The History of Birth Control: 10 Fascinating Facts
Since time began, men and women have struggled with the desire to have sex on an unlimited basis, and the desire to have some measure of control over how many children they had. While some primitive cultures resorted to extreme measures such as killing unwanted babies at birth, most ancient cultures had other ways of preventing pregnancy. But in an era when effective birth control is just a pill, diaphragm, or latex condom away, we take contraception for granted. These ten fascinating facts about the history of birth control show us that it certainly hasn’t always been that easy.
1. One of the biggest problems that people in the ancient world had in trying to figure out contraception was that they didn’t really know how conception occurred. Obviously, they figured out that people who had sexual intercourse had babies, and they figured out that the male ejaculating into the woman had something to do with it, but they didn’t know until the invention of the microscope that there were lots of little sperm cells moving around in the semen. Thanks to Dr. Anton Leeuwenhoek, science recognized the existence of sperm in 1677. It still took a while to figure out what actually happened to those sperm.
2. People in the ancient world had some pretty weird ways to try to prevent pregnancy. The respected Greek physician Soranus told women to get up after sex and jump backwards seven times, in order to dislodge the semen.
3. Women would be given all sorts of different herbal potions to prevent pregnancy or induce early miscarriage. One particular plant, which was fairly effective, was actually harvested to extinction. Other prescriptions included mashed ants, horseradish, opium, and even camel spit. Gross!
4. In the early 19th century in the United States, inducing miscarriage was considered a common event and was accepted by most of society, including Catholics. People at that time believed that the fetus was not alive until the mother could feel it moving. However, by the end of the century, that viewpoint was beginning to change.
5. Some ancient Egyptians recommended using a mixture of honey, ashes, and crocodile dung to form a kind of gummy paste. When applied to the cervix, it would melt and form a covering over the cervix.
6. Another ancient method was to block the cervix, similar to today’s cervical cap. African women used chopped grass or cloth, while Japanese prostitutes stuffed balls of bamboo paper in the vagina. In the Middle East, wool was the material of choice, and ancient Hebrews used a sea sponge wrapped in silk.
7. In the 1700s, the first condoms, which only covered the head of the penis, were originally made from a piece of animal intestine. By 1855 they were being made of vulcanized rubber, and in the 1930s latex was discovered to be an excellent material for condoms. Now those natural skin condoms are super-expensive!
8. The most common method of birth control before medical means were discovered was coitus interruptus, or withdrawal before ejaculation. Everyone’s heard of doing that. And it doesn’t always work. But have you heard of coitus obstructus? Used by some Hindus, this method required pressing down on the front of the testicles, blocking the urethra and forcing the semen to travel up into the bladder. No word on just how uncomfortable this might have been.
9. It was illegal for married couples to use the birth control pill in many states until 1965, when the states were forced to allow it by the Supreme Court. Single women were allowed to get the pill in 1972. By 1975, Loretta Lynn’s country song, “The Pill,” hit #1 on the country charts.
10. Our last fascinating fact is about the rhythm method of birth control. It’s not the most reliable, because most women don’t know when they’re going to ovulate, and because sperm can live for up to 5 days after intercourse. The rhythm method was actually not used until 1930, when a Roman Catholic doctor used new information about ovulation to calculate times of the month when a woman would not be fertile. Now women can use temperature charting and other methods to confirm when ovulation is taking place.