Marie Stopes International (MSI) is to change its name in an attempt to break its association with the family planning pioneer.
From Tuesday, the abortion and contraception provider, which operates in 37 countries, will abbreviate the initials and go by the name MSI Reproductive Choices.
Born in Edinburgh in 1880, Marie Stopes was an author, prominent women’s rights campaigner and the first female academic at the University of Manchester.
A paleobotanist by training, she opened Britain’s first clinic offering birth control advice to married women in 1921, in the face of fierce opposition from the Catholic church and the male-dominated medical establishment.
In recent years, however, her family planning work has been overshadowed by her association with the eugenics movement. Among her writings, Stopes called for new laws that allowed the “hopelessly rotten and racially diseased” to be sterilised and wrote fiercely against interracial marriage.
“We’re absolutely not trying to erase her from history, or what she did,” said Simon Cooke, MSI’s chief executive. “For me, she was an acknowledged family planning pioneer, an extraordinary women who broke down barriers … but we really need to look forward and not back. It’s the right moment for us.”
Cooke said the board began seriously discussing a name change in November last year, but that the events of 2020, particularly the Black Lives Matter movement, had propelled change. “The name of the organisation has been a topic of discussion for many years and the events of 2020 have reaffirmed that changing our name now is the right decision,” he said.
The organisation is launching a new 10-year strategy to reach at least 120 million women and girls with voluntary healthcare services over the next decade, and to encourage greater use of telemedicine, something which has increased rapidly during Covid-19 lockdowns. MSI wants to be more active in influencing policy in the countries in which it works.
Cooke said the organisation had done an “exceptional” job in keeping services open during the pandemic. He anticipated health centres would see 10 million clients this year, not far short of the total for 2019. “After the disruption in March and April, we’re now pretty much back to full capacity, particularly in Africa,” he said.
Cooke said that although “we didn’t plan it to be part of our strategy”, the organisation was “delighted” at the result of the US presidential election.
Since 2017, MSI has missed out on about $30m (£22m) a year in US funding because it refused to sign the Mexico City policy, or “global gag rule”, which Donald Trump reenacted when he took office. The policy prevents overseas NGOs that receive US money from providing any abortion services.
President-elect Joe Biden is expected to rescind the policy in January.
• The headline of this article was amended on 17 November 2020 to correctly reflect that the charity Marie Stopes International was named after the campaigner, not founded by her.