Stigma may be gone but Irish women still face obstacles in accessing contraception

If Government does not owe women access to free contraception perhaps Catholic Church does

Availing of the contraceptive pill in this country will set you back anywhere between €150-€215 each year. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Ireland’s long-standing dysfunctional relationship with contraception may be aptly summarised by a story my mother told me when I was 18.

When she was about that age, she walked to the Well Woman Centre during her office lunch break to collect her first prescription for the contraceptive pill. How discreet – or so she believed.

Just as she stepped out of the centre’s doors on Leeson Street, feeling understandably pleased with herself, the 46A bus drove past.

Contraception for Irish women is expensive and places us at a significant disadvantage to our male counterparts

My grandmother, perched on the top of the double decker at that exact moment, looked down to witness what no mother in 1980s Catholic Ireland would ever want to see.


I’ll leave you to imagine the scene that unfolded when my mam returned home that evening, completely oblivious to the fact that she had been caught red-handed committing a mortal sin.

The moral of that tale, besides that all mothers really do have eyes on the backs of their heads, is that the Well Woman Centre was a saving grace for so many Irish women throughout many years of secrecy and shame.

Although the stigma around contraception in this country thankfully no longer exists today, many Irish women still face significant obstacles in accessing it.

As far back as 2010, the Irish Contraception and Crisis Pregnancy Study identified cost as an issue for a quarter of those who had experienced difficulty accessing contraception.

The Leeson Street flagship branch of the Well Woman Centre was forced to shut its doors in 1998 due to significant financial losses, its chief executive telling The Irish Times: “In years gone by no doctor wanted to touch the services we provided but that has changed.”

Ironically, this was the same year that saw the closure of the Bessborough mother and baby home, the last to close its doors in the State. The contraception services provided by the centre had, for years, probably saved many Irish women from ending up in this institution, yet in the end it shared the same fate.

Fast forward just over 20 years, and the cost of a single GP visit for a woman who does not own a medical card and wants access to prescribed contraception is €60-€65.

This is before any money has changed hands with a pharmacist for the combined pill, which costs between €5-€14 per pack.

As a check-up is required with your GP every six months, availing of the contraceptive pill in this country will set you back anywhere between €150-€215 each year.

The contraceptive implant costs €140 and consultation and insertion is €180. This will provide you with contraceptive protection for three years.

The copper coil is effective for five to 10 years and costs €230 for consultation and insertion and €25 for the device.

All in all, contraception for Irish women is expensive and places us at a significant disadvantage to our male counterparts, who are already benefitted by a gender pay gap of 25 per cent.

Therefore, the importance of then minister for health Simon Harris’ promise in 2019 of free contraception for all Irish women between the ages of 17-25 in 2021 cannot be overstated.

This was recommended by the Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution and was backed by the Coalition in the Seanad at the end of 2020.

We are the descendants of the generation of women before them, whose fate was to end up in a mother and baby home

Indeed, the argument can be made that a third of the population have a medical card and therefore do not have to pay for contraception.

However, the Report of the Working Group of Access to Contraception points out that the debate around cost is not black and white; it should not be simplified down to whether a woman can or cannot afford contraception.

The individual choices we make are influenced by cost. For example, the report suggests that women may delay renewing a prescription, or choose a form of contraception which suits her personal needs less, because of cost.

The UN sexual and reproductive health agency, UNFPA, states that every individual has the right to make their own choices about their sexual and reproductive health. It goes as far as to say that this is a human right.

If the choices Irish women make about when and what form of contraception they use are being dictated by their finances, isn’t this therefore a breach of their human rights?

Despite the huge fiscal setbacks of coronavirus, the Government must go further with its promise. Its end goal must be free contraception for all, not those in a narrow age bracket.

Although this would cost the State between €80-€100 million per annum, our overseas neighbours have demonstrated that a free contraception policy for all can be achieved.

Contraception is provided free at the point of access to all in the United Kingdom, under the NHS. All forms of contraception are covered including permanent sterilisation of both males and females.

I have heard the question raised (by a man) in response to the assertion that cost is a barrier to contraception for some Irish women: why should taxpayers fund contraception for those who can afford it?

Why do Irish women deserve free contraception? To me, the answer is simple.

We are the daughters, grand-daughters, nieces and cousins of the thousands of women, like my mother, who spent years feeling ashamed to walk into a clinic or GP to simply try to access contraception and family planning services.

We are the descendants of the generation of women before them, who did not have this choice and whose fate was to end up in a mother and baby home, because of the shame masterfully instilled by our Catholic Church.

If the Government does not owe Irish women access to free contraception, then perhaps it is the church that does.

Bláthnaid Corless is a journalist based in London