The contraceptive pill in Ireland c.1964-79: activism, women and patient-doctor relationships

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The twentieth-century history of men and women’s attempts to gain access to reproductive health services in the Republic of Ireland has been significantly shaped by Ireland’s social and religious context. Although contraception was illegal in Ireland from 1935 to 1979, declining birth rates in this period suggest that many Irish men and women were practising fertility control measures. From the mid-1960s, the contraceptive pill was marketed in Ireland as a ‘cycle regulator’. In order to obtain a prescription for the pill, Irish women would therefore complain to their doctors that they had heavy periods or irregular cycles. However, doing so could mean going against one’s faith, and also depended on finding a sympathetic doctor. The contraceptive pill was heavily prescribed in Ireland during the 1960s and 1970s as it was the only contraceptive available legally, albeit prescribed through ‘coded language’; in 1974, it was estimated that approximately 38,000 Irish women were taking the pill each month. The pill was critiqued by men and women on both sides of the debate over the legalisation of contraception. Anti-contraception activists argued that the contraceptive pill was an abortifacient, while both anti-contraception activists and feminist campaigners alike drew attention to its perceived health risks. As well as outlining these discussions, the paper also illustrates the importance of medical authority in the era prior to legalisation, and the significance of doctors’ voices in relation to debates around the contraceptive pill, However, in spite of medical authority, it is clear that Irish women exercised significant agency in gaining access to the pill.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)195-218
Number of pages24
JournalMedical History
Issue number2
Early online date17 Mar 2020
Publication statusPublished - 30 Apr 2020


  • contraception
  • birth control
  • Ireland
  • contraceptive pill
  • Catholicism

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    Laura Kelly

    Person: Academic


    Contraception and Modern Ireland, c.1922-92

    Kelly, L.

    Wellcome Trust


    Project: Research Fellowship

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