NL 2007/12

Women’s Rights in Ireland: A Blot in the Map

Pioneer of Family Planing has died

In Ireland abortion is still illegal. There are absolutely no exceptions, even where a youngster becomes pregnant as a result of rape or the fetus has severe malformations. Ireland is joined by Poland and Malta, as well as Vatican and San Marino, which still prevent women from making decisions involving their own bodies or urge them to secretly travel abroad for this purpose. Portugal has only very recently permitted abortion. All the other Western European countries legalized it between 1970 and 1980.

One indefatigable voice for the liberalization of contraceptives and abortion in Ireland has fallen silent: the Irish gynaecologist Dr. Michael Joseph Maurice Solomons (1919 – 2007) has recently died.

As a young doctor in Dublin, he saw many so called „grand multiparas“, women with seven or more pregnancies. Continuous child-bearing often had appalling consequences for women's health. He saw a 26-year-old woman on her sixth pregnancy go blind, only to return pregnant again the following year. This is because the laws of church and State prevented women taking any effective steps to prevent pregnancy. "For them," wrote Dr Solomons, "pregnancy was to be a death sentence". In three years in the late 1940s, 23 women and 800 babies died in one single hospital.

In spite of the legal ban, Michael Solomons began advising patients on contraception. With other activists, he started Ireland’s first family planning clinic in 1968. While there were no family planning clinics in the Republic until February 1969 there were finally fourteen of them by 1992.

Contraceptives had to be smuggled in
One of Dr. Solon’s collegues was Máire Mullarney a mother of eleven who experienced a conversion to family planning while visiting a clinic in Portugal. The group set up the Fertility Guidance Company Ltd. although the company could neither advertise nor sell contraceptives. Friends and relations of the clinic staff smuggled condoms, spermicides and diaphragms into the country – with Dr Solomons's mother and mother-in-law, both in their late 70s, playing their part.
In the late 1950’s, a comprehensive guide to childbirth couldn’t be sold in Ireland because a section of the book dealt with family planning and such printed material was banned in Ireland. In 1963, Dr. Solomon published a book on sex education for Irish readers. It was well received since it contained no reference to contraception and went into paperback. The sale of contraceptives was finally legalised in 1980 although subject to restrictions.
In 1983, it came to a public exchange of blows between supporters and opponents of the legalization of abortion, although the ban on abortion remained in effect. When asked what he thought inspired the amendment, Solomons said: "With the ability to control their fertility, women came out of the house and many men didn't like losing their authority."

Human right heavily cut off
Extremists urged controlling a woman’s right to travel abroad where they could possibly obtain an abortion. In 1992, when a fourteen-year old girl became pregnant after being raped by her best friend’s father, they started their campaign. The girl’s parents had arranged for an abortion in England. Before leaving the country they called the police to find out whether bringing some fetal tissue would help them for a DNA-analysis in order to identify the rapist. Immediately, the police interdicted the girl’s departure. A giant movement evolved in response to this decision. At the very last moment, the desperate girl obtained the High Court’s permission to leave the country.
In spite of this decision, a public opinion poll was taken on the question whether women of childbearing age should be allowed to leave the country whenever they wanted or whether there should be restrictions on their departure. Fortunately, the majority objected to this unbelievable constriction of human rights.

Come and learn about pioneers of family planning in Vienna’s Museum of Contraception and Abortion.
Wednesday through Sunday 14 -18 h. Mariahilfer Guertel 37, A-1150 Wien (Austria)