English Literature

Is the Bible Indictable? by Annie Besant

Is the Bible Indictable by Annie Besant.jpg



The ruling of Sir Alexander Cockburn in the late trial, the Queen against Bradlaugh and Besant, seems to involve wider issues than the Lord Chief Justice intended, or than the legal ally of Nature and Providence can desire. The question of motive is entirely set on one side; the purest motives are valueless if the information conveyed is such as is capable of being turned to bad purposes by the evil-minded and the corrupt. This view of the law would not be enforced against expensive medical works; provided that the price set on a book be such as shall keep it out of reach of the “common people,” its teaching may be thoroughly immoral but it is not obscene. Dr. Fleetwood Churchill, for instance, is not committing an indictable offence by giving directions as to the simplest and easiest way of procuring abortion; he is not committing a misdemeanour, although he points out means which any woman could obtain and use for herself; he does not place himself within reach of the law, although he recommends the practice of abortion in all cases where previous experience proves that the birth of a living child is impossible. A check to population which destroys life is thus passed over as legal, perhaps because the destruction of life is the check so largely employed by Nature and Providence, and would thus ensure the approval of the Solicitor-General. But the real reason why Dr. Churchill is left unmolested and Dr. Knowlton is assailed, lies in the difference of the price at which the two are severally published. If Dr. Knowlton was sold at 10s. 6d. and Dr. Churchill at 6d., then the vials of legal wrath would have descended on the advocate of abortion and not on the teacher of prevention. The obscenity lies, to a great extent, in the price of the book sold. A vulgar little sixpence is obscene, a dainty half-sovereign is respectable. Poor people must be content to remain ignorant, or to buy the injurious quack treatises circulated in secret; wealthier people, who want knowledge less, are to be protected by the law in their purchases of medical works, but if poor people, in sore need, finding “an undoubted physician” ready to aid them, venture to ask for his work, written especially for them, the law strikes down those who sell them health and happiness. They must not complain; Nature and Providence have placed them in a state of poverty, and have mercifully provided for them effectual, if painful, checks to population. The same element of price rules the decency or the indecency of pictures. A picture painted in oils, life size, of the naked human figure, such as Venus disrobed for the bath, or Phryne before her judges, or Perseus and Andromeda, exhibited to the upper classes, in a gallery, with a shilling admission charge, is a perfectly decent and respectable work of art. Photographs of those pictures, uncoloured, and reduced in size, are obscene publications, and are seized as such by the police. Cheapness is, therefore, an essential part of obscenity.


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