A huge leap forward in recognising that women had a right to protect themselves from repeated unwanted pregnancies was halted by the Catholic Church and Irish State in the 1920s.
That is according to UCC academic Sandra McAvoy, who told the Merriman Summer School yesterday concerns about the protection of married women’s lives had no traction with the Church or State.
In her paper, Women and fertility control in 20th century Ireland, Dr McAvoy said: “It is almost exactly a year since, Sir Nigel Rodley, chair of the UN Committee on the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, suggested that our prohibition on abortion meant that in this country a woman pregnant as a result of rape is treated as ‘a vessel and nothing more’.”
She commented: “That assessment also reflects the status of women denied access to fertility control in marriage. It is also why insisting on women’s right to control their own fertility has been a central tenet of the women’s movement”.
In her paper, Dr McAvoy recounted a contribution in 1921 by a former Master of Dublin’s Rotunda Hospital, Gibbon Fitzgibbon who, she said, accepted economic and social reasons to limit family size. She said that Fitzgibbon also rejected an idea that, by removing fear of pregnancy, birth control “prostituted the wife” and led to “undue indulgence” by husbands.
She said that “Fitzgibbon suggested that sexual desire was normal in a ‘healthy clean-minded woman’ but, clearly referring to cases in which women wished to control their fertility and husbands refused to co-operate, he asked: ‘Why not give the power to the wife? She probably cannot resist him otherwise.’”
She said this “was an important statement of acceptance of women’s right to control the number of children they would bear”.
Dr McAvoy said: “Though Fitzgibbon held advanced views on women and fertility control, the advance in practice in Ireland was sharply halted soon after independence — as indeed was the advance of the women’s movement.
“The 1922 constitution that guaranteed women and men equal citizenship, was replaced in 1937 by one that represented women as mothers whose duty lay in the home,” Dr McAvoy said.
She told the audience in Glór in Ennis yesterday that “six years after Fitzgibbon’s textbook was published, printed matter advocating birth control or abortion was banned under the 1929 Censorship of Publications Act”.
In 1935 a prohibition on the importing and sale of contraceptives was added to a Criminal Law (Amendment) Act that was primarily designed to amend the law on sexual crime and prostitution. Dr McAvoy said that “later moves to legislate for married couples’ access to contraception were bitterly opposed in the 1970s and attempts to widen access were opposed into the 1990s”.
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