Johannes Rutgers, a medical doctor in the Netherlands, lived between 1850 and 1924. He was one of the first to promote free access to contraceptives starting in 1892 and, later in life, supported an initiative to decriminalise abortion. The promotion of contraceptives was revolutionary and could contribute to women’s emancipation and health. Johannes Rutgers worked in the poorest neighbourhoods of Rotterdam and saw the distressing situations that arose because poor women had no access to contraception. He experienced the loss of his first wife shortly after giving birth to his fourth child, succumbing to puerperal infection. This personal tragedy made him acutely aware of the importance of providing couples access to methods that could prevent frequent and too closely spaced pregnancies.
As a prominent member of the “Nieuw-Malthusiaanse Bond” (NMB) since 1901, he promoted his vision on contraceptives through this organisation. Additionally, he played a key role in training non-medically schooled staff to provide consultations for women regarding contraceptives. While Johannes Rutgers died in 1924, the NMB continued to exist.
In the 1930s, the NMB established ‘marriage and sex life’ consultations in Amsterdam and Rotterdam. The organisation was dissolved during the Second World War. In 1946, the NMB continued under the name “Nederlandse Vereniging voor Seksuele Hervorming” (NVSH). The high demand for consultations led to establishing a separate organisation in 1969: the Rutgers Foundation, named after Dr. Johannes Rutgers. People could access information and assistance in the field of birth control and sexuality at locations known as Rutgers Houses. In 2002, these Rutgers Houses ceased operations following a period of transition during which municipal health authorities gradually assumed responsibilities related to sexual and reproductive health and the government reduced subsidies for the Rutgers Foundation. Today’s foundation resulted from several mergers, first with Nisso Groep, then with the World Population Foundation (WPF) and most recently with Dance4Life.
Same name, different beliefs
Johannes Rutgers, who lived and worked in the late 19th and early 20th century, believed in promoting contraceptives as a means of birth control. This was in response to the prevalent fear at the time that uncontrolled population growth could lead to widespread famine, resource depletion, environmental damage and potential dangers such as ecological collapse (source: Thomas Robertson (2012). The Malthusian Moment: Global Population Growth and the Birth of American Environmentalism, Rutgers University Press.)
While women’s reproductive health was a central concern for Johannes Rutgers, it wasn’t his sole motivation to advocate for contraceptive use. This is where the modern-day Rutgers organisation distances itself from Johannes Rutgers as an individual.
As a Neo-Malthusian, Johannes Rutgers suggested that poor people should not have too many children. Furthermore, he also said that people who were, at that time, considered hereditary inferior – such as people with mental illness, alcohol addiction, tuberculosis, heart failure, etc. – should either refrain from marriage or, at the very least, avoid having children. He believed that contraception could reduce the problem of poverty and enhance the genetic quality of the human race. This is what we call eugenics, a theory popular in the early 20th century, but one that our organisation considers to be very harmful. We distance ourselves from Johannes Rutgers’ belief in and promotion of genetic improvement and ideas about racial superiority.
Our position today
Our organisation believes that being free to enjoy sexuality and relationships with respect for each other is vital to people’s well-being. This freedom is at the heart of our work. Rutgers works to improve the sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) of young people through sexuality education and information, access to contraception and safe abortion and the prevention of sexual and gender-based violence. Inclusivity and non-discrimination are fundamental values for the organisation; Rutgers’ present-day approach is rights-based, focusing on protecting human rights, promoting individual well-being and inclusive societies. The motivation for our organisation to work on SRHR is distinctly different from the motivation of Johannes Rutgers in his time. We continue reflecting on how the organisation has been consciously and unconsciously shaped by its namesake, its origins and key influencers.