Home Features Contraception, à la carte Catholicism, and assisted human reproduction

Contraception, à la carte Catholicism, and assisted human reproduction

Author Don O’Leary writes about his latest book: Biomedical Controversies in Catholic Ireland.

The publication of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical on birth control in July 1968 provoked a storm of protest throughout the Catholic Church, especially in western Europe and North America. In Ireland, Humanae Vitae met with a compliant response. Very few Irish Catholics were openly critical of the encyclical, but public opinion moved gradually against the intransigent stance of the hierarchy throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Pressure mounted to repeal legislation that prohibited the importation and sale of contraceptives. A series of legislative measures from 1979 to 1992 removed legal restrictions. Declining birth rates indicated that Irish Catholics exercised moral judgements contrary to church teaching.

Those in the upper echelons of the hierarchy were aware of the disaffection of many Catholics. The Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Desmond Connell, was very mindful of this when he spoke at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, on 2 March 1999. His speech received extensive coverage in The Irish Times. The archbishop believed that dissent on the issue of contraception was a root cause of ‘à la carte Catholicism’.

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The practice of contraception, it seemed, had dragged Irish society down to levels of decadence sometimes associated with ancient Rome. Archbishop Connell maintained that by breaking the bond between sexual intercourse and procreation, contraception had set in train ‘the sexual revolution’, which in turn had led to broken families, promiscuity, divorce, and a greater tolerance of abortion. Contraception had ‘dishonoured’ women, and, by obstructing conception, was even seen as ‘disrespectful towards God as the author of life’. It did not seem to matter that, in many instances, unplanned pregnancies generated poverty and hardship, imposed undue strain on marital relationships, and frequently proved detrimental to the health of mothers. Connell’s provocative opinions elicited critical responses, especially from women, who were no longer willing to comply with ecclesiastical pronouncements on matters of family planning and sexual morality.

Although Humanae Vitae was written to address the issue of birth control, it also ruled out recourse to some important medical interventions to treat infertility, especially in relation to in vitro fertilisation and surrogacy. The papal insistence on the ‘inseparable connection’ between sexual intercourse and reproduction applied equally to contraception and assisted human reproduction. The child conceived through sexual intercourse was ‘a gift of God’. It was difficult for Connell and his fellow bishops to see the process of creating a child through science and technology in the same light—where human control rather than God’s benevolence was seen to play a central role. Many Irish couples experiencing infertility were not unduly burdened by such theological considerations, however, and looked to the newly emerging reproductive technologies for help.

Archbishop Connell told his audience that reproductive technologies had given rise to unhappy and resentful children. The meaning of the term ‘unwanted child’ was clear enough but its converse—the ‘wanted child’—was not sufficiently understood. The wanted child was the child that was planned, ‘produced by the decision of the parents’, which began to ‘look more and more like a technological product’. This was clearly so in cases of IVF and surrogacy. Children were ‘no longer welcomed as a gift but produced as it were to order’. This altered the relationship between parents and children. Parental attitudes were tainted by a sense of ‘consumer ownership’ and the child conceived with the aid of technology did not belong to the family ‘in a personal sense’. The attitudes of these parents were conveyed ‘unconsciously’ to the children who came to resent ‘a parentage based on power’. Connell declared that no child could find contentment in life ‘as a product’. He maintained that such a child would not find ‘meaning in a life produced by technology’. The archbishop did not refer to any evidence from the social sciences to substantiate his provocative assertions. His theological worldview failed to consider that technology for treating infertility could be seen as God-given.

The intransigence of the Catholic bishops on issues of sexual morality since 1968 created a rift between the institutional Church and the majority of Catholics. This has contributed greatly to the erosion of episcopal power and influence—clearly evident from the outcomes of referendums on divorce (1995), same-sex marriage (2015) and abortion (2018). Irish Catholicism has been totally transformed over the last 50 years.


Dr Don O’Leary

Biographical note: Dr Don O’Leary is a historian and scientist. He is the author of Vocationalism and Social Catholicism in Twentieth-Century Ireland (Irish Academic Press, 2000), Roman Catholicism and Modern Science (Continuum/Bloomsbury 2006) and Irish Catholicism and Science (Cork University Press, 2012).

The book is published through Amazon, paperback and Kindle ebook. Paperback ISBN: 9781788461641 €18.99 398ppe book: ISBN: 9781788461665 €8.99 464pp

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