‘Too Many Children’? Family Planning and Humanae Vitae in Dublin, c. 1960- 1972 by Deirdre Foley

On 7 October 1960 Mrs Bridget Maguire, a street trader from Cabra, a working-class suburb of Dublin, gave birth to her twentieth child in the Rotunda maternity hospital. The birth of baby Thomas was reported in many newspapers not due to his myriad siblings, but because at the age of fifty-one, his mother was the oldest woman to give birth in the Rotunda since records began.[1]The phenomenon of high parity, or frequent pregnancy, was familiar to Irish obstetricians. The problem was so common for decades in Dublin that the term ‘dangerous multipara’ was coined by Dr Bethel Solomons, Master of the Rotunda from 1926-1933.[2]

Under section 17 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1935, the import, sale and advertisement of artificial contraception was banned in Ireland. Additionally, the production, sale, and distribution of any publication advocating contraception was outlawed under section 16 of the Censorship of Publications Act, 1929. Consequently, many Irish people were without the necessary knowledge with which to plan their families. However, as the 1960s progressed, Ireland’s long-established demographic pattern of large families and late marriage began to break down slowly. While a rise in the number of marriages and births occurred from about 1963, the average family size nonetheless began to decrease for the first time, as did the age at which couples tended to marry.

The contraceptive pill arrived in Ireland in 1962, and evaded a ban by means of classification and prescription as a ‘cycle regulator’; at least 15,000 Irish women were taking it by 1966.[3]A survey of Irish obstetricians in the same year revealed that 75% were prescribing the pill ‘for social reasons’, rather than for the purpose of regulating a woman’s cycle. 1967 was the biggest year of growth for the pill in Ireland; sales increased by about 50%.[4]In July 1968, the papal encyclical Humanae Vitaere-iterated the Pope’s ban on artificial contraception. Use of the ‘safe’ or infertile period, also known as the rhythm method, was the only acceptable option for Catholics. The encyclical also stated that Catholic obstetricians should make themselves fully proficient in this method.[5]At a time when family planning had just started to develop at maternity hospitals, the encyclical complicated the situation for Catholic patients and doctors alike.

Drawing on a range of medical and diocesan sources, as well as diverse material from the news media, my essay explores how family planning developed in Dublin from 1960-1972. It is demonstrated that whilst the medical and social work community, as well as their patients, began to exhibit a more liberal shift in views on the issue of artificial birth control, the Catholic hierarchy was compelled to re-promote official teaching on the subject after the publication of Humanae Vitae. Two of the three largest maternity hospitals in Dublin operated with a Catholic ethos, and the Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, was particularly mindful of how medics operated within these hospitals with regard to birth control. Consequently, the encyclical created new difficulties for medical professionals working in Catholic maternity hospitals who wished to develop more sophisticated programmes of family planning therein. Prescription of the contraceptive pill, which had occurred on a case-by-case basis, was no longer possible in these hospitals. Even prior to the encyclical, the issue of access to artificial birth control was viewed increasingly by many medical and social care professionals – as well as many of their patients – as a private issue of health and welfare, rather than a moral problem.

Additionally, my essay demonstrates that family planning was a class issue.As the annual reports of the maternity hospitals demonstrated repeatedly during this period, the health and welfare of working-class women – those who were least likely to access contraception – often suffered greatly as a result of multiple births. A strong, patriarchal network of authority, made up of the Irish Catholic hierarchy and an obeisant section of the medical profession, sought to re-affirm control over Catholic women’s bodies in the wake of Humanae Vitae.


Deirdre Foley, a PhD candidate in the School of History and Geography at Dublin City University, is the recipient of the 2018 WHAI Mac Curtain/Cullen essay prize.


[1]Irish Press, 8 October 1960; Irish Examiner, 8 October 1960;Irish Times, 10October 1960.

[2]L. Earner-Byrne, ‘Moral Prescription: The Irish Medical Profession, the Roman Catholic Church and the Prohibition of Birth Control in Twentieth-century Ireland’ in Catherine Cox and Maria Luddy (eds), Cultures of Care in Irish Medical History, 1750-1970 (London, 2010), p. 215.

[3]C. Hug, The Politics of Sexual Morality in Ireland(New York, 1999), p. 86.

[4]Ibid., pp. 86-87.

[5]Dublin Diocesan Archive (hereafter DDA), AB8/B/XX/2, English translation of Humanae Vitae, July 1968.

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