Anniversary of family planning case brings a sense of déjà vu

How a quiet mother of four took on the State in the Supreme Court and won

The generation that takes Durex in the local Spar for granted may not know that 2013 is the 40th anniversary of a legal case that won them the right to use contraception. In 1973, 27-year-old Mary McGee challenged Ireland’s ban on family planning.

A mother of four children, she had complications in her previous pregnancy and was told that having another child would put her life in danger. On medical advice, she ordered spermicidal jelly from England (a criminal offence at the time) but it never arrived because of the amazing vigilance of Irish Customs who seized her package.

“I got a letter to say that because of the prohibition, my package wasn’t allowed in. I couldn’t believe it,” says McGee, sitting in her kitchen at home in Skerries recounting the story. “I just thought ‘no way, I have to do something about this’, not realising the enormity of what I was taking on. I think we were all ready for change though. People wanted children but they also wanted a life.” She took her case to the Supreme Court and won.

It was exactly what activists had been waiting for; a woman with a strong legal case who was willing to ask for access to contraception in the courts of a very Catholic country. Attitudes were so conservative at the time that her husband James remembers being cross-examined in the witness box by a barrister who asked whether the McGees “would not consider living as brother and sister”. Described by her husband as a person “who likes to stay in the background”, Mary McGee nonetheless demolished the ban on contraception and then carried on with her life.


After the McGee case, reform was inevitable, but in that uniquely Irish way of handling matters relating to sex, the country descended into a cauldron of nasty debate. Politicians were threatened, people on opposite sides of the debate spat on each other, priests thundered about the moral threat on the horizon.

It would take six years before politicians legislated for access to contraception under strict circumstances. In 1979, the then Minister for Health, Charlie Haughey, produced the Family Planning Bill, his masterpiece of doublethink that permitted married couples to access contraception with a prescription, while allowing doctors and pharmacists with moral objections to refuse to handle the offending materials. This, he famously called, "an Irish solution to an Irish problem". Presenting the bill to the Dáil he said, "There is very little support for a situation in which all forms of artificial contraceptives could be . . . freely available. This legislation opens no floodgates."

The “floodgates” eventually opened in 1994 when all restrictions on contraception were lifted, 21 years after the McGee case.

Today, the fear it generated seems strange.

Take one man who wrote to the then taoiseach, Jack Lynch, to warn of "the total waste of male seed" that would result from any loosening of the ban. Lynch also had the religious orders to contend with. The Loreto sisters told him that "all the nuns in the country would vote against Fianna Fáil in the next election" if it legislated in line with the McGee case.

But the reality of living without contraception was stark, both for women who were constantly pregnant and birthing, and for men who shouldered the burden of supporting large families. Dr Michael Solomons, who worked at the Rotunda Hospital, remembered a colleague who attended a birth where the baby emerged with a Guinness bottle cap on its head – its mother's futile attempt to prevent conception.

Writing in The Irish Times in 1973, a Catholic mother of six named Helen Costello described feeling torn between church teaching and the desperate desire to avoid another pregnancy. "You have a two month old on one side of the bed, a 16 month old on the other and a 2 1/2 year old in another room. Beside you is a husband that you love and who loves you, and who has been using his "self-control" for at least four months. So you take a chance and spend the next few weeks . . . worrying whether or not you are pregnant again. This – if you are a practising Catholic – is, or was, married life."

The McGee case was “the crack that let the light in”, according to journalist Nell McCafferty who was among a group of talented, outspoken women who challenged Church and State on contraception in the 1970s.

Her activism saw her denounced by the clergy, not that she was remotely intimidated. “It was an honor to be read from the altar. The Church said we were tearing apart the fabric of society, but women sang because we put an end to the nightmare of unremitting pregnancy.”

Mary Maher, who was also working as a journalist at the time, says that the contraception debate dominated the pages of Irish newspapers. "It became a huge issue, people were talking about it and we were writing about it all the time. I think the Second Vatican Council was a breaking point, there was an expectation that the church was going to change its position [on contraception] and when it didn't, people thought 'ah to hell with this'."

Diarmaid Ferriter, Professor of Modern Irish History at UCD, says that the issue of contraception simply became uncontainable.

"The McGee case blew the lid off and you were also dealing with the beginnings of a la carte Catholicism. It is interesting even looking at someone like agony aunt Angela McNamara who talks about her post bag getting fuller and fuller after Humanae Vitae because people are wondering can they continue to be practising Catholics and make their own decisions about contraception."

The climate for people calling for change was difficult. Their demands were met with the “floodgates” argument, that any loosening of the ban on contraception would eventually lead to everyone having access. They turned out to be absolutely right, but the majority of Irish people no longer see why that is such a bad thing.

“It is the same argument used now in relation to abortion, that this could be just the beginning of something much bigger that will ensure Ireland would not have a claim anymore to be a sea of moral purity in a world gone mad,” says Ferriter. “But the more you research sexuality, the more you realise that Ireland never had a particular claim to moral purity.”

The parallels between the 1970s contraception issue and the recent debate in the Dáil over the Government’s plans to legislate for X are striking. Two Supreme Court rulings, a legislative vacuum of many years, politicians loath to legislate and difficult public debates about the extent to which Irish women should be allowed to control their fertility.

Patrick McCrystal, executive director of Human Life International which is the only pro-life group in Ireland that explicitly opposes contraception, says that the campaign to legalise contraception is directly linked to plans to legislate for X.

“We see contraception as the root of the abortion culture,” says McCrystal.

“What happened in Ireland in the 1970s and 80s wasn’t the gullible Irish waking up to the realities of the modern world. It was part of a co-ordinated, global effort to bring contraception and abortion to every country in the world. Once a country is saturated in contraception, abortion is just a matter of time.”

Mary McGee has also followed what she calls, “The politicians messing about in the Dáil again about the abortion issue . . . we are supposed to be more advanced, more civilised and yet we are back to square one each time a case like Savita happens.”

She is pleased to have won her case 40 years ago and to see that couples are now able to plan their families but says that she should never have had to take the issue to the Supreme Court in the first place.

“We should have been treated with more respect. Things are better now but this country has been slow to give women rights.”