Ireland’s longstanding contraceptive ban
Contraceptive was made illegal in Ireland in 1935 under Section 17 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1935. This act made it illegal to sell or advertise contraceptive goods, and contraceptives were now to be considered prohibited goods. This stance on contraception was cemented further with the Censorship of Publications Act 1946, which banned books about family planning or contraceptives. This silence, combined with no sex education in schools, meant that many people struggled to understand the reproductive cycle, and often had no idea what pregnancy entailed.
While many countries in the Western world celebrated access to the contraceptive pill in the 1960’s and 1970’s, Ireland did not share in this sexual revolution. San Francisco notoriously enjoyed a summer of love; Ireland had many winters of discontent for women trying to manage their family planning options. However, while the pill was technically illegal in Ireland, it was prescribed by many doctors for regulation of periods, and this loophole allowed people to plan their families. This plan had to involve a doctor who was sympathetic and understood the reality of prescribing contraceptives, and younger people or those with smaller families were often not able to access the pill this way.
People often felt conflicted when planning their families, as they essentially had to make a choice between their religion and contraception. The Catholic Church had a long-standing heavy influence in Ireland and advocated for large families. The church was strongly opposed to methods of contraception such as the pill or condoms, although they did permit ‘natural family planning’, such as the rhythm method. This method can often have a high failure rate, relying on the man to pull out before ejaculation, or for the woman to monitor the viscosity of her vaginal mucus alongside her menstrual cycle.
In 1974 things shifted enormously when the McGee case reached the supreme court. Mary McGee was a married woman with four children who had been informed that future pregnancies would endanger her health. She was advised by her doctor that contraception would be the right course of action, but due to Irish laws she had to import this product. However, the contraceptive jelly that she ordered was stopped by customs. Taking legal action, she argued in court that her right to privacy was breached, and the Supreme Court eventually agreed with her that she had a right to privacy when it came to her family.
The 80’s abortion law
Abortion was outlawed in 1983 when the state passed a law that equated the life of the fetus to that of the mother, and in 1986 the High Court argued that access to information on travelling outside the state for abortion was illegal. Grassroots activists fought these laws, and when shocking cases such as the 14-year-old rape victim in the 1992 X case was refused access to an abortion, abortion became a heated discussion in feminist, medical, and religious circles.
The 1970’s-1990s also saw societal changes in relation to condoms. Before 1991, condoms could only be sold to those over 18; this was lowered to 16 with a new law in 1991. Feminist group Irish Women’s Liberation Movement travelled to Belfast by train to buy contraceptives as a protest against the law banning condoms. This became known as the condom train, and as the women arrived back in Dublin they were greeted by both Gardai and supportive crowds as they waved condoms and pill packets in the air triumphantly.