The Republic of Ireland's relationship with contraception is a complicated one.
Only fully legalised in 1993, reproduction interference has historically been a point of discord in what is known as a ‘Catholic country’, famous for large families, sets of 'twins' born less than a year apart, and women dying in childbirth.
As Church and State were at one time nearly inextricable, relevant laws and policies in Ireland have typically been guided by Catholicism's motives of enforcing sexual morality within the government's remit.
For instance, the papal response to the initial ‘condom boom’ in the early 1900s was to condemn those who intentionally prevented conception. This concept can, according to a quick Google search, 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 exclusively condoms – was successfully criminalised within State lines.
Some 17 years later, 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, leaving God-fearing Christians no other option but to adopt either the withdrawal or rhythm methods, known piously to all as the 'pull-out-and-pray' technique due to its considered inefficacy.
Abstinence was also heavily encouraged by the Church, with Irish doctors advising husband and wife to adopt celibacy and “live as brother and sister”.
Though the sale of contraceptives is now legal in Ireland, accessibility still creates unnecessary barriers.
Unlike in some EU countries where birth control is subsidised 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.
Free contraception was originally proposed by the Oireachtas committee on the Eighth Amendment, and the Government pledged to provide it as part of measures to reduce crisis pregnancies.
The Department of Health has recently announced a working group to examine removing the cost barrier to accessing contraception. Minister for Health Simon Harris said he was aiming to provide it free this year.
For now, with abortion services in place since the beginning of 2019, women still have to pay to prevent the need for one.
The National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI) will this week call on the Government to commit to delivering free contraception in Budget 2020, as well as ensuring proper funding for the National Maternity Strategy. At the launch of their Pre-Budget Submission “Equality Now – Invest in Women”, on Wednesday, July 3 in Leinster House, NWCI will also call for the establishment of a statutory maintenance agency, as well as investment to solve the childcare crisis and the housing and homelessness emergency.
The NWCI, along with the help of Minister Harris, would aim to establish a patient-focused working group on the subject of contraception, guided by the principle of autonomy.
An addition such as this to the national Budget would signify the seismic shift Ireland has undergone in the most recent decade both emotionally and culturally.
For those looking to do something about the issue, you can write to the Minister for Health and your local TDs and ask them to make free contraception a priority issue. Ask the Minister to explain why new legislation is needed to move forward with free contraception.
The previous generation made it legal. Now the onus is on this generation’s Government to make it free.