Birth control might seem like a new invention, but the truth is that it has been around almost as long as sex itself! In fact, each generation has had its own interesting ways of preventing pregnancy. Before modern medicine, couples had to get creative when it came to birth control.
The earliest forms of pregnancy prevention were likely barrier methods (in which the sperm is physically prevented from entering the uterus). Our barrier methods today include such contraceptives as diaphragms and sponges, but ancient Egyptians created their own version of a barrier method with mixtures made of honey…and crocodile dung! Egyptian women also lactated as long as possible to prevent pregnancy.
Men in the Roman Empire used sheepskin “condoms” as contraception (these condoms were made from the membranes of sheep intestines), and in ancient Greece, women used to drink mixtures with herbs such as willow, myrrh, and rue to prevent pregnancy. It was also not uncommon for these early societies to practice infanticide as a way of controlling the population, and some women used herbal mixtures as a method of abortion.
Religious texts also reference methods of birth control. In the Old Testament, there is a famous reference to coitus interruptus (in which a man pulls out before ejaculation to prevent pregnancy), and the Talmud references barrier methods as a viable option in certain cases. Of course, this doesn’t mean that birth control has always been looked kindly upon by religious leaders, and indeed, the interference and influence of political and religious sects in the matter of birth control has been a common theme in its history.
Regardless of this interference, as modern medicine became more advanced, so did birth-control techniques. In 1839, Charles Goodyear discovered a process to vulcanize rubber, and this led to the creation of rubber condoms (which were more sturdy and reliable than sheepskin condoms, albeit tight and uncomfortable). This vulcanization process was also a driving force behind the creation of diaphragms, which soon became one of the most popular forms of contraception. Statistics show that in 1940 one-third of married women relied on diaphragms for pregnancy prevention.
However, despite these strides (and society’s desire for safe, comfortable contraception), many people attempted to prevent birth-control methods from becoming available to the general public. Contraception (and education regarding contraception) was considered immoral, and such materials were eventually made illegal in the Comstock Act in 1873. Criminalization of contraception prevented many women from having safe, legal access to it and even prevented the manufacture of the pill for many years.
In 1934, Gregory Pincus, a biologist and researcher, first began attempting the creation of the pill after experimenting with in-vitro fertilization with rabbits. After experiencing success, Pincus met with a pharmaceutical company to discuss manufacturing the pill; however, he was turned away because such contraception was considered immoral. In fact, the pill wouldn’t be made legal until 1960, decades after its initial creation.
It was only through the efforts of dedicated, brave individuals such as Margaret Sanger that contraception was finally legalized and made available to all who desired it. Sanger was a nurse and perhaps one of the most famous birth-control activists of all time, and she also founded the American Birth Control League, which in 1942 became part of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
As a nurse, Sanger saw firsthand how devastating multiple unwanted pregnancies could be in a woman’s life, both from a financial perspective and from a health perspective. Few women had the tools or education to prevent unwanted pregnancy, since the Comstock Act prevented even married women from learning how to utilize contraception accurately. Sanger became a voice for these women, writing articles and speaking out across the country (and the world) on the subject. She even assisted Pincus in his attempts to create the pill, offering insight and support as he traveled through this uncharted territory.
Passionate, intelligent women such as Sanger were the driving force behind the many contraceptive methods we have on the market today, and their commitment to empower and educate us have allowed us to embrace a healthy, happy sexuality. Thankfully, there are now many safe and legal contraceptive options available to women and men, and education on such techniques is plentiful as well. It was a hard-won fight, but it was certainly worth it!
Find our more information on Planned Parenthood and birth-control services at their website.
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