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We’ve come a long way in terms of contraception and reproductive rights, but there’s still some progress to be made.
This month, huge strides have been made in improving contraception access for Irish women, as the Government launched a free contraception scheme for those aged 17-25. But it’s no secret that this kind of forward-thinking has not always been welcome here in Ireland.
In reality, Ireland has a long history of gatekeeping women’s reproductive rights and despite much-needed schemes like this one, there is still some progress to be made.
With the help of Dr. Caroline West, we’re taking a look back at how Ireland’s attitude towards contraception has improved over the years, highlighting the changes that were made to get to where we are today.
Caroline is a consent educator, the host of the Glow West podcast, a sex and relationship expert for Bumble Ireland and a relationship advice columnist for the Irish Independent. In her latest role, she’s teamed up with morning after pill brand ellaOne, as part of their #ShareTheFacts campaign, to share her wisdom on sex, contraception and consent culture in Ireland on ellaOne.ie.
With all of that in mind, here’s a very brief look back at Ireland’s journey to reproductive rights…
’30s and ’40s: The Contraceptive Ban and censorship
Ireland’s complicated history with contraception and bodily autonomy dates back to over 100 years ago. In 1935, contraception was made illegal in Ireland, under Section 17 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1935. This act made it illegal to sell or advertise contraceptive goods, which were now prohibited. This was closely followed by the Censorship of Publications Act 1946, which banned books about family planning or contraceptives.
Caroline says this silence and censorship meant many people struggled to understand the reproductive cycle, and often had no idea what pregnancy entailed.
“People often felt conflicted when planning their families, as they essentially had to make a choice between their religion and contraception.
“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.”
’70s: The McGee milestone and the Condom Train
In 1974, a landmark case in the supreme court changed contraception access in Ireland forever. A married mother of four, Mary McGee, took legal action when her imported contraception was stopped by customs, arguing in court that her right to privacy was breached. The Supreme Court eventually agreed that she had a right to privacy when it came to her family.
Elsewhere, activists were making strides on the ground to improve access to contraception. In 1978, Dublin’s first contraceptive shop, Contraceptives Unlimited, opened and broke the law by selling condoms, to highlight how outdated the laws in place at the time were and to raise awareness of the demand for contraception.
The ’70s also saw the Condom Train make its first journey, a movement that would go on to make headlines internationally. “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,” Caroline explains.
These actions paid off in 1979, when contraception was legalised by prescription, for “family planning or for adequate medical reasons”. But these strict conditions around access meant significant barriers still existed for women seeking contraception.
’80s and ’90s: Abortion is outlawed and condoms are legalised for those aged 16 plus
While access to contraception was improving, there was still a long way to go for women’s reproductive rights, as abortion was outlawed in ’80s.
In 1983, the state passed a law that equated the life of the foetus 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.
During this time, condoms could still only be sold to over 18s in pharmacies, family planning clinics and other health outlets. The Virgin Megastore in Dublin were subsequently fined for selling condoms over the counter, on behalf of the Irish Family Planning clinic, to help young people access contraception without visiting a GP. The fine amounted to £400, which rock band U2 ended up paying.
Movements like this became a catalyst for change as in 1985, it became legal for adults to access condoms without a prescription and condoms became legal for those aged over 16 in 1991.
2022 and beyond…
Fast forward to today and Ireland is a very different place when it comes to contraception and reproductive rights, but there are still some barriers that need to be addressed.
Accessibility has certainly improved, with contraception now widely available in pharmacies, sex shops and by prescription. In terms of emergency contraception, the morning-after pill is now available to buy without a prescription and can be purchased online as well.
But cost can still be a big concern for some women, as some long-acting contraceptives like the implant can be pricey. While those aged 17-25 now have access to contraception for free, the new scheme doesn’t go far enough, as women outside of this age cohort may still pay for contraception.
Abortion was legalised in 2018 but the law has not been as inclusive as many women hoped. “A three-day waiting period requiring two GP visits is inaccessible for some, and the cut off time means that many people who later receive a diagnosis of a fatal fetal abnormality find themselves forced to travel abroad for an abortion.”
“We are a long way from the laws of the 1930s, but there is still much progress to be made,” says Caroline.
Visit ellaOne.ie learn more about Dr. Caroline West and the #Sharethefacts campaign, and to follow Caroline’s monthly blogs posts on sex, contraception and consent culture in Ireland.
ellaOne is an emergency contraceptive pill that is available from pharmacies, and online through pharmacy Click & Collect services, without a prescription. No other morning after pill is more effective at preventing pregnancy after unprotected sex. ellaOne is free of charge for women with a medical card and for women aged 17 to 25, from participating pharmacies nationwide.
ellaOne consists of one film-coated tablet which should be taken as soon as possible, but no later than 5 days (120 hours) after unprotected sex or contraceptive failure. Each film-coated tablet of ellaOne contains 30 mg ulipristal acetate. Always read the label.
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