Monday, September 19, 2022

the last book I ever read (We Don't Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland, excerpt thirteen)

from We Don't Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland by Fintan O'Toole:

By 1979 there was no evidence that public opinion had become much more liberal. In a 1977 poll for Magill magazine, 43 per cent supported access to contraceptives for marrieds only, and fully a third continued to oppose any legalization at all. But, crucially, in March 1978, the Catholic hierarchy had signalled its tolerance for a conservative compromise. It acknowledged that ‘the present legal situation is unsatisfactory’ and that ‘minimum amending legislation was required’. In discussions with Haughey, the bishops made it clear that they would not go to war provided the legislation expressed support for the ‘natural’ methods of contraception sanctioned by the church, that there be no public family planning service, that intrauterine devices would not be available and that both the advertising of contraceptives and the availability of sterilization would be strictly controlled.

Haughey complied with all of these conditions. The bishops also wanted a specific restriction of contraceptives to married couples, but this presented the same legal difficulties as Costello’s proposals in 1974. The formula Haughey used instead was ‘bona fide’ couples, pursuing ‘bona fide family planning purposes’. They would be allowed to purchase condoms, but only if a doctor, satisfied as to their bona fides, issued a prescription. Ireland became the first and only country in the world to make a condom a medicine. As the Irish Medical Association dryly noted, ‘the prescription or authorization of condoms is not a medical function’. Nonetheless, the legislation passed in July 1979 and came into effect in November 1980.

This might be seen as a victory, albeit a very small one, for liberalism. It seemed to me to be precisely the opposite. It was a great victory for the status quo, not in spite of its absurdity, but because of it. Nothing in it was going to change the ambition of me or my friends or of most young people in Ireland, which was to have as much sex as possible without getting either pregnant or married. But that was not really the point. The point was that this was, as Haughey called it, ‘an Irish solution to an Irish problem’, adding: ‘I have not regarded it as necessary that we should conform to the position obtaining in any other country.’

This begged the question: what was the Irish problem? It was not sex or pregnancy, which were known to be issues of some relevance to foreigners, too. It was the maintenance of an acceptable gap between what we knew and what we acknowledged. Everybody knew that fornication would continue to be recreational as well as procreational. The problem was how to legislate for this activity without being seen to give any form of official recognition to its inevitability.

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