DUBLIN, Ireland -- The young Irish woman, no older than 20, walked into the pharmacy and without a qualm asked for contraceptives.
'I would like a package of 12 condoms -- with lubricant,' she said to a female pharmacist more than twice her age.
Embarrassed, the pharmacist fussed with a display of aftershave, then asked a male colleague, 'Would you please look after this customer?' before retreating to the rear of the shop.
In the largely conservative Roman Catholic country, where abortion and divorce are still illegal, an increasingly relaxed attitude toward sex and contraception has come into conflict with strict regulations that many see as a holdover from the past out of step with the era of AIDS.
Contraceptives came late to Ireland. Condoms have been sold legally over the counter only since 1985, and then just by pharmacies and to those older than 18. The Catholic church still forbids the use of contraception.
'Most people have a very grown-up attitude to the whole thing,' the pharmacy owner said. 'They are not the least bit embarrassed to come in and go to the condom display if they know where they are, or to ask you for them. Young people especially seem very confident when buying condoms.'
The latest controversy in Ireland's stormy history of contraception and family planning was played out in court last month with the trend- setting Virgin Megastore record chain challenging laws even the prime minister has called outdated.
Hoping for a ruling that would signal a new era, the Irish Family Planning Association appealed a conviction for selling condoms in the Virgin Megastore, a popular Dublin record shop. The association was found guilty last summer of selling condoms to a plainclothes police detective at the Virgin Megastore and fined $800.
The Dublin Circuit Court hearing the appeal on St. Valentine's Day upheld the conviction. The judge added $175 to the fine and told the association it was 'getting off lightly.' The fine was paid by the Irish rock group U2.
Manager Dermot Hanrahan said Virgin Megastore has given counterspace to the family planning association for about three years. The government successfully argued in court that the record store was not a venue licensed for the sale of condoms.
Richard Branson, the high-profile owner of the record chain and an airline, testified that condoms are used primarily as a protective measure against AIDS, rather than for conception.
'There are thousands of cigarette vending machines up and down the country. Cigarettes kill people. Condoms save lives but there are no condom vending machines,' said Branson, who started the Healthcare Foundation five years ago to promote his views.
'It is absolutely critical that the Irish government and the court wake up to this. If we lose, people will die and suffer diseases,' he said.
Indeed, one witness in the original trial died of AIDS a week prior to the appeal.
Dr. Malcolm Potts, a defense witness, said there was a direct correlation between the number of outlets at which condoms were available and number of condoms actually used.
'I am sure that lives have already been saved because they are sold here,' he said. Since contraception was legalized in Romania last year, Ireland is looked upon as one of the most backward nations in the world with the regard to health and family planning, he said.
Embarrassed by Ireland's 'unsatisfactory and outdated' contraception laws, Prime Minister Charles Haughey has promised corrective legislation that will allow people to buy condoms from age 16.
Catholic Archbishop Cahal Daly, primate of all Ireland, said such action would have 'profound implications for the moral quality of life. '
Increasingly, the government has been caught between the conservatism of the church and international pressure to allow greater availability of condoms as a protection against the spread of AIDS.
In 1979, the World Health Organization pressed the government into liberalizing its laws, when contraceptives were first available by prescription to married couples. A 1985 amendment made 'non-medical contraceptives' available to anyone over the age of 18 through licensed pharmacies, clinics and from medical practitioners.
But last year, Minister of Health Rory O'Hanlon issued a directive reclassifying intrauterine devices, spermicidal creams, jellies and foams and vaginal sponges as 'medical products.' The new classification subjects the products to strict licensing, advertising and sales regulations.
With support for such conservative rulings still strong, Haughey will face fierce opposition if he follows through on his pledge to alter family-planning policy.
Despite the law, practice has often been more liberal, even before pharmacies were first permitted to sell condoms in 1985.
'We've always had a very broad-minded attitude and had (condoms) in stock long before that,' said the pharmacy owner.
'Just the other day a gang of school girls marched in here and bought some. They were all in their school uniforms and I suppose it was a blatant case of my breaking the law.'