The train that crashed through the anti-condom law


With women’s control over their own fertility still denied in Ireland North and South, Ciaran Murray drags up a story from the not so distant past, where direct action, literally got the goods.

There is no doubt that with the waning of the power of the church in the South of Ireland there came a decrease in support for its influence on legislation and thus an increase in basic civil liberties as the population of the country boomed and Ireland moved into a new era. But, as Ireland began to find its feet in a changing world, some of the most basic human rights were still being denied to its citizens. Despite the fact that there is a long record of women's involvement in the turbulent history of this country, the ability of women to make decisions regarding their own bodies was still out of their control.

Issues like abortion and birth control were the focus of women’s campaigns throughout the Western world in the latter half of the 20th Century. Unsurprisingly though, the Irish campaign was held back by the restraining Catholic ethos of the country. Then, in 1968, a Papal Encyclical, entitled "Humanae Vitae" banned artificial contraception, and with it, the freedom of women to choose if and when they wanted children. It was a restriction of the basic rights of woman over her own body. Enough was enough.

In February 1969, the Irish Family Planning Association was formed and the first family planning clinic opened in this country. In 1970, the IFPA began to give talks on contraceptives to women’s groups. But “unnatural” contraception and the promotion of such remained illegal. Doing so could lead to prosecution under the 1935 Criminal Law (Amendment) Act.

In 1971 The Irish Women's Liberation Movement brought the issue to public attention when 47 women went by train to Belfast. On their return to Dublin they challenged the customs officers at Connolly train station to arrest them for illegal importation of contraceptives, a crime in the eyes of the government and one punishable by a prison sentence. The embarrassed customs officers allowed the women to pass. These women forced onto the largely unwilling and disapproving Irish public a frank discussion about women's sexual and political rights.

Contraceptives remained illegal in the Republic until 1978 when, after increased public discussion about women’s rights, and defiance of the law by student unions and family planning clinics who persisted in illegally selling condoms, the Health (Family Planning) Bill was finally published, allowing contraception by prescription. It was still illegal to buy condoms over the counter, and in one well publicised case, the IFPA was fined £500 for selling condoms in the Virgin Megastore in Dublin. It wouldn't be until 1993 that all the restrictions regarding the sale and supply of contraceptives were removed. Winning this battle shows that though the struggle is long, we have won battles in the past through direct action, and will continue to do so in the future.

Just as the fight to legalise contraception is part of the struggle for woman’s right to choose, that fight is also part of a wider struggle to re-define what sort of lives women are able to lead. The struggle for women's liberation is the struggle against capitalism and the state; as well as a struggle against sexist institutions and ideas. Women will not be free until they have complete control over their own bodies. In defending the right to choose, anarchists are defending the right of people to make choices about how they live their lives. And until society is free of the burden of capitalist exploitation and authoritarianism, personal freedom and the ability to make those choices will always be limited.

This article is from
Workers Solidarity 101, January - February 2008