Sunday 16 December 2018

Anniversary reawakens my contraception battle with Church

The Papal declaration that artificial birth control is inherently wrong affected the lives of the most vulnerable

"The disappointment was really acute when in July 1968 the ruling came out banning all artificial means of contraception". Stock Image

Mary O'Rourke

Last week saw the 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, the encyclical issued by Pope Paul VI which ended the hopes of Catholics throughout the world that there would be a softening of the Catholic Church's position on contraception.

The encyclical itself was a follow-up to the Commission which had been set up in 1963 by Pope John XXIII to investigate the whole area of contraception. It split, but a majority was in favour of freedom and that seeped out into everyone, not least in Ireland. The disappointment was really acute when in July 1968 the ruling came out banning all artificial means of contraception.

This should be all put in context. The mid to late 1960s had seen an opening up, a flowering, in Ireland of opinions and a hope that we were entering into an age of freedom, so to speak. In 1966, Donogh O'Malley, the Fianna Fail Minister for Education, had opened up wide vistas of education to post-primary school young boys and girls in Ireland by declaring that it would be free, and with that freedom had come, as I said, a flowering. Maynooth College had opened up to extern students and I was one such student who went back as an adult, aged 29, to do a H Dip in Education, following on my BA from UCD nine years earlier.

Young women my own age in Athlone and around the country, I knew from the participants in the HDip course, were looking forward to that freedom of expression which it was hoped would coincide with the general worldwide opening up of ideas, of student revolution, of participation fully in life. Alas it was not to be, and the encyclical in 1968 made that quite clear.

The 1970s in Ireland saw many changes in that field. In 1973, Mary McGee won her Supreme Court appeal, and that in turn led to an eventual change in the law. It seems that the Supreme Court's decision was that the anti-contraception law infringed Mrs McGee's constitutional right to marital privacy. It was in 1979 when Charlie Haughey was the Fianna Fail Minister for Health that he brought in the legislation which enacted the Supreme Court decision of 1973. In the interim of the 70s, the coalition Government of that period, under Liam Cosgrave, had defeated his own Government's bill on the matter.

Of course, much is made of the fact that Fianna Fail's bill of 1979 was, in fact, an Irish solution to an Irish problem, in that it envisaged contraception for married couples only. Be that as it may, it led to an opening up of the whole area, and gradually bit by bit the embargo was dismantled and it went from married couples into the contraceptive pill being a remedy for women's health, and so on, and as I say, eventually it was dismantled.

In the 1970s also, I became a full-time secondary school teacher in Athlone and also in the early 1970s became a Fianna Fail town councillor on the Athlone District Council.

So far, so good. In the mid-'70s one night, I answered a knock on my home door to find a woman I knew in great distress. She had fallen out violently with her husband over, to put it grandly, marital rights. She was aged 29 and she had six children, and she just couldn't face having another child, and understandably, it had led to huge rows in the home, from which she fled that night and landed on my doorstep.

I took her in, made a pot of tea and we talked it through fully. She went to sleep on my sitting room couch for the night and early next morning I left her to her home on my way to teach in Summerhill College in Athlone. Before she left me, I gave her a copy of the then radical, rather outre magazine called Hibernia, which carried a small ad informing people that if they sent a small amount of money they could get the contraceptive pill. A few weeks later, I was teaching away in one of my classes at school when a knock came at the door. One of my students answered and came in and said: "Miss, there's a priest outside and he wants to speak to you." (All students, whatever their age, called each teacher a 'Miss'; I don't know how this has arisen.) Anyway, I left the class with some work to do and went outside to find a particular priest who said to me, "Mrs O'Rourke, can we go somewhere and sit down and talk?"

Now this priest was on the board of management of the college, in which I was a teacher. I sought an empty classroom and he and I sat down. He then said to me, quite straightforwardly: "I understand you are propagating family planning matters and the use of the pill in [and he mentioned the area]." As his story went on, it emerged that the lady, whom I had helped when she came to visit, had sent around the Hibernia magazine to all her friends, and they in turn had given it to all their friends, so a whole network of contraception advice had built up.

It seems one do-gooder of a woman had gone running to the priest with the news and, he in turn, decided to come and confront me. I remember saying to him: "But what should that woman do?" - six children before she was 30 years of age and her whole life before her with no marital enjoyment in sight. He said to me "Marriage is for procreation," and I always remember his stern words. I, being feisty, said: "Yes, but it is also for joy in one another." He would not hear anything of my argument and was getting quite agitated in his responses.

However, it ended as follows: he stood up and said: "Mrs O'Rourke, I have advice for you. You should stick to your teaching and leave the clerical advice of your constituents to me." I couldn't miss the message, it was as clear as day. He was, after all, on the board of the college and I, after all, was employed by the college. We shook hands and parted and I went back into my classroom.

I remember that night relating the whole episode to my husband, Enda, and he said to me "Pay no heed to it, it will all pass over." And how right he was.

I often still see that woman here in Athlone. She had no more children after that and it appears her married life proceeded in a satisfactory fashion. The anniversary of Humanae Vitae has awakened all those memories in me. I remember them so vividly and so well.

Mary O'Rourke is a former Minister for Education and was a Fianna Fail TD for Longford-Westmeath

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