Birth Bontrol in Ancient Greece and Rome Essay

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Birth control which is also known as fertility control and contraception, describes the devices or methods that are used to prevent an egg from getting fertilized by the sperm and thus preventing pregnancy[footnoteRef:2]. Provision of birth control and planning a pregnancy is referred to as family planning. Safe sex implies the use of condoms; both male and female, does not only prevent unwanted pregnancies, but also prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases through the use of condoms. In the contemporary world, the use of contraceptives has increased in the developing countries and therefore the number of maternal deaths has decreased by about 44%. However, this figure can be decreased by 73% if the demands for birth control are met completely. Teenage pregnancies have the tendency to result in complications including low birth weight, preterm birth and infant mortality. Therefore, many health specialists believe that adolescents should be given complete sex education including methods of contraception. When the time between two pregnancies is increased, the delivery outcomes of the adult woman as well as the survival of the newborn children can be improved by birth control[footnoteRef:3]. [2: Cleland, J.; Conde-Agudelo, A.; Peterson, H.; Ross, J.; Tsui, 2012] [3: Ahmed, S.; Li, Q.; Liu, L.; Tsui, A.O., 2012]

Even though. birth control methods are in use since ancient times, the effective as well safe methods of contraception were only devised during the 20th century. There are many cultures and groups of people in the world who believe that birth control is not a morally correct action. Therefore, in these societies, most of the people do not have access to methods of birth control. According to statistics, there are about 222 million women who do not want to conceive in developing countries but are not making use of any modern contraception methods. It has been established that birth control leads to improved economic growth because when there are fewer children, there would be fewer number of dependent people that would give the women the chance to participate in the workforce. It has been reported that the women who have access to improved methods of contraception, their body mass index as well as that of the child, the schooling of the children, earnings and assets of the women, all of them improve substantially.

In this paper, we shall discuss the methods of birth control that were used by people of Rome and Greece and its effectiveness.

Birth Control in Ancient Times

The first issue that we would like to start with is whether or not birth control was allowed for ancient women of Greece and Rome and whether or not they went for abortions, once they conceived the child. The answer to this question is yes these women had access to methods of contraception and they could control births of multiple children. It should be noted here that most of the books that were written about the Gynecology were written by Soranus and around the time period of 98 CE. Other writings are attributed to Hippocrates who wrote the Hippocratic writings between the years 430-330 BCE. Moreover, Dioscorides wrote De MateriaMedica around the years 30-40 CE. All of these writers provided various methods of abortion and birth control in their writings. The method contraception and birth control that were adopted by the Roman Empire during the apostolic age were the ones that were being practiced in Egypt since the 1900 BCE. We also find out through another source that birth control was a common practice since the Greek botanist Theophrastus did extensive research on the plant silphium. This is sometimes referred to as a "wonder drug" since it had excellent abortive qualities. Some kind of anecdotal evidence is also provided to us by Catullus. He was a Roman poet who explained silphium in a way as he mentioned in his writings that he could enjoy as many kisses with his girlfriend as there were the number of grains of silphium on shores of Cyrene. Yet again we have evidence that some herbs were used by women of ancient Greece and Rome as methods of contraception as in the comedy of Aristophanes, The Peace Hermes gives Trigaius a female companion. When Trigaius becomes afraid that the woman might conceive, Hermes advices him to add a specific amount of pennyroyal to prevent this conception from taking place. Pomegranate is considered to be a contraceptive agent in the Greek myth of Hades and Persephone. Kathleen London, who is a teacher at the Yale New Haven Teachers Institute, has summarized this whole scenario. According to her, even in the ancient times, people tried their best to control the sizes of their families. It was evident that the men as well as the women wanted to make sure that they had limited number of children so that it is easier for them to take care of their social, economic, emotional and physical demands. This is the reason why these people looked for ways of contraception and succeeded to some extent[footnoteRef:4]. [4: London, Kathleen, 1982]

Most of the methods that were adopted by these people were botanical in one way or another. There is only very little evidence on the physical methods of abortion. As Soranus writes in his books that doing vigorous exercise in pregnancy and carrying heavy weights could lead to abortions. Moreover, he also suggested that leaping violently could cause abortion as well. Some of these ancient women were also shaken by animals so that they would abort the child that they were carrying. Other recommendations of Soranus include the use of sweet and warm olive oil that was injected in the uterus of the pregnant ladies.

Birth control in Greece -- use of Herbs and Plants

Ancient Greece was a completely male dominated society. The dominance of the males also extended to childbirth in ancient Greece. According to the ancient Greek medicine, men were considered to be the bringers of health and sanity to the women and were thought to remove the biologically defective and the subservient women through sexual intercourse. They believed that the menstrual blood collects around the heart and it is washed away through sexual intercourse. It was also believed that men were to receive the full credit of conception because the uterus of the women was only considered to be a receptacle for the sperm of the men. Abortion was allowed under the Greek law; however it was not permitted as per the Hippocratic Oath. Moreover, infanticide was a common practice and especially that of female newborn children.

In the ancient Greece, there were many women who used methods of birth control without any significant interference from the political or the religious authorities. Midwives and herbalists had a good knowledge of the plants or the herbs that could be used to prevent conception or that caused abortion. One of the most common and popular contraceptive agent that was used by the Greek women was silphium. It only grew in the country of Cyrene that is situated in North Africa. Cyrene then began to export this plant and since this city was the exclusive exporter of this herb, it was then engraved on the coin of the city because this was the main income of the city since the first century BCE.

This was not the only plant that was used by women as a method of birth control or to induce abortions. Among the other plants, there was myrrh, Artemisia, rue and pennyroyal. As mentioned earlier that silphium was only grown in a specific region, its price started increasing significantly along with its demand. By the end of the first century BC, the price of this plant was more than its weight in silver. However by the end of the second century, the high demand of this plant led to its extinction. This is when another herb that was known with the name of asafetida was being used for contraception because it shared the same properties as of silphium[footnoteRef:5]. [5: Lipsey, Richard G.; Carlaw, Kenneth; Bekar, Clifford, 2005]

There are many ancient Greek documents that can be found pertaining to the use of the aforementioned plants. Since most of these plants have toxic properties as well, specific dosage of these plants has also been mentioned in these documents. The recent studies that have been conducted confirm that these plants have contraceptive properties. As for one of the contraceptive herbs that were known from the name of Queen Anne's lace has some post coital anti-fertility properties and can be used for birth control. Some studies have also suggested that this plant is still being used in India as a method of birth control.

Soranus was a Greek gynecologist who believed that only women who are physically capable of bearing a child should go for methods of birth control. However, he also believed that prevention of conception was a better method of birth control instead of terminating the pregnancy. He explained various methods of contraception in his book, the most of astonishing of…[continue]

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