Today in Women’s History: Ireland Legalizes Birth Control (1985)

On February 20, 1985, the Republic of Ireland legalized the sale of non-medical contraceptives. Whether in the form of pills, condoms, or spermicides, it is difficult to argue against the positive impact of birth control on women’s history. A woman’s ability to decide whether she wanted to have a baby allowed her the freedom to decide to prioritize other aspects of her life. For some, that meant joining (or rejoining) the workforce. For others, it meant they could simply choose not to bear children.

1985 seems very late for a nation to legalize contraception, but we should remember other nations also had checkered relationships with the topic and continue to struggle with the idea that a woman should have the last word on her body. American nurse and women’s rights activist Margaret Sanger was imprisoned several times for trying to educate early twentieth-century women on their reproductive health and options. In what is surely the irony to end all ironies, Sanger was arrested on the grounds of spreading pornography. Her attempts to mail copies of her newsletters and journals ran afoul of the 1873 Comstock Act which outlawed the circulation of “obscene and immoral materials.”[1]

To Sanger, the true obscenity was forcing women into an occupation in which they were unprepared or uninterested. Personal experience seemed to be her guide: she both witnessed her mother’s early death from multiple pregnancies and miscarriages and nursed many women who suffered the consequences of back-alley abortions and other do-it-yourself methods intended to end unwanted pregnancies. “No woman can call herself free who does not own and control her body,” wrote Sanger in a 1919 article for Birth Control Review. “No woman can call herself free until she can choose consciously whether she will or will not be a mother.”[2] Believing reproductive education and accessible, reliable, and effective contraceptive methods would enable women to make informed decisions about their own health, Sanger worked tirelessly for women’s civil rights until her death in 1966.

[1] See for a more in-depth discussion of the Comstock Act.

[2] Margaret Sanger, “A Parents’ Problem or Woman’s?,” in Birth Control Review, March 1919, 6-7.


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