This Day in History: February 20th- Irish Contraception
This Day In History: February 20, 1985
Amid a storm of controversy, the Irish government won initial approval for the sale of contraceptives on February 20, 1985. The bill, which narrowly passed by a vote of 83-80, was actively opposed by the Roman Catholic Church, a powerful conservative force in Ireland. The decision was described as the first defeat ever sustained by the Church from the Irish government on major social legislation.
The bill was an amendment to a current law that allowed contraception for “bona fide family planning purposes” – meaning for those with a valid prescription filled by a registered pharmacist. Many found this law too rigid, and a movement grew within Ireland to make birth control more readily available to a larger segment of the population.
The restrictions were eased on spermicides and condoms, or non-medical contraception, which became available to those over age 18 for the first time at family planning clinics, doctor’s offices and other healthcare facilities. Leading Catholic bishops claimed the new legislation would send Ireland spiraling down a “slippery slope of moral degradation,” leading to more illegitimate children and higher rates of venereal disease and abortion.
Supporters of the measure countered there was no indication in Northern Ireland, or anywhere else where contraception was readily available, that the dire consequences feared by the Church would actually transpire. It was also pointed out that birth control was freely, if illegally, available to those able to afford it, so it was partially an issue of fair treatment for people of all socio-economic groups.
Another troubling fact was that many women at this time were using hormonal contraception unnecessarily because it was the only option available to them. Noreen Byrne, who headed a Dublin women’s clinic, said, “There are a lot of women in this country who are using medical contraception – such as the pill – because non-medical contraception that would be better is not available. The church is forgetting what is happening in reality. The real issue is who rules the country.”’
The Catholic Church was quick to assure the Irish they did not want Ireland to be a theocracy, while at the same time some Church leaders put pressure on law-makers to oppose the amendment, as it violated Catholic doctrine. Politicians made every effort to down play the conflict between church and state. When it was all said and done, Desmond O’Malley, an independent member in the Dail, Ireland’s principal house of Parliament, commented, “This is a watershed in terms of where real legislative power is exercised.”
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