Mary Kenny: A bitter Pill… It is surely time that the Vatican revised its stance on contraception
Many applauded Mary McAleese when she spoke out recently against the Vatican's ban on women priests. Yet Mary might have served more women more effectively if she had tackled the Vatican's continued ban on "artificial" contraception.
Only a minority of women yearn to become ordained priests. But virtually all young women are affected by the question of controlling and managing their fertility, and it is surely time that the Vatican revisited - and revised - its 1968 ruling on this issue.
It's evident that large numbers of Catholics not only ignore the doctrine that contraception is against the natural law: they also believe that practising reliable family planning is a responsible practice, as do many individual priests. Some Vaticanologists have discerned that Pope Francis, by such remarks as, "You don't have to breed like rabbits", and his apparent reluctance to re-iterate the protocols of Humanae Vitae, is inclined to agree.
It is evident that contraception has played a key role in reducing maternal deaths and managing obstetric health over the past 50 years. I cannot view most abortion practice as health care: nobody says, "Oh, I must look after my health by making sure I get an abortion".
A study by Elard Koch in the British Medical Journal concluded that easy access to abortion does not reduce maternal morbidity and mortality, and restrictive laws do not harm women's health. Ireland is an example of this - with a high standard of maternal health and low rates of maternal death. (Ireland also has a lower rate of infant mortality than Britain.)
But contraception is surely part of health care. If contraception wasn't available, Irish mothers might still be giving birth to 17 or 18 children, as they were in the 1940s, sometimes in a very poor state of health themselves.
Even when the British National Health Service was first introduced in 1948, family planning was excluded from free medical care. Birth control was still not entirely respectable (doctors were snooty about being associated with something they regarded as belonging to the back streets of Soho), and William Beveridge, instigator of the NHS, was keener on encouraging births than restricting them.
Free GP care soon revealed that a shocking number of women suffered from prolapse of the womb, occasioned by too many pregnancies too close together, and a lack of knowledge or means to space their children. Ten years later, in 1958, family planning clinics were accepted as part of maternal health care, and when the Pill came on the market in the 1960s, doctors' prescriptions were involved anyway. Contraception became an accepted part of caring for women's health.
Most benefits also have costs. The automobile brings personal freedom, but causes death on the road. Fine food is a pleasure, but obesity and diabetes afflicts societies with an abundance of food. The legalisation and availability of birth control - especially the contraceptive Pill - has greatly improved women's health and given women a measure of empowerment over their own fertility, although we never have complete power of command over nature.
But there is a cost: as Margaret Atwood said, the availability of the Pill broke down codes of manners that had previously prevailed. Men came to expect that young women were "on the Pill" - and sexually available. Clive James put it succinctly - "I'm in favour of the Pill because it puts more crumpet on the market".
Those who opposed birth control from the start - not all opponents were religious - said it would promulgate an attitude of "sex without consequences", which can be destructive of relationships, and make men less likely to commit to monogamy.
Those who advocate Natural Family Planning (based on measuring a woman's fertility cycle) say that, by contrast, this method brings couples together in a co- operative and respectful way and also allows a couple to consider when to maximise the chance of conception. This is life-affirming and positive, but it doesn't work for everyone. (Interestingly, though, the British government is talking about introducing "fertility awareness" as part of sex education in schools.)
Minister Simon Harris has said that, if the Eighth Amendment is removed from the Constitution, the Government here will consider providing free contraception. This, he hopes, will help to reduce crisis pregnancies. But why not provide free contraception anyway regardless of the referendum's outcome? Or maybe nearly free.
I remember interviewing a Dutch family planning provider who claimed that contraception was more likely to be used responsibly if couples paid a small sum for its provision. When people "own" something by paying towards it, they were more committed to it.
These be deep psychological waters. But the principle that contraception is part of health care is a demonstrable fact. Health and healing are a primary focus in the Christian gospels. Next time Mary McAleese is giving the Pope a piece of her mind, perhaps she might make this point.