Irish reproductive rights: exploring contraception and abortion

Cayla Williams looks at the troubled issue of access to contraception in Irleand.

Reproductive rights in Ireland, inclusive of access to and the legalisation of contraception and abortion, is an issue that disproportionately affects women yet remains unresolved. Only fully legalised in 1993, contraception in Ireland has historically been a point of discord in what is known as a “Catholic country”. Though contraceptives can now be legally purchased in the Republic, the accessibility to birth control remains limited.

The legal ban on abortion, except in certain strictly defined circumstances, continues to criminalise the termination of pregnancy within the State and is faced with a public demand for reform.

As the Catholic Church and the Government were at one time nearly indistinguishable, relevant laws and policies in Ireland have historically been guided by the church’s motives of enforcing sexual morality within the State. For instance, the papal response to the initial “condom boom” in the early 1900s was to condemn those who intentionally prevented conception, as outlined in the 1930 Casti connubii. This concept can be traced back to Saint Thomas Aquinas who, some time between 1245 and 1274 CE, declared that masturbation was a greater sin than rape, for at least the latter could result in conception.

By 1946, the sale of contraceptives – which, at the time, were condoms – was successfully criminalised in Ireland.

In 1963, the contraceptive pill was introduced in Ireland (12 years after its development), as a “menstrual-cycle regulator”. As with condoms, the church did not approve of the recreational sex afforded by the pill and, by 1968, Pope Paul VI issued Humanae vitae which “decreed that artificial contraception in all forms was immoral [and] Catholics [were] obliged not to use artificial contraception”.

As a result, rather than prescribe the pill, Irish doctors would advise a husband and wife to “live as brother and sister,” as celibacy was a church-approved method of birth control (as was withdrawal and the rhythm method, neither of which is known for its efficacy; hence the joke: What do you call rhythm-method users? … Parents!). Prior to the arrival of the pill in Ireland, withdrawal (also piously known as “pull-out-and-pray”), the rhythm method and celibacy were widely used, even within marriages. In consequence, many Irish families had upwards of 10 children.

“Some people get it wrong and call it the ‘Condom Train.’ And I say: ‘No. It was never the Condom Train. We were never going to give control of our sexuality and fertility to men”

Irish women in particular were ready to take control of their fertility and willing to challenge the criminalisation of importing birth-control devices into the Republic. This prompted the famous (or infamous) Contraceptive Train” of 1971, when members of the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement took the train from Dublin to Belfast where, under the UK’s Protestant governance, the sale of contraceptives was legal. The women stocked up on birth-control pills, risking arrest upon their return to Connolly Station in Dublin.

In a 2016 BBC interview, the leader of the 1971 Contraceptive Train, Nell McCafferty, said that at the time, “the church and State were hand-in-glove” and “the average family size was 12”. She further emphasised the importance of women’s empowerment that the voyage enabled. “Some people get it wrong and call it the ‘Condom Train.’ And I say: ‘No. It was never the Condom Train. We were never going to give control of our sexuality and fertility to men’.”

She also noted that the response from the public highlighted the disconnect between the church and the people of Ireland. “People agreed with us and that was massive because we were against the church. [We] were touching a popular nerve.”

In the same year (1971), the Irish Family Planning Association published a Family Planning Guidebook that was met with significant demand. However, by 1976 the church managed to have the guidebook banned, prevailing in restricting access to unbiased reproductive information.

Although the pill was officially legalised in 1979 for “bona-fide family planning purposes” at the discretion of a doctor (which, by no coincidence, favoured married women), it was not fully legalised without discrimination until 1993.

In spite of its perceived accessibility today, a recent study conducted by Behaviour & Attitudes found that a third of Irish women 18 to 45 years old do not avail of any form of modern contraception. Another 9 per cent cited using papal-approved “natural methods” (e.g., withdrawal and the rhythm method). This may serve to explain why the rate of births to teenage mothers in Ireland is among the highest in the EU.

Though the sale of contraceptives is now legal in Ireland, this does not render them accessible. Unlike in some EU countries where birth control is subsidised or free, contraceptives in the Republic come at a cost that may further exclude young and/or disadvantaged women from access. In some cases, for those who qualify for the Drugs Payment Scheme, the pill itself may be affordable but the regular GP visits required to obtain prescriptions may not be.

Further, past censorship of comprehensive reproductive information enacted by the Catholic Church is reflected in the limitations to the sexuality and reproductive education courses in Irish schools today. A press release issued by the Crisis Pregnancy Programme cited a survey of young Irish women (18 to 25 years old), the findings of which indicated an insufficient knowledge of participants’ own fertility. Authors of the study went on to assert that sex education in Irish schools is “inadequate and too biological, too narrow and too late”.

While the pill and condoms were found to be the two most popular forms of modern contraception used in Ireland, there remains one woman in five (20 per cent) “who are neither using contraception nor planning on getting pregnant”. Ireland’s ranking as a country with “one of the lowest rates of contraceptive use in the EU” might account for the 6,320 women with Irish addresses who sought out abortions in the UK in 2003.

However, women were not always allowed to leave Ireland to terminate a pregnancy. The Repeal the Eighth campaign began in 1992 after the X Case, in which a 14-year-old rape victim was initially denied the right to travel abroad for an abortion under Ireland’s strict abortion laws. Though it temporarily lost its momentum, the Repeal the Eighth campaign resumed with force after the Abortion Rights Campaign was founded following the death of Savita Halappanavar in 2012. In fact, at the fifth annual March for Choice, in 2016, there were an estimated 20,000 people in attendance.

Of Irish women, rates of abortion are highest among 20 to 24 year olds, approximately 80 per cent of whom are single. In the past, these “fallen women” would have been banished to mother-and-baby homes where they were kept hidden from society and put to work. Under the authority of the nuns, their “illegitimate” children were discretely “taken care of”, which, as indicated by recent inquiries into the Bon Secours Sisters’ home in Galway, could mean illegal adoptions to families in the United States or premature infant and toddler deaths.

Illegal in Ireland since the Offences against the Person Act in 1861, procuring an abortion became even more difficult after the Eighth Amendment in 1983, enacted with the intent of protecting “the right to life of the unborn”. In response to a case of discrimination against a woman in Ireland seeking an abortion due to fatal foetal abnormalities in June 2016, the UN Human Rights Committee publicly criticised the abortion laws in Ireland, claiming that they do not meet international standards on abortion.

Further, national polls held in September 2016 revealed that the majority (66 per cent) of respondents in Ireland are in favour of a referendum on abortion. Presently, the Citizens’ Assembly is in the midst of deliberations over the Eighth Amendment (among other topics); the assembly began in November 2016 and is expected to conclude within the first half of 2017.

In Ireland, the limitations to support and resources aimed at preventing unwanted pregnancy in conjunction with the severe restrictions surrounding abortion present a rectifiable paradox. Arguably, accessible contraception and comprehensive information could reduce the occurrence of abortion. Thus, in a country that continues to criminalise abortion, why does the State not strive to counter its necessity by providing adequate information regarding and access to preventative measures (i.e., contraceptives)?

As former Taoiseach Charles Haughey famously framed it in 1979, the state of reproductive rights and education in Ireland continues to be “an Irish solution to an Irish problem”.

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