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Campaigns against contraception in 1970s and 1980s Ireland

The contraception debate in 1970s Ireland was an extremely polarising one. The Catholic hierarchy continued to emphasise the Church’s line on contraception in the wake of continuing debates. However, from the 1970s, bishops had encouraged individuals to follow their conscience concerning matters of personal or sexual morality. This meant that active campaigning on issues such as contraception, divorce and abortion began to instead be taken up by several lay conservative groups. From the early 1970s, several groups were formed which actively campaigned against the legalisation of contraception including the Nazareth Family Movement, Mná na hÉireann, and most significantly, the Irish Family League. Yet, to date, there has been limited research on such groups and their activities.  

Activists’ rhetoric drew on a complex web of arguments which incorporated scientific evidence (such as in relation to the health risks of the pill) and sociological and statistical evidence in relation to the impact of ‘the permissive society’ in other contexts, to support their points. The paper also shows how international networks, particularly links with the United States, helped activists to develop their campaigns but also provided ideas which helped to set the foundation for the anti-abortion campaign in Ireland in the 1980s. Through the use of oral histories, archival material, newspapers and the publications of conservative groups, this paper reveals campaigners’ concerns about the modernisation of the country. The paper more broadly highlights the value of exploring the history of conservative groups, such as anti-contraception campaigners, which to date, have received little historical attention. 


Dr Laura Kelly, Senior Lecturer in the History of Health and Medicine at the University of Strathclyde.  

Laura is the Co-Director of the Centre for the Social History of Health and Healthcare and a member of the Scottish Oral History Centre. The focus of Laura’s current research is 'Contraception and Modern Ireland, c.1922-92' which is funded by a Wellcome Trust research fellowship (2016-2021). A monograph based on this research is under contract with Cambridge University Press. She is also interested in the history of activism, particularly around reproductive and sexual health issues. Laura holds a Carnegie Trust Research Incentive Grant for a project on Pro-life and Pro-Choice Activism in the Republic of Ireland in the 1980s and 1990s

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