Contraception champions

Once dominated by the Catholic Church and its bans, the Irish now lead the way in the use of birth control
Erica Alini
Contraception champions
Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland

When Pope Benedict XVI departed from previous Church doctrine two weeks ago by saying condoms are acceptable in certain cases, Catholic-dominated Ireland was so distracted by news it might need an economic bailout that it barely noticed. There was a time, though, when a Vatican softening on the contraception veto would have made the top headline in Irish newspapers. A time when, in Ireland, things like condoms, pills and diaphragms were not just taboo, but outright illegal, according to a 1935 law forbidding the import and sale of contraceptives. In the 1970s, Irish feminists would challenge their government’s anti-birth control policies by staging protests like massive condom-buying expeditions to Northern Ireland, where contraception devices were legal. But this was still an Ireland where taking on the Catholic Church was socially daring and politically suicidal.

But the Ireland of today has the world’s largest percentage of married women under 49 using contraception, according to the United Nation’s 2010 Human Development Index. The UN figure of 89 per cent of women using birth control includes those who resort to so-called natural contraceptive methods, with which the Church has no moral qualms, but Irish studies looking exclusively at artificial contraception show use among 18- to 24-year-old girls is well over 90 per cent. It’s a startling change of social attitudes, some 30 years after the government lifted the birth-control ban in 1979, and one that illustrates how much the Church’s influence has waned in a country that was once a stronghold of Catholicism in Europe.

Among the Irish clergy, there is a sense “the battle has been lost” on birth control, said Garry O’Sullivan, editor of the Irish Catholic newspaper. In a historic upset, contraceptives, it seems, have gone from being social taboos to no longer being a topic for Sunday sermons. “The bishops have stopped pushing the issue,” said O’Sullivan. “People have moved on.”

In part, the contraception statistics, say experts, are just another set of numbers illustrating the social makeover European Union membership and the “Celtic Tiger” years of the economic boom produced in a country that, in the early 1970s, was still a rather isolated place with a large, poor rural population. Things are “very, very different” now, said Eileen Hogan, 32, a native of Limerick in the country’s southwest. She recalls a couple with 21 children living down the road, and a classmate with 13 siblings in her primary school. Though those were exceptional cases, Irish women are now down to two kids on average, a 50 per cent drop from 1970, and one that goes hand in hand with labour force participation rates for married women spiking from 7.5 per cent in 1971 to 54 per cent in 2009, said Margret Fine-Davis, director of the Social Attitude and Policy Research Group at Trinity College Dublin.

But there are signs the Church may have contributed to its own marginalization on issues of sexual behaviour. When Pope Paul VI renewed the ban on contraceptives in 1968, overruling the advice of a pontifical commission that had recommended the Church reconsider its position, “it dashed the hopes of many in Ireland,” said Hogan. But the hardline stance may have backfired. Many Irish may have ditched the “rhythm method” of contraception prescribed by Pope Paul, and turned to artificial birth control precisely because it has “no Catholic brand attached to it—it doesn’t seem moralistic,” said David Quinn, a commentator on religious and social affairs in Ireland. It may be a lesson Pope Benedict is starting to take in.