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The Irish family planning tragic comedy

Malcolm Potts, professor of population and family planning | May 26, 2018

As has been widely reported this week, people flew to Dublin from as far away as Brazil to vote in Friday’s referendum on abortion. In 1983 the Constitution had been amended to give a fertilized egg the same right to life as the woman carrying the embryo. Today (Saturday) the majority of constituencies have reported and a landslide 68% voted in favor of a new amendment to the Constitution, “Provision may be made by law for the regulation of termination of pregnancy.”

For generations contraceptives were forbidden in Ireland, and even after Independence, Ireland maintained  Queen Victoria’s 1861 making abortion illegal.  In the 1970s I discovered that there was no law against voluntary sterilization. All the hospitals were run by Catholic organizations so female sterilization was never done, but we were able to teach a Protestant physician in a Dublin suburb how to do vasectomies in his family practice surgery. It was perfectly legal and became popular.

But this is where the tragic comedy gets really odd. On St Valentine’s Day in 1991, more than two decades after I was doing vasectomies in Dublin, I was in court in the same city as an expert witness defending the Irish Family Planning Association for the hideous crime of selling a pack of condoms.

We suspected we would loose when the judge never used the word, “condom” but talked about “those articles”. The Family Planning Association was fined 500 pounds.

The other expert witnesses was Richard Branson in whose Virgin Megastore the crime had been committed.

Richard Branson is an extremely engaging person with whom to fly back to London, especially when the conversation is about hot air balloons. At the time I owned a 77,000 cubic foot balloon in the shape of a nipple- ended condom – the only condom that required Air Traffic Control to get it up. But that is another story.

Ireland reminds me of Cal in an interesting way. Reform is driven by the young. The Prime Minister in gay, the country has voted for same sex marriage and now for safe abortion – and condoms are legal.

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