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Contraception in the Republic of Ireland

Contraception was illegal in Ireland from 1935 until 1980, when it was legalised with strong restrictions, later loosened. The ban reflected Catholic teachings on sexual morality.


  • History 1
    • Papal encyclicals 1.1
    • Ban on sales 1935–1978 1.2
    • Reforms allowing sales 1.3
  • See also 2
  • References 3


Papal encyclicals

The encyclical Casti connubii (1930) followed the industrial production and widespread use of condoms that usually prevent fertilisation. It specified that – "... any use whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offence against the law of God and of nature, and those who indulge in such are branded with the guilt of a grave sin."

Following the marketing of "the pill" in the 1960s, a Pontifical Commission on Birth Control was set up. It has often been cited that there was a majority in favour of contraception, but there is no proof of this. The encyclical Humanae vitae (1968) decreed that artificial contraception in all forms was immoral. Catholics are obliged not to use artificial contraception.[1]

Ban on sales 1935–1978

Owning and using contraceptive devices and pills was always legal, but they could not be sold or imported legally after a 1935 Act.[2] During this time a loophole was used, where a device such as a condom could not be "offered for sale", but a buyer could be "invited to treat" to buy it. Also people made donations to family planning associations to obtain contraception as a "gift". The reality for almost all of the population was that contraception was illegal, and few outlets wanted to stock a product that could bring the attention of the police or public opprobrium.

In early 1971 Senator Mary Robinson (who later became president) attempted to introduce the first bill proposing to liberalise the law on contraception into the Seanad, but was not allowed a reading, so it could not be discussed. On 31 March a number of supporters managed to get into the grounds of Leinster House and then broke into the building to register their protests.[3] On 22 May 1971 a group of Irish feminists including Mary Kenny travelled to Belfast by rail and made their return to Dublin, laden with contraceptive devices, into a statement on the illogicality of the law. This provoked criticism from the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland; Thomas Ryan, Bishop of Clonfert, said that "... never before, and certainly not since penal times was the Catholic heritage of Ireland subjected to so many insidious onslaughts on the pretext of conscience, civil rights and women's liberation."[4]

In 1973, the Supreme Court affirmed that there was a constitutional right to marital privacy which also allowed for the use of contraceptives; nevertheless it found that the Act forbidding their import or sale was not repugnant to the Constitution.[5] Faced with the conundrum that the Irish people could legally use contraception but could not legally obtain them, the Government was embarrassed into action. A number of bills were proposed, but all failed to make it to the statute book. Indeed Taoiseach at the time, Jack Lynch, admitted at one point that the issue had been put "on the long finger".

Reforms allowing sales

In 1978 the Health (Family Planning) Bill was introduced by Charles Haughey. This bill limited the provision of contraceptives to bona fide "family planning or for adequate medical reasons".[6] A controversial part of the bill was that contraceptives could only be dispensed by a pharmacist on the presentation of a valid medical prescription from a practising doctor. It is often wrongly stated that the recipient of the prescription had to be married, but the legislation required no such terms. The reason for this compromise was the strong position of conservative elements in Irish society at the time, particularly the Roman Catholic Church which made it difficult for the government to provide for a more liberal law. Contraception was also not seen by politicians as a vote-getter at the time. Haughey famously described the 1979 Act as "an Irish solution to an Irish problem". On 1 November 1980 the Act came into operation by order[7] of the Minister.

The Health (Family Planning) (Amendment) Act, 1985[8] liberalised the law by allowing condoms and spermicides to be sold to people over 18 without having to present a prescription; however sale was limited to categories of places named in the act. The Health (Family Planning) (Amendment) Act, 1992[9] repealed Section 4 of the 1979 act, as amended in 1985, and continued the provision of contraceptives without prescription, allowing sale to individuals over the age of 17. As of 2010, the 1992 Act and the Health (Family Planning) (Amendment) Act of 1993 are the main Irish legislation on contraceptive and family planning services.

As well as allowing sales, Ireland's censorship laws had to be reformed to allow contraceptives to be advertised or even mentioned. As late as 1976 the Censorship of Publications Board had banned the Irish Family Planning Association's booklet "Family Planning". The Health (Family Planning) Act, 1979 deleted references to "the unnatural prevention of conception" in the 1929 and 1949 censorship Acts, thus allowing publications with information about contraception to be distributed in Ireland. The Regulation of Information (Services Outside the State for the Termination of Pregnancies) Act, 1995 modified the 1929, 1946 and 1967 Acts to allow publications with information about "services provided outside the State for the termination of pregnancies". However, no publications that advocate or promote abortions are permitted.

A small percentage of the Irish population still opposes the use of artificial contraception within marriage, in line with Humanae Vitae, including sports personality Mickey Harte.[10][11] The conservative Brandsma Review magazine has editorialised against the use of artificial contraception.

See also


  1. ^ Catechism of the Catholic Church. Veritas. 1994. p. 395.  
  2. ^ Irish Statute Book: Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1935 (Section 17)
  3. ^ Irish Independent, 1 April 1971
  4. ^ The Field day anthology of Irish writing: Irish women's writing and traditions edited by Angela Bourke; NYU Press 2002, pp. 200–201
  5. ^ BAILII: McGee v. A.G. & Anor [1973] IESC 2; [1974] IR 284
  6. ^ Irish Statute Book: Health (Family Planning) Act, 1979 (Section 4)
  7. ^ Irish Statute Book: Health (Family Planning) Act, 1979 (Commencement) Order, 1980
  8. ^ Irish Statute Book: Health (Family Planning) (Amendment) Act, 1985
  9. ^ The Health (Family Planning) (Amendment) Act of 1992
  10. ^ "GAA's Harte backs condom ban; Hero supports controversial book.". Irish Daily Mirror. 1 April 2009. 
  11. ^ "Sexual Health or Contraceptive Evangelism?". Northern Ireland Pharmacy in Focus. January 2007. p. 25. 
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