Few inventions in the history of human society have had such an impact on the sexual behavior and morality of social groups as the invention of birth control. This not only gave an entirely new meaning to sex as pleasure as opposed to simply a medium of procreation, but significantly changed the social, economic and personal lives of women who roughly made up half the population in any social group. Here is thus a brief history of birth control and how it evolved over the years.
What is birth control?
In order to better understand the nuances of the history of birth control, it is best to have a clear idea about what the term means exactly. Birth control is often used interchangeably with contraceptives, pills and even condoms but this does not give the accurate picture. Birth control actually incorporates all those processes and products that prevent a pregnancy from taking place – as such it can include products such as oral contraceptive pills and condoms as well as natural methods like withdrawal and abstinence during ovulation.
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Even though the mass use of birth control is a late twentieth century phenomena, it always existed in some form or other since the ancient times. The classical Greeks were one of the first to use plants and herbs as methods of birth control and some of these have even been documented by numerous ancient writers on gynecology, such as Hippocrates. The botanist Theophrastus documented the use of Silphium, a plant well known for its contraceptive and abortifacient properties1. In fact so high was the demand for this plant that it eventually led to the extinction of Silphium during the third or 2nd century BC. Asafoetida, a close relative of siliphion, was also used for its contraceptive properties in ancient Greece as were Other plants like Queen Anne's lace (Daucus carota), willow, date palm, pomegranate, pennyroyal, artemisia, myrrh, and rue. All these find mention in the chapter ‘Historical Record on the Control of Family Size” in the book Economic Transformations: General Purpose Technologies and Long-Term Economic Growth by Richard G. Lipsey, Kenneth I. Carlaw, Clifford T. Bekar.
Likewise the ancient Egyptians also depended upon plant products to prevent pregnancies; in fact An Egyptian manuscript called the Ebers Papyrus2 directs women on how to mix dates, acacia and honey into a paste, smear it over wool and use it as a pessary to prohibit conception. A variety of such preparations made from herbs, leaves and natural substances like honey and ghee also occur in ancient Indian texts as methods of birth control. In some ancient cultures like China and Arabia, certain sexual techniques were used to prevent pregnancies like coitus interruptus and coitus obstructus. What unites all these methods and preparations in ancient times and cultures was that this knowledge was usually restricted to particular social groups and even then they were not foolproof in preventing pregnancies – apart from the element or luck, certain concoctions could also be harmful to the human body. For all these reasons birth control during this time remained unreliable and a matter of chance.
While some knowledge of birth control remained in folk customs and rituals in traditional cultures, in Europe there was a systematic movement against birth control through the middle Ages even till the Industrial Revolution. The Church was the primary player in stamping out folk knowledge on birth control by the initiation of witch hunts against midwives, who had knowledge of herbal abortifacients and contraceptives. In this attempt, the Church was largely supported by feudal lords since it was in the interests of the latter to increase the village population so as to provide cheap labor to word on the lords’ lands and estates. Then again Historian John M. Riddle attributed the loss of basic knowledge of birth control to attempts of the early modern European states to "repopulate" Europe after dramatic losses following the plague epidemics that started in 13483.
The strategy continued well into the seventeenth and eighteenth century and found another justification during the period of imperial expansion. Merchants and traders of the times were against any significant reduction in population a large population was a form of wealth, making it possible to create bigger markets which was crucial for mercantile profit and armies which ensured captive markets. While much of the knowledge about birth control was driven underground or lost during this time, few innovators kept coming up with ideas to prevent pregnancies. One of these was the “assurance cap” promoted by Casanova in the 18th century to prevent impregnating his mistresses. In fact his memoirs contain several details of his experiments in birth control, from sheep-bladder condoms to the use of half a lemon as a makeshift cervical cap. And yet such barrier methods as the condom were employed primarily as a means of preventing sexually transmitted diseases, rather than pregnancy.
A landmark year in the history of contraceptives was 1839 when Charles Goodyear invented the technology to vulcanize rubber and puts it to use manufacturing rubber condoms, intrauterine devices, douching syringes and "womb veils". Even then in industrialized nations, social and political policies of the day continue to oppose the idea of birth control as a reduction of population would undermine the merchant and colonialist endeavors on which the ideal of wealth was based. As such in 1873 Congress passes an anti-obscenity law that deems birth control info obscene and outlaws its dissemination. At the time, the U.S. is the only Western nation to criminalize contraception. Likewise in UK, birth control was a highly contested political issue during the 19th century. While certain groups like the Malthusians were in favor of limiting population growth and therefore promoted birth control through organizations such as the Malthusian League, the idea was opposed by the larger spectrum of political groups ranging from the socialists to the established church.
In order to get around the hackles raised by the notion of “birth control”, many women’s groups advocated the use of terms like "family limitation" and "voluntary motherhood”. Family limitation referred to deliberate attempts by couples to end childbearing after the desired number of children had been born. Voluntary motherhood was coined by feminists in the 1870s as a political critique of "involuntary motherhood" and expressing a desire for women's emancipation. However such groups were different from the later advocates of birth control in a significant way. While voluntary motherhood disapproved of contraception, arguing that women should only engage in sex for the purpose of procreation and advocated for periodic or permanent abstinence, birth control sought to employ artificial contraceptives as a way of investing women with control over their own bodies and sexual lives. The latter group received a boost when in the 1880s a large cervical cap was developed-- an early version of the diaphragm.
Twentieth century till today
The phrase “birth control” was actually popularized by Margaret Sanger and Otto Bobsein. Sanger was an important figure in sexual politics of the United States where in 1916 she opened the country’s first family-planning clinic, in Brooklyn. However it was shut down within 10 days. But that did not dampen here efforts and in 1921, Sanger founded the American Birth Control League, which later becomes the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. On the other side of the Atlantic, the birth control campaigner Marie Stopes, opened Britain’s first birth control clinic in 1921 and made contraception acceptable during the 1920s by framing it in scientific terms, also gained an international reputation. Stopes was particularly influential in helping emerging birth control movements in a number of British colonies.
The mid-1990s were a time of slow but steady steps towards liberal policies. This was seen in 1930 when Anglican bishops approve limited use of birth control even though the head of the Catholic Church Pope Pius XI staunchly affirmed church teaching against contraception. In 1938 a judge lifted the federal obscenity ban on birth control in America but contraception remained illegal in most states.
The next most significant stage in the history of birth control came with the development of the oral contraceptive pill. In 1951, Gregory Pincus began research on the use of hormones in contraception with the backing of Sanger. Around this time too, in Mexico City, chemist Carl Djerassi created a progesterone pill. Three years later in 1954, John Rock in collaboration with Pincus, began the first human Pill trial on 50 women in Massachusetts. In May 1960 the FDA announced its approval of Enovid as a birth control pill even though according to the Times source cited above, almost half a million American women were already taking it for "therapeutic purposes" at the time. Another landmark year during this time was 1965 when the US Supreme Court in the Griswold v. Connecticut case struck down state laws prohibiting contraception for married couples; the popularity of the pill continued to grow with 6.5 million American women using this form of contraception. In fact development and legality of the pill is seen as major factor for the growth of the Flower movement during the 1960s and early ‘70s which advocated free love, among other things.
The next few years though were marked by fears of safety of the pill. However constant research and development led to the Lower-dose Pills during the 1980s. By the turn of the century other health benefits began to be associated with the Pill, like less anemia and lower rates of death due to cervical cancer. In 2010 it was estimated that some 100 million women around the world use the Pill as a form of birth control.
- Lipsey, Richard G.; Carlaw, Kenneth; Bekar, Clifford (2005). "Historical Record on the Control of Family Size". Economic Transformations: General Purpose Technologies and Long-Term Economic Growth Oxford University Press. Pp. 335–40. ISBN 978-0-19-928564-8. Http://books.google.com/books?Id=tsrgtmtbv50c&pg=PA335.
- Time Magazine – A Brief History of Birth Control
- Riddle 1999, Chapter 6: "The Broken Chain of Knowledge", pp. 169–207