Start of the long fight for women’s autonomy

More than 40 years on, Dr Mary Randles is hearing the same arguments being put forward ahead of the Friday’s referendum to repeal the Eighth as she did when she was pushing to provide women with contraception.

The now retired GP set up the first family planning clinic outside of Dublin in 1975 amid much opposition from those in her own profession and whisperings within her community.

And just as the rollout of contraceptives took a number of audacious GPs to rise above criticisms, if the people of Ireland do decide to repeal the Eighth Amendment, the provision of abortion services will require doctors to take a lead.

Having moved from her native Dublin in the late 1960s to the then rural town of Navan, Co Meath, Dr Randles was shocked by the number of women who seemed to be “permanently child-bearing” and were under the rule of the Catholic Church.

Despite a backlash from her fellow doctors, mutterings of disapproval from locals, and one letter written to a national newspaper opposing her move to prescribe the pill, opening the family planning clinic was a “no-brainer” for the young GP.

At that stage — we are talking about the ’60s — women were having 12, 14, 16, and 18 children. In fact, I think there was a woman in Trim who had 21. 

That to me was a new scene. I was brought up in suburban Dublin and actually we were the biggest family around us in Dublin and that was four.

“So I had never seen it and had never been exposed to it before and it just so happened that that was the time that the pill came into the scene.

“It was a no-brainer, I really don’t see anything praiseworthy about introducing contraception to women who were having 14 and 16 and 18 children.

“It just happened to be coincidental that I was starting out in practice and the pill was coming in.

“I genuinely don’t see it, and never saw it, as a big deal,” says Dr Randles.

A few years before, Dr Jim Loughran, who was a friend of her late husband Paddy, was central in opening the first family planning clinic in Ireland on Dublin’s Mountjoy Square.

“There was fierce opposition. He wasn’t able to rent property or anything once he mentioned what the rooms were for,” she recalls.

“So that’s where I kind of picked up the family planning thing — Jim was doing it and he was encouraging me.”

Her husband, also a doctor, had already caused significant ripples in the community through his campaigning to end corporal punishment in a time when the Catholic Church still had a strong grip on society.

Despite this, and knowing the strong opposition that had come with the opening of a clinic in Dublin, Dr Randles pressed ahead with providing a standalone family planning centre in Navan.

“There was a very small report in the Irish Times on the day of opening of Navan FPC. It just gave the fact of opening and days and times of operation. It had been initiated by a reporter, not by me.

“Shortly afterwards, I got a somewhat stiff letter from the Medical Council saying I had been reported to them for the fact of advertising which is of course verboten for doctors. I was upset as in that climate it was the last thing I wanted to do.

“It was my intention then and always to sneak in under the radar. I explained that to the council and never heard from them again. The interesting point is that I subsequently learned that the complaint had been made by a colleague.” 

As the only doctor in the surrounding counties providing contraception in rural Ireland, Dr Randles says she was disapproved of by some members of the public but especially by her own colleagues, many of whom were “great colleagues and great friends”.

“This is awful but somebody did say to me very recently that I came along and started ‘plugging the women in Navan’. Now I found that so distasteful that that’s what people were saying about me. It hit a chord in me, what a mentality that was.

“I would know from the women who were coming to me, they would be coming to me from Trim, Kells, further afield, Mullingar, Kildare, Dundalk, they would have been telling me about not being able to get the pill.

“I was so busy when I look back, I had people coming from as far as Longford.” 

Dr Randles wanted to provide contraception to women but also wanted women to make that decision for themselves. 

“It was going on behind the scenes, women were coming in once I started, women were creeping in and they used to want me to say to them that they needed contraception for their health’s sake.

“Now I was young, I wasn’t really brash but I was black and white and I was having none of that because I felt — and I used to say this to them — that they wanted authorisation that they needed it for their health’s sake so that they could go down to the priest in confession and tell him that ‘the doctor said that I need contraception’.

“I was having none of that and I used to say ‘no, that’s not the reason, if you wish to have contraception, I am here to provide it for you, but it’s not for your health’.

“Although in some circumstance it was for their health, I suppose — it wouldn’t be healthy to be having 16 children.” Dr Randles wanted the women themselves to decide they wanted contraception, but she now thinks back that this may have been a step too far for some of her patients.

“I do sometimes think about that and maybe feel I may have failed some women who didn’t have enough spirit to decide for themselves, they needed it OKed,” she says.

If the referendum does pass, it will be up to a new generation of doctors to take a lead and Dr Randles doesn’t want to “pontificate”.

“But I do see the controversy about it as pretty similar to what contraception was at the time. It is the same attitude, it’s breaking new ground.

“I remember when the divorce referendum was going through, the way people were going on, you would think everybody was going to want a divorce and we had all these warnings about the floodgates opening and it would be chaos, and it wasn’t.

“Contraception was the same, people were saying if you start that, you never know where you are going to end up. I think it’s a bit like that now with abortion. In a sense it’s the same terminology being used now, like opening the floodgates.”

Just as prescribing the pill provided a “toe in the door”, Dr Randles says the upcoming referendum will provide another opportunity for change.

“I fully respect everyone’s opinion on abortion, but certainly from a medical point of view, we are having to go through the same sort of stage of moving the thing along.

“It’s another toe in the door; we had contraception, we had divorce, we had marriage equality, and now we have abortion and people are frightened, of change,” she says.

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