An Overview of Contraception in Ireland: the past, the present and the Papal influence

Vintage Family Photo of 14
McDermott and Ehlers Family, 1905 – Photo Credit: Richard [Flickr]

Vintage Family Photo of 14
McDermott Family of 14, 1905 – Photo Credit: Richard [Flickr]
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 of birth control remains limited.

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 1900’s was to condemn those who intentionally prevented conception, as outlined in the 1930 Casti connubii. This concept can be traced back to Saint Aquinas who, sometime between 1245 and 1274 AD, 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 the Humanae vitae which “decreed that artificial contraception in all forms was immoral [and] Catholics [were] obliged not to use artificial contraception.”

Group of Bishops and Priests standing outside of St. Munchin's College, Limerick
Bishops and Priests at St. Munchin’s College, Limerick, 1963 – Photo Credit: St. Munchin’s College [Flickr]
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 are known for their 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 ten children.

Irish women in particular were ready to take control of their fertility and willing to challenge the criminalisation of importing birth control to the Republic. This prompted the 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 BBC interview with leader of the 1971 Contraceptive Train, Nell McCafferty, she says 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 gonna give control of our sexuality and fertility to men.’”

She also notes 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% 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.

While the pill and condoms were found to be the two most popular forms of modern contraception, there remains one woman in five (20%), “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.


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 subsidized 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 Drugs Payment Schemes, 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.”

Of Irish women, rates of abortion are highest among 20 to 24 year-olds, approximately 80% of whom are single. Arguably, accessible contraception and comprehensive information could reduce its occurrence. 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, 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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