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'I'd rather see her using contraceptives than be throwing flowers on her grave'

May McGee’s fight to overturn Ireland’s ban on contraception is the subject of a documentary on RTÉ One this evening.

IRELAND’S BAN ON contraception was finally overturned in 1973 after 27-year-old May McGee won a landmark case in the Supreme Court.

McGee had given birth to four children, including twins, over a three-year-period before taking the case. Her pregnancies were difficult and her GP, Dr James Loughran, had warned her that another pregnancy could prove fatal.

May suffered from a form of thrombosis which made it unsafe for her to take the contraceptive pill so Dr Loughran fitted her with a diaphragm and gave her a prescription for spermicidal jelly. 

In a new documentary about the case, which will be broadcast on RTÉ One this evening, Dr Loughran speaks about McGee’s dismay when the spermicidal jelly she ordered from the UK was intercepted by Irish customs.

“The risk for her of another pregnancy was somewhere between 30 and 40% that she might die,” Dr Loughran explains.

“I fitted her with a diaphragm and she was very pleased with it. A month later she came back in a terrible state because her spermicide, which was essential for use with the diaphragm, had been confiscated by the customs authorities.”

It had been illegal to import, sell, distribute or advertise contraceptives since the 1930s so customs officials warned McGee about the possible consequences of breaking the law which included a substantial fine and potentially even jail time.

The McGees decided to test the constitutionality of the ban by taking a case to the High Court. The case was dismissed out of hand but the couple appealed to the Supreme Court.

The role May’s husband Séamus played in supporting his wife during the case is noted in the documentary.

Contributor Ruadhán Mac Cormaic, author of The Supreme Court, recounts a barrister asking Séamus if he was happy to see his wife using contraceptives to which he gave the hugely impactful response:

I’d rather see her using contraceptives than be throwing flowers on her grave.

The Supreme Court ruled in favour of the McGees by a margin of four to one. Despite this result politicians failed to legislate for contraceptives until 1979 and many of the restrictions remained in place for a further 15 years.

Scannal’s ‘The McGee Case’ will be broadcast tonight on RTÉ One at 7pm.

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Ceimin Burke

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