Rhythm and Blues – Natural Family Planning in Ireland, 1930s-1980s
Centre for the History of Medicine in Ireland Seminar Series, 6 February 2014
The typical historiography of contraception in Ireland focuses on well-known landmarks such as the 1935 Criminal Law Amendment Act, the Mary Robinson bills, and the contraceptive train. While these are no doubt important events, this paper takes a different and broader historical approach.
There are many different methods of ‘natural’ family planning with thirteen different varieties listed in The Furrow. However, they all have one feature in common, which is to identify the phases in a woman’s menstrual cycle when she’s likely to conceive. The Catholic Church and all advocates of ‘natural’ family planning are very careful to state that it is not contraception. While its study has largely been omitted by Irish historians it is an exceedingly important topic.
In 1974, market research revealed that fifty-five per cent of women using family planning in Ireland were using ‘natural’ methods. In 1985 a survey of the contraceptive history of mothers who had recently given birth in the Rotunda, Dublin, showed that thirty per cent had used natural family planning; a further thirty per cent, mostly first-time mothers, had not taken any steps to avoid contraception. Natural family planning is central to the story of Ireland’s fertility decline or lack thereof.
This paper attempts to build the first narrative of natural family planning in Ireland. Apart from establishing this narrative the underlying questions are, ‘Is Ireland different from other Catholic countries? What does natural family planning tell us about the Catholic church in twentieth-century Ireland? What does it tell us about Irish society?
In demographic terms, Ireland is different. It is a country of late marriages and a high level of permanent celibacy; but those who married had lots of children. In 1961 the Irish birth rate was almost double the British or Greek rates and two-and-half-times the Swedish. The Irish pattern is one of large families well into the second-half of the twentieth century. In 1967 twenty-three per cent of mothers giving birth in Holles street were giving birth to their fifth or greater child; by 1976 the figure is ten per cent. The decline happening then was at the level of very large families. Holles could claim in 1976 that the days of the grand multipara were over but the grand multpara account for one in ten of all babies born in the Rotunda in 1963. But it’s not until the 1980s that there was a significant fall in Ireland’s fertility rate and Ireland family size was still, in the 1990s, decidedly larger than the EU average. There is a story to be explained about Ireland’s fertility
While natural family planning has a much higher failure rate than the pill or modern barrier methods, the historical evidence shows that most of the long-term historical decline in fertility rates was achieved in the absence of modern reliable methods of birth control. The work of Simon Szreter and Kate Fisher in Britain highlights the importance of abstinence and withdrawal in reducing fertility. From the late nineteenth century until the 1960s, Fisher claims that despite the increasing use of barrier methods, for the period before the pill, withdrawal remained the most dominant method of birth control. According to John Marshall, a British neurologist who worked closely with the Catholic Marriage Advisory Council and the papal commission on contraception in the 1960s, out of one hundred couples using no form of fertility limitation roughly eighty will become pregnant within twelve months; using ‘natural’ methods of control that number falls to twenty-five. While this might be considered a high failure rate it would still have a very significant impact on the birth rate of a country. Thus, the use or non-use of natural family planning in Ireland is a very significant research question in terms of the national birth rate.
The 1930 Lambeth Conference of the Anglican Church, which approved the limited use of birth control, was a major watershed, as until that point all the major churches were united in their opposition to fertility limitation. In response, on New Year’s Eve 1930, the papal encyclical Casti Connubi was issued which urged the faithful to bear offspring for the church of Christ, to procreate saints and servants of God, and enjoining that the people adhering to the word of God, our saviour, should daily increase.