From Forbidden to Funded: A History of Contraception In Ireland

Aoife Bennett explores the troubled history between Irish society and contraception

From September 14 contraception has become free in Ireland for women between the ages of 17 and 25. The government scheme was allocated 9 million in the 2022 budget under the Women’s Health Action Plan 2022-2023, which aims to improve all areas in women’s healthcare. Launched by the Minister for Health, Stephen Donnelly, the comprehensive scheme covers GP consultations, emergency contraception, long-acting reversible contraception (LARCs), IUS and IUDs, contraceptive injections, the contraceptive patch, and combined oral contraception (the pill). Women can choose the contraception that works best for them and their lifestyle without any financial barriers. 

While currently the scheme is confined to a small cohort, the Minister for Public Expenditure Michael McGrath announced in the 2023 budget that they are expanding the scheme to make free contraception available from ages 16-30 years. Nail Behan, chief executive of the Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA) commended the scheme as a “major step forward for reproductive health and rights.” The scheme’s already quick expansion suggests a further step in the right direction for reproductive autonomy and gender equality in Ireland.

Less than forty years ago you couldn’t buy a condom without a prescription

But how did we get here? Less than forty years ago you couldn’t buy a condom without a prescription. Here is a brief history lesson of contraception in Ireland that has never made me so relieved to be a Gen-Z (and from Belfast).

As far back as Ancient Egypt and Ancient Mesopotamia, we have writings on contraception. In 1850 BCE papyrus scrolls were found that prescribed a mix of honey and acacia leaves as a form of birth control. In 1564, we have the first medical mention of condoms by Gabriele Falloppio who recommended a linen sheath to protect against syphilis. Clearly, the concept of contraception has always been around. However, contraception, as we know it today, really took off at the beginning of the twentieth century. Durex launched in 1915 in London, and Mother’s Clinics were opened across the UK in the 1930s. By 1961, the pill was available. Progression continued into the latter half of the twentieth century with the Morning After Pill introduced in 1984. This rapid advancement in contraception was not matched in Ireland. In fact, it wouldn’t be until 1985, the year after emergency contraception was launched across the UK, that Ireland would legalise condoms without a prescription. 

In Ireland’s early years, it had a very close bond with the Catholic church. Undoubtedly, this relationship has played a massive part in Ireland’s contraceptive history. The sale of condoms took off in the early twentieth century. Its rapid advancements were paired with rampant disapproval from the Catholic church. In 1930, Pope Pius XI condemned artificial contraception and discouraged Catholics from using it in his Papal encyclicals. It notes: “the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life; it is an offence against the law of God and of nature.” 

This condemnation of contraception influenced the Irish government to ban the importing, buying and selling of contraceptives in 1935. While it was not illegal to actually use contraception it was now widely inaccessible to the Irish population. Additionally, strict censorship laws made it difficult to distribute information on contraception, reproductive health and safe sex with Family Planning pamphlets banned on the grounds of indecency. 

The train journeynow coined the contraception trainsaw 49 women arrive back to Connolly Station waving their contraceptives, which were legal in Northern Ireland, at customs officials who surprisingly did not confiscate them.

The law would remain this way until the 1970s when Women’s Liberation groups began to rebel against the oppressive laws. In 1971, the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement travelled from Dublin to Belfast to purchase contraceptives and brought them back into Dublin Conolly. The train journeynow coined the contraception trainsaw 49 women arrive back to Connolly Station waving their contraceptives, which were legal in Northern Ireland, at customs officials who surprisingly did not confiscate them. The women originally planned to purchase the pill, but it was unattainable without a prescription. Instead, they bought a large volume of condoms and some aspirin, which they pretended was the pill to the customs officers and media. The protest attracted much publicity and media attention which helped push against the idea of contraception as something taboo and highlighted the absurdity of current laws.

In 1973, mother Mary McGee went to court for using contraception advised by her doctor. It was likely another pregnancy would cause serious, potentially fatal complications.

The court ruled in favour of McGee as she had a right to marital privacy. This was a breakthrough case for Ireland restrictions began to relax.  You could now bring contraceptives in from other countries although they could still not be sold in Ireland. In 1979, the Irish Family Planning Act was introduced allowing contraceptives to be sold under prescription. Finally, in 1985 the laws relaxed to allow the sale of condoms and spermicides without a prescription. The amendment to the Family Planning Act in 1985 was passed despite disapproval from the Catholic church. The Health Act of 1985 was a huge milestone in Ireland’s contraception history. However, a deeply rooted, anti-condom mentality in older generations meant that although condoms were now legal, controversy continued. Around half of all chemists in the country refused to stock any condoms meaning they were still rather inaccessible in certain communities. In 1987, a Late Late Extra broadcast touching on the AIDS epidemic sparked controversy as presenter Gay Byrne showed a short film on how to use a condom and opened a condom himself to show the audience. Viewers worried that this open discussion and advertisement of condoms would create a condom mentality, which was apparently a bad thing. However, like it or not they were now legal. 

The impact of contraception’s legalisation cannot be underestimated in a move towards gender equality. For years across Irish literature, religion and politics we’ve seen Irish women pigeonholed into the role of mother in Irish society. Legalising contraception gave women a degree of reproductive freedom never before seen in Ireland. This new freedom contributed to a more liberal view of sex, acknowledging pleasure as well as reproduction. Access to contraceptives has been shown to have a positive social and economic impact on women. For example, more women have been able to enter the workforce and partake in third-level education when they are given the ability to delay or plan pregnancies. 

As Ireland has moved to become a more secular country, laws around contraception have continued to progress, allowing people to take more control of their reproductive and sexual health. However, we still have a long way to go with regards to the education and accessibility of contraception. With the introduction of the free contraception initiative, it is looking hopeful the progress is not over yet.

Today contraception options have never been greater. If you want to explore your contraception options and avail of the recent free services you can book an appointment through your GP. If you are not with a GP in Ireland, the IFPA and Women’s Wellness centres are also partaking in the free scheme and have branches in Dublin. The IFPA also offers student discounts for those who do not fall into the free scheme. And finally, free condoms and lube are provided by TCDSU in House 6 on campus.