What was happening before modern contraception? Did every woman have 16 kids and was she constantly pregnant or breastfeeding during her short lifespan?
While in many cases the answer to that question is yes, there were some novel attempts at developing birth control.
And while the efficacy of these “birth control options” is up for question, we can only applaud their creativity. Here’s a glimpse at birth control through the ages.
Desperation is the mother of invention
Ancient women trying to avoid pregnancy were up for anything, it seems.
Some methods were possibly truly effective. For instance, Egyptian and Mesopotamian women made concoctions of acacia, honey, and dates, soaked a piece of cotton in the mixture, then inserted it in their vagina. It may sound crazy, but there is some evidence that acacia acts as a spermicide, so it may have been somewhat effective.
But other methods leave us scratching our heads. Ancient Chinese women would drink a potentially fatal concoction of lead and mercury. Effective? Maybe, but only because you’re dead.
Over in the Middle East, some Egyptian women used crocodile feces and their Indian counterparts used elephant feces. IN THEIR VAGINAS. You can’t make this stuff up.
And no joke, one Greek gynecologist recommended sneezing immediately after sex to expel sperm. First of all, how do you get yourself to sneeze? And second, what exactly did they think was the mechanism of action there?
More familiar to us and probably somewhat more effective - many women did use barrier methods. Early forms included ancient pessaries, sponges, and even half a lemon being inserted into the vagina to block sperm from reaching the egg.
Aren’t you glad we live when we do?
Throughout history and right up until the middle of the 20th century, birth control of any sort was considered taboo and even illegal, but women still tried various methods.
Modern condoms and diaphragms were available as early as the 1700s, but didn’t gain wide acceptance until the 1900s.
In 1920, a Japanese scientist named Kyusaku Ogino, discovered that ovulation occured on a single day and that it normally occurs 12-16 days before the next menstrual period, it became the basis for the rhythm method.
And in the 1920’s and 30’s, the first prototypes of the modern IUD began to be used with a coiled metal wire. Previously, they had been made of rubber, metal, or even glass (ouch!).
But the pill, which was launched in 1960, was what really changed things.
Researchers had begun testing progesterone on animals in the 1930s and found it could suppress ovulation. In the 1940s, they discovered how to make synthetic progestin that would make it possible to produce in pill form and offer to women as a contraceptive.
Marketing contraception was tough though. In the US, any mention of birth control was considered right up there with pornography, so doctors could only offer it as a form of cycle control, not as contraception, and only to married women.
When the pill was first being prescribed, some women experienced blood clots and other side effects. Researchers learned over time how to make the hormonal birth control safer and lessen the side effects by reducing the dosages of estrogen and progestin. Current forms of the pill have fractions of the hormones that early versions did. And scientists continue to work on different delivery systems for these hormones, such as injectables, rings, and patches that deliver similar hormone levels.
Along the way, IUDs became safer and more effective as well. After a bit of a trip up in the late 1960’s with the Dalkon Shield (which caused a number of injuries and subsequent lawsuits), the IUD has come roaring back in the past decade. Hormonal and non-hormonal versions have been made much safer while maintaining high efficacy.
In terms of natural methods, Kyusaku Ogino’s findings about women’s reproductive biology is still central to fertility awareness-based methods. However, scientists in the past 30 years have developed several proven-effective fertility awareness-based methods that incorporate this information and add to it. These methods have become more accurate, and in some cases, much easier for women to use, making them far more effective than the original rhythm method.
More freedom to pursue education, careers, and stability
Contraception became less taboo, and as a result, instead of going to college only to settle down and bear children for a few decades, women could now go to college to pursue education and careers, and make choices about when they wanted to start a family and how many children they would have.
And, as a result, we would argue that women are changing the world.
Our question is, what’s the next step and how is tech changing contraception?
Try the Dot app, free on your favorite app store.
Liao, Pamela Verma, and Janet Dollin. "Half a century of the oral contraceptive pill: Historical review and view to the future." Canadian Family Physician. December 2012. Accessed February 22, 2018. "9 Forms of Birth Control Used in the Ancient World." Mental Floss. July 28, 2016. Accessed February 22, 2018.
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