthusiastic champions of the Acts excuse the miserable results which have been secured by their operation, on the ground that the Acts, being merely local, have not fairplay (sic), and that it is not until the whole country is covered by the provisions of these measures that much good can be effected. Those who oppose the Acts demand that they should be unconditionally repealed. Both parties agree that the present position of affairs is undesirable, and both should unite in compelling the Government to take some action in this matter, either by repealing them altogether, or by extending them over the whole of the country. At present, we needlessly outrage the principles of morality without obtaining any corresponding equivalent in the shape of protection from disease. If the Government decide to sacrifice morals to sanitation—by all means let us have sanitation by a thoroughly effective measure applied to the whole of the land, instead of doing as we do at present—sacrificing both morals and sanitation by measures which seem happily contrived to secure the maximum of immorality with a minimum of health. The Government, it is well known, dare not propose such a measure, although, in the opinion of the advocates of the Acts, it is necessary for their effective working. Let them, then, support Sir Harcourt Johnstone's Bill for their simple repeal; for, as at present, by recognising and legalising prostitution almost to the extent of making it an essential part of our military system, we merely outrage the moral sense of the community without protecting our soldiers from disease. Like the luckless Knight in the legend, we sell ourselves to the Devil, and he cheats us out of our price. Excepting in the interest of that potentate, we see no grounds for the continuance of this state of things. Therefore, we urge upon all good men and true to be in their places to support Sir Harcourt Johnstone in his attempt to repeal laws which have outraged morality without preserving health, and cynically sacrificed the liberty and honour of Englishwomen in a futile attempt to save abandoned men from the consequences of their crimes.

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