To mark International Women’s Day, women’s rights campaigners share their insights about contraception, why it is still seen as a ‘women’s issue’ and how there is a lot more progress to be made
Change comes dropping slowly and nowhere more slowly than in the area of contraception, according to leading women’s rights campaigners who say more needs to be done to make access to contraception easier.
It was 50 years ago this year, in 1973, that a Dublin mother of four, Mary McGee, risked putting her head above the very-public parapet, challenging the law that prohibited her from importing a diaphragm and spermicidal jelly into the State.
Her life was at risk were she to become pregnant again. Former President Mary Robinson was one of the barristers who represented her in a Supreme Court appeal. She won in a landmark case that expelled the State from the privacy of the marital bed.
Social scientist and author Pauline Conroy, who co-edited the book Road to Repeal: 50 years of Struggle in Ireland for Contraception and Abortion, believes contraception is still something of a taboo area and we need a new vocabulary fit for purpose in the modern world to talk about contraception in our schools and in our homes.
But to look forward, we also need to look back and Conroy points out that Mary McGee didn’t win her case on the right to contraception but on privacy, and the State never apologised for the suffering caused to women denied the means to control their own fertility. “That has never been treated as a wrong done to women and it would be a good start,” she says.
Academic and LGBTQ+ activist Ailbhe Smyth finds it hard to believe that we haven’t moved further forward in the intervening decades since the 1970s, when contraception was the linchpin of the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement’s demands for change.
Smyth points out that while the contraception services were made legal in 1979, it took until last year for a free contraception scheme for women aged 17 to 25 to come on stream.
Health Minister Stephen Donnelly expanded the scheme to include women aged 26 from January 1 this year. It will be further expanded to include 27 to 30-year-olds from September 1 this year. Eligible women are able to visit GPs and other medical facilities such as family planning clinics for consultations regarding the best contraceptive options from them. An estimated 250,000 women are in the age cohort covered by the current scheme.
While Smyth welcomes the advances, she says it’s much too narrow when you consider the reality of women’s lives. “We need a giant step forward. There should be free contraception for women from whenever they become sexually active, and it’s really important that it continue until a woman enters the menopause years. I can see the decision was taken for financial reasons but if we really cared about women’s health as well as freedom, it should be free for very large chunks of their lives,” she says.
Smyth is also adamant that any conversation about contraception must include education, and believes it must be central in the Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) programme in schools, which is currently under review.
“There’s no doubt that men have a responsibility here. It’s left to women to make the decisions because men do not carry the consequences of unprotected sex. Anything to do with reproduction is still seen as women’s business. We need allies and champions among men to say that contraception is everyone’s business,” she adds.
National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI) director Orla O’Connor points out that the introduction of free contraception was ground-breaking but we need to do better.
O’Connor says research points to access to GPs as one of the biggest blocks to contraception, and the NWCI wants to see pharmacists be able to prescribe contraception, as is the case in Canada.
The organisation says cost is still an issue. Not only is there a doctor’s fee for a consultation to get a prescription for those not eligible under the free scheme, there is a fee to get that prescription repeated. O’Connor says getting an appointment in urban areas is difficult, adding that traveller women find it difficult to get on to a GP list.
"Contraception shouldn’t be seen as some kind of special medical area. It should be widely available”
"Contraception shouldn’t be seen as some kind of special medical area. It should be widely available with protocols for people to be offered the full range by a pharmacist. This is now recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO),” she says.
“We’ve also let young people down in terms of having such poor sex education. The options around contraception need to be outlined at an early point at second level. We know the free contraception scheme starts at 16 but we also know that sex is happening at younger ages,” O’Connor adds.
Dr Laura Kelly, whose new book Contraception and Modern Ireland: a social history, c1922-92 has just been published, says there are still remaining challenges with access. “A 2019 report by the Working Group on Access to Contraception showed that in some parts of the country, individuals still have issues accessing contraception, while cost can also have an influence on individuals’ choice of method,” she says.
“Notably, the report stated that embarrassment and stigma around contraception are still present, with research highlighting ‘how young women have reported being afraid to reveal they are sexually active; embarrassed to be seen at a family planning clinic; or worried about confidentiality breaches. Embarrassment has also been reported in relation to talking to GPs, pharmacists and clinic staff about contraception and with regard to purchasing condoms, as well as asking partners to wear them and use them’.”
“This shows the legacy of the legal and religious bans on contraception from earlier in the 20th century on attitudes to birth control and sexual health, and suggests that we still have some way to go,” explains Dr Kelly, a senior lecturer in the History of Health and Medicine at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow.
“In my view, while the Government has introduced steps in the right direction, contraception should be available to women, men, transgender and non-binary people of all ages. There should not be such arbitrary restrictions around age and gender. Younger teenagers and individuals over the age of 26 also have sex and should have access if needed,” she adds.