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Tuesday 5 December 2023 Dublin: 4°C
divine argument

'A punishment from God's own hand' - the Irish got Biblical in their objections to 1985's contraception law

The 1985 Family Planning Act saw contraceptives made legal for over-18s without a prescription from selected outlets for the first time.

shutterstock_389153473 Shutterstock / onlyday Shutterstock / onlyday / onlyday

IN 1985, HEALTH Minister and Labour TD Barry Desmond oversaw a significant relaxation in Ireland’s anti-contraception laws.

The Family Planning Act of 1978 had acknowledged a married couple’s right to privacy and family planning and contraception had hence become available via appointment at a clinic, or with a prescription.

The 1985 bill meant that condoms and spermicides could now be bought by anyone aged 18 years or over at certain designated outlets.

Whether that signified progress or no, the letters addressed to Taoiseach Garrett FitzGerald, as released by the National Archives under the 30-year rule, were almost universally negative in tone.

And they didn’t hold back.

One expat wrote from New York city in May 1985 denouncing the “unbelievable actions” of FitzGerald’s government:

“You also referred to ‘the moral basis of our society being questioned’. I now ask, by whom? The forces of evil such as Planned Parenthood?”

1 National Archives file 2016 / 51/1432 National Archives file 2016 / 51/1432 / 51/1432

I look forward to hearing from you so that I may be able to say you didn’t fall for the wiles of Satan and his cohorts.

Another lady, based in Glasnevin, Dublin, wrote to the Taoiseach to tell him that the legislation he wished to introduce were contrary to ‘Divine and Natural Laws’:

“Dr FitzGerald, when you are initiating ‘reforms’ in the moral order and you wish the Catholic Church not to interfere, the reality is that you are challenging Christ Himself in regard to His Divine Law and Natural Law for the human beings He created on this earth.”

A number of people sent the Taoiseach pamphlets explaining why contraception was an ill Ireland could ill afford to introduce:

IMG_5321 National Archives file 2016 / 51/1432 National Archives file 2016 / 51/1432 / 51/1432

IMG_5316 National Archives file 2016 / 51/1432 National Archives file 2016 / 51/1432 / 51/1432

A letter accompanying one of the above booklets asked simply whether or not FitzGerald had “thought of the problems that freely available contraceptives will create for young people?”.

Most of the missives sent to the Taoiseach also brought up the Government’s (unsuccessful) attempt to introduce divorce via referendum in 1986.

Numerous petitions from around the country were likewise dispatched to Government Buildings, while Roscommon County Council passed a motion calling on the Dáil to reject any measures for liberalising contraception laws, and suggesting instead a referendum on the subject.

One Kildare native continued the Catholic doctrinal approach to the contraception law and suggested that divine retribution would be Ireland’s lot should the law come into effect:

2 National Archives file 2016 / 51/1432 National Archives file 2016 / 51/1432 / 51/1432


Divorce and contraceptives will bring more unemployment, unrest, etc, and ever more terrible, a punishment from God’s own hand.

Just the one dissenting letter exists on file regarding the law, from a Dublin couple, though it was delivered to Fine Gael TD (and impassioned pro-life and anti-divorce advocate) Alice Glenn rather than her Taoiseach.

In it, the couple argue that Ireland’s then laws were “farcical and unenforceable”, and expressed their bitter resentment that Glenn’s own views (which would have seen contraceptives unavailable to married couples) were putting themselves “outside the law”.

IMG_5331 National Archives file 2016 / 51/1432 National Archives file 2016 / 51/1432 / 51/1432

They (the couple’s seven children) must understand that, once a child is conceived they have only four choices:
  • “Forced marriage – probably disastrous
  • Abortion – reprehensible
  • Adoption – heartbreaking
  • Single parent – a lonely life-time”

In the end the Family Planning amendment made it successfully through Dail Éireann. It was replaced in 1992 by an updated version, which made contraceptives available to all citizens aged 17 years and greater, which remains the contraceptive law on the Irish statute books today.

Read: Cracking the Whip: Regina Doherty talks disloyalty, Trump, and why she and Mary Lou no longer speak

Read: Meet the Syrian refugee who travelled for 55 days to get from Aleppo to a new life in the UK

See National Archives file 2016/51/1432

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