Birth Control - Then and Now Birth Control in Ancient Times
Birth control has existed since the beginning of time, or at least from the time a man and a woman realized the connection between the sex act and pregnancy. This subject's history has been rich in conflict and controversy. Religious leaders have banned it and called it sinful, the United States Congress has made laws against it, and people have gone to jail for disseminating information concerning it. If ever there were a volatile issue with countless proponents and opponents, birth control is it.
The use of birth control began in antiquity. Drawings of condoms over three thousand years old have been found in Egypt. From 1850 B.C. people have used many and sometimes dreadful means in their efforts to prevent pregnancy. The first written mention is in the Christian Bible, Genesis 38:9 in which it describes Onan "... And it came to pass, when he went in unto his brothers wife, that he spilled it on the ground less he should give seed to his brother." This appears to be a description of the withdrawal or coitus interruptus method, although some cite is as an example of masturbation. Either way, Onan did not "plant his seed" into his brother's wife, therefore, he did use a form of birth control.
The withdrawal method proved quite unreliable in most cases. Therefore, the long, long search for effective, safe birth control began. Many Women believed that they were infertile. while they were breastfeeding. This, too, was a very unreliable means of preventing conception.
For many centuries, women and men experimented with an amazing assortment of herbs, powders, bones, and concoctions to prevent pregnancy, but also, at times to increase fertility, which is the other end of the birth control spectrum. In 1656, Nicholas Culpepper wrote A Dictionary for Midwives, in which he advised women who wanted to conceive to wear a lodestone (or magnet) or the heart of a quail around their necks as an amulet.2
Conversely, in order to prevent conception, women and men used an unbelievable variety of items such as: crocodile or elephant dung, fermented dough, tree gums, mixtures of honey and sodium carbonate, homemade tampons soaked in a variety of herbs and fruit juices, and condoms made from linen, snake skins, or animal intestines. Over the ages, condoms have been used to prevent pregnancy and disease. They were made of anything from animal horns to leather. The oldest condom ever found was in the foundations of Dudley Castle near Birmingham, England. It dated back to the 1640's and was made of fish or animal intestines.3
The term, "birth control" is itself a late 19th - early 20th century term, but it describes the efforts almost every civilization has undertaken to limit conceptions and births. Contraceptive techniques were known in ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome and most of the other cultures of the world. An organized effort to make birth control methods available did not begin until the 19th century.
The most noteworthy opponent of birth control throughout history has been the Roman Catholic Church. Coitus interruptus or the withdrawal method was soundly condemned by the Catholic Church as well as by Jewish teachings. This method was attacked in canonical writings as "a vice against nature"4 There have been other religious organizations who opposed some, but not all of the different forms of birth control.
Besides the withdrawal method, there are other methods used to prevent conception. Coitus obstructus was a method recommended in several Sanskrit texts which required pressing on the forepart of the testicle; the pressure there may block the urethra forcing semen into the bladder. Coitus reservatus is a method whereby the male avoids ejaculation entirely. This method was used by the Hindus and reappeared among some American Utopian societies in the 19th century. Douching has been used since ancient times in an attempt to kill the sperm in the ejaculate, but has never been very effective. Pessaries or vaginal suppositories were first used by Arab traders. Before setting out on a long journey, they would put a large fruit pit into the cervix of their female camels in order not to have to deal with pregnant animals during the trip. Other types of contraception methods include the rhythm method which is based on calculating the woman's fertile period and abstaining from intercourse during that time. This method, the only one approved by the Catholic Church today, is still an inexact effort to prevent conception. Finally, throughout history, abortion and purposely induced miscarriages have been used as means of birth control. Until the invention of the contraceptive pill and the spermicidal gel or cream, there really wasn't anything new under the birth control sun.
Birth Control in Modern Times (from last half of the 19th century to the present)
The modern birth control movement, an effort to educate women in birth control techniques which would allow them to space the births of their children further apart or limit the size of their families, began in England in the 19th century. A writer named Thomas Robert Malthus caused a great deal of interest when he predicted the problems which would arise as the earth became more and more over-populated. His intention was to improve the conditions of the desperately poor people who continued to have more and more children. Many Britons supported Malthus in he efforts because the over-population of the large cities such as London was so obvious. This was not the cause in the United States, where the visions of vast wildernesses in the west were in everyone's minds.
Another event which changed the status of birth control issues was the passage of laws during the middle 19th century which protected women. This is about the same time that abortion was beginning to be declared illegal in both countries because of a new understanding of biology which made it clear that the fetus is "alive" sooner than previously thought. Even the Catholic Church had previously considered 40 days after conception for a boy and 80 days after conception for a girl as the moment of "quickening," or the beginning of life. At the same time, a prominent physician, Dr. Edmund Bliss Foote, unlike most doctors, was a strong advocate for birth control. His writings during the 1860's and '70's on birth control and sex emphasized women's rights and he publicly promoted the use of the condom and the "womb veil," an early diaphragm.5
Social reformers and religious conservatives campaigned to ban "sex for pleasure" and against abortion and birth control. In the United States, a man named Anthony Comstock managed to get a law passed in Congress (1873) which any distribution of birth control materials and the selling or giving away of any birth control devices illegal. Comstock considered this law his finest achievement.
The late 19th and early 20th century were times of change and social upheaval. Attitudes about birth control headed the list of both. In the United States, a woman named Margaret Sanger who had seen her own mother die at the age of 49 due to the numerous pregnancies she had endured, established the first U.S. birth control clinic in 1916. Sanger was a militant feminist and continued to "preach the sermon" of responsible birth control until she died. She was the founder of The Planned Parenthood Organization and is credited with coining the term, "birth control." Working with a physician to save the life of a tenement dweller in New York from the ill effects of a self- induced abortion, she vowed to get the "Comstock Act" repealed. Her dedication to the birth control cause caused her to be put in jail several times, have her clinic closed, and be charged with distributing obscene materials. She published and mailed a magazine entitled, "Women Rebel" advocating the use of birth control techniques. It seems that she grew stronger as the opposition to her cause grew stronger. Sanger helped to organize the National Birth Control League in 1917. In 1921, it became the American Birth Control League, and in 1946 The Planned Parenthood Association of America. Sanger died in 1966 at the age of 86 having given $150,000 to underwrite the research and development of the first birth control pill.
Sanger's counterpart in England was Marie Stopes. She established a birth control clinic in London in 1923 and faced many of the same obstacles that Sanger did. Although she was educated in Edinburgh and graduated with a Ph.D. In Munich, she was still "just a woman" in the eyes of the male dominated society. Jointly with H.V. Roe, she founded The Mothers' Clinic for Constructive Birth Control in 1921.
The present chapter in the birth control saga was begun by the invention of the first oral contraceptive, Enovid, by Dr. Frank Cotton. For his efforts he was elected to the Inventors' Hall of Fame. A few years later, Dr. Carl Djerassi invented the modern birth control pill. This invention empowered women in…