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The years 1968-73 are a key period. The initial Irish response to the 1968 papal encyclical Humanae Vitae – reaffirming traditional Catholic teaching on contraception – was muted, compared with Europe or the United States, reflecting continuing Irish deference to clerical authority; clerical dissent was also limited. By 1972 however, two family planning clinics had opened in Dublin, and the ban on contraception was being challenged in the courts and the Oireachtas (parliament).This was happening against the backdrop of the Northern Ireland Troubles and a debate over minority rights. During the early 1970s there was a possibility that Ireland would come into line with other European countries, where laws against contraception had been liberalised in recent years. The Catholic Hierarchy argued that liberalising contraception would damage public morality, and that argument was repeated by the government. Given the political challenges of enacting legislation to enable even limited access to contraception, the government preferred to await the outcome of a Supreme Court judgment on the legality of the existing ban.
In the McGee judgment, (1973) the Supreme Court affirmed the right of a married couple to plan their family. Family planning clinics, and access to condoms. Students’ unions played a key role – reflecting the expansion in higher education. Opinion polls show increasing support for legislative reform, but a majority of voters in rural areas remained opposed, and most of those favouring reform wanted contraception to be restricted to married couples. Irish women’s organisations were divided on the issue. Women journalists played a key role in informing their readers about contraceptive and contact details for family planning outlets, and second-wave feminists were active in the radical wing of the family planning movement. Women were also prominent in the conservative pressure groups that emerged during the 1970s; these were modelled on anti-abortion movements in Britain and the United States. By the end of the decade the Billings method of ‘natural’ family planning, which was mainly led by women, was being promoted as an opportunity for Ireland to demonstrate that fertility control was feasible without re-course to ‘artificial’ methods of contraception.
In 1980 Irish fertility was 1.66% of the Western European average, however families were smaller, and fewer women were giving birth in their forties. Despite the limitations of the 1979 Act, the 1980s saw a marked increase in access to contraception, by single and married adults, and major advances in family planning training for doctors. However, surveys of mothers in maternity hospitals indicate that many pregnancies were unplanned, and access to information and contraceptives remained patchy in provincial Ireland. Legal restrictions were gradually eased from the mid-1980s, and by 1995 condoms were available without restriction, partly to counter the threat of HIV. Sterilisation was never banned in Ireland, and by the 1980s male sterilisation was readily available, but access to tubal ligation, even in cases of acute medical need proved much more difficult. In some hospitals, including Dublin maternity hospitals, the ethics committees, which were formed in the early 1980s at the behest of the Catholic hierarchy, and the hostility of nursing and other non-medical hospital staff prevented doctors from carrying out the procedure, prompting some to resort to hysterectomy.
By 1911 some Irish couples were limiting fertility. Marital fertility fell slowly after independence. The gap between family size in Northern Ireland and Ireland and between Catholic and Protestant families widened. The Irish Free State introduced legislation restricting access to information and prohibiting the sale and importation of contraceptives, legislation that reinforced Catholic teaching. Although similar legislation existed in other countries, it had much less impact than in Ireland. The near-universal practice of religion by men and women meant that Catholic teaching could be enforced in the confession box, and this teaching, combined with the valorisation of large families by Irish society, provided uncaring husbands with a licence to procreate, irrespective of the health or the wishes of their wife. Before the 1960s there was little information available about the ‘safe period’, a church-permitted method of regulating fertility, which was promoted by Catholic organisations in other countries. By 1961, despite marrying at a later age, Irish couples had the largest families in the western world, their fertility was seriously out of line with Catholics elsewhere.
Following the enactment of the 1979 Family Planning Act, conservative groups sought to reassert Ireland’s traditional morality by demanding an amendment to the Irish Constitution guaranteeing the right to life of the ‘unborn’. The Supreme Court had cited similar arguments to Roe v. Wade in the McGee case, and it was alleged that similar arguments might result abortion being legalised in Ireland. The amendment was passed in September 1983. Following the 1967 British Abortion Act, a growing number of Irish women were travelling to Britain for abortions and this abortion trail grew in the 1980s and 1990s, despite restrictions on abortion referrals. In 1991 the Supreme Court ruled in the X case that abortion was legal in order to save a woman’s life. Three referenda held in 1992 affirmed the right to information about abortion and the right to travel for an abortion and rejected a proposal to reverse the Supreme Court judgement. This referendum was again rejected in 2002. The Pro-Life Amendment hindered the treatment of pregnant women and was a factor in the death of Savita Hallapanuvar in 2012.
Central to the history of family planning in Ireland is the interaction between religious observance and expressions of Irishness, and how that changed in response to domestic political and socio-economic developments, and international forces. An Irish identity imagined around rural living, Catholicism, large families, traditional gender roles, and sexual puritanism, combined with a belief that Ireland could withstand the changes that were underway in twentieth-century western society in relation to sexual behaviour – drove the sustained hostility to legalising contraception. The 1980s was the decade when it became evident that the tide had turned. The number of married women in the workforce rose significantly, and fertility fell sharply. By the early 1990s Irish fertility was still the highest in Europe, but only by a small margin, and it was lower than in the United States. And yet the decline of this imagined Irishness was not unopposed; indeed, many lamented its passing. it is significant that the moral legislation enacted in the first decades after independence survived until the closing decades of the twentieth century, which might suggest that Ireland was exceptional.
The economy grew in the 1960s; access to education expanded, and there was a belated marriage boom. The Pill had a special significance for Ireland, given the absence of other legally permitted forms of reliable contraception. It gave women the initiative with respect to contraception. This was the decade of Vatican II. The Catholic church was wrestling with contraception, in the face of growing non-conformity among Catholic couples. In Ireland information was finally becoming available about the ‘safe period’. Dublin maternity hospitals contending with rising numbers of young mothers with uncontrolled fertility, opened ‘fertility guidance clinics’. Initially they only offered church-approved methods of family planning, but by the mid-sixties they were prescribing the Pill. Irish theologians were active in the emerging debate as to whether the contraceptive pill was compatible with Catholic teaching, and use of the Pill spread quietly in Ireland. Family planning was being discussed on Irish television and in print media, especially by women’s magazines, but hopes of a more liberal future were dashed in 1968 when Humanae Vitae reaffirmed traditional teaching.
No western country experienced as protracted a debate on contraception as Ireland. The longstanding ban on contraception has commonly been seen as the consequence of Catholic church teaching and the near-universal religious observance by Irish Catholics. But the Irish debate went far beyond Catholic teaching. The merits of large families and the laws banning contraception (as well as prohibition of divorce and abortion) came to be seen as a symbol of Ireland’s national identity; the Irish approach to contraception was intimately bound up with ideas of Irishness. The logic of opposition to the use of contraception shifted over the decades. Initially, the belief that ‘artificial’ contraception was contrary to the teaching of the Catholic church was the engine that drove state policy and broader opposition. By the 1970s this argument was being abandoned, in favour of claims that permitting contraception would destroy the fabric of the family and society. The battle to protect Irish society from the “menace” of contraception, abortion and divorce continued into the present century in the face of falling fertility, many single mothers, and a significant abortion trail to Britain.
From the early 1970s government proposals for legislation permitting access to contraception reveal a consistent dilemma for politicians: how to make contraception available to married couples while restricting access by single people. Records of consultative meetings organised by the Department of Health, suggest that by the late 1970s there was consensus, sometimes grudging, among the main churches, medical groups, and the trade union congress that contraception should be available on a restricted basis, but it was also recognised that it would prove difficult to prevent access by single people. These consultations also reveal a determination on the part of doctors and pharmacists to protect their professional interests, and an incapacity to provide family planning through the public health system. The 1979 Family Planning Act legalised access to contraception, ‘for bona fide family planning purposes’ – terminology that was not defined, and it privileged ‘natural methods’, providing state support to promote them in order to placate the Catholic hierarchy. Its restrictive nature ensured that contraception remained a matter for political contention.
The Irish battle for legal contraception was a contest over Irish exceptionalism: the belief that Ireland could resist global trends despite the impact of second-wave feminism, falling fertility, and a growing number of women travelling for abortion. It became so lengthy and so divisive because it challenged key tenets of Irish identity: Catholicism, large families, traditional gender roles, and sexual puritanism. The Catholic Church argued that legalising contraception would destroy this way of life, and many citizens agreed. The Battle to Control Female Fertility in Modern Ireland provides new insights on Irish masculinity and fertility control. It highlights women's activism in both liberal and conservative camps, and the consensus between the Catholic and Protestant churches views on contraception for single people. It also shows how contraception and the Pro-Life Amendment campaign affected policy towards Northern Ireland, and it examines the role of health professionals, showing how hospital governance prevented female sterilisation. It is a story of gender, religion, social change, and failing efforts to reaffirm Irish moral exceptionalism.