Reproductive Rights in Ireland: Part 1

After hearing some first-hand stories from campaigners recently, I decided, for my own education (and yours, hopefully!) to do a brief history of reproductive rights in the Republic of Ireland.

Part 1 is from the 1970s up to the mid-1980s (right around the time I was born): Let’s jump in, shall we?

The Criminal Law Amendment Act had banned the sale of contraceptives in 1935. Some people could still get them through organisations that offered them in return for a “donation,” instead of sale. The Pill, however, was available by prescription in Ireland from the 1960s ““ its use as a treatment for period problems meant it avoided the ban on contraception. Apparently a lot of Irish women developed bad period problems around this time…

1971: The Contraceptive Train. Nearly 50 activists, including members of the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement, took a train over the border to Belfast, bought contraceptives there,  and waved them in the faces on the customs guards when they returned to Dublin. The guards refused to confiscate the materials, or arrest the women. The writer Nell McCafferty, who took part, says she waltzed into a pharmacy in Belfast demanding the Pill, not realising she needed a prescription – so she bought a pack of aspirin and waved it in the faces of the customs guards anyway. It was a brilliant stunt, but contraception remained illegal for nearly another decade.

“Why can’t you be a bit cuter*, like Mary Robinson? She keeps her dignity. You have to go out and make an eejit of yourself.” – Mary Kenny, founder member of IWLM, quotes her mother’s opinion of her involvement in the stunt.

Senator and barrister Mary Robinson (future President of Ireland and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights) had proposed a bill legalising contraception in the Senate earlier in 1971; it was so unpopular that it was never seconded or even discussed.

*”cute” used here in the Irish sense of “savvy, devious, cunning” e.g.: “Littlefinger in Game of Thrones is a cute hoor.”

1973: The McGee case established the right to marital privacy, including the use of contraceptives. The case was taken by a Mrs. McGee (assisted by the Irish Family Planning Association and Mary Robinson), who’d had four children in two years and was advised not to have any more: she’d had severe pre-eclampsia and premature births in her previous pregnancies. Her doctor prescribed a diaphragm, and she and her husband ordered that and spermicides from the U.K., which were confiscated by Irish customs. The Supreme Court decided somewhat in her favour: that she had the right to own and use contraceptives, but not that she had the right to import them. Catch-22.

A bill was introduced in 1974 to establish the right to import them, but it failed: even the Taoiseach voted against it. By contrast, in 1973 the U.S. legalised abortion under Roe v Wade; and abortion had been legal in the U.K. ““ excepting Northern Ireland ““ since 1967. Irish people were stuck using contraceptives that they somehow had to obtain by magic.

1980: The 1978 Heath and Family Planning Bill came into effect: this allowed for the sale of contraceptives on prescription for “family planning or adequate medical reasons.” Though the law didn’t state it, Catholic pressure ensured that this meant contraception was only available to married people. The Minister for Health at the time, Charlie Haughey, called it “an Irish solution to an Irish problem,” a phrase which had previously been regarded as complimentary.

An Irish solution to an Irish problem: any official response to a controversial issue which is timid, half-baked… or sidesteps the fundamental issue. (Wikipedia)

1983: The constitution is amended to state that a fÅ“tus has “a right to life,” though there is an “equal right to life of the mother.”

1985: The Health (Family Planning) Bill amended the 1978 legislation, allowing some contraceptives – condoms and spermicides – to be sold in pharmacies without a prescription, but only to those over 18.

The contraceptive battle having largely been won, attention was turning to the next arena of reproductive rights: abortion. Spoiler warning: abortion is still illegal both here and in Northern Ireland (even though it’s part of the U.K.). I’ll have more on that barrel of laughs later in the week.

Any questions, queries, and WTF expressions? Join me in the comments.

7 thoughts on “Reproductive Rights in Ireland: Part 1”

    1. Littlefinger is surely the definition of a cute hoor. I bet that’s all that’s in Aidan Gillen’s mind when he reads the scripts:)

      Yes, me too – the McGee case, for instance. The link has the full case: she had two sons in less than 18 months, with worsening pre-eclampsia each time. Her doctor told her no more children, but at the appointment for a diaphragm fitting, he noticed she was pregnant again – with twins. She had pre-eclampsia again, the twins were born premature, and all three of them nearly died. And still she wasn’t allowed to get contraception. It boggles the mind.

      Also o/t – couldn’t seem to PM you yesterday but will try again later.

  1. Thank you for this, QOB. I’m looking forward to the next part and would like to add this footnote if you don’t mind.
    Although the Mother and Child Scheme of the 50s predates the timeframe you are writing about I feel it would be a good example of how messed up the country was/is by the Catholic church. It keeps popping into my head lately anytime that another US state tries to defund their Planned Parenthood.

    1. Yes! Very good point. It’s taught in our school history courses as an example of the fucked-up influence of the Catholic Church on politics of the time… apparently without irony!

      Here’s a wikipedia summary: basically it proposed free maternity care for women, and free healthcare for children up to 16. Bonus points for mention of “socialised medicine”.

Leave a Reply