CW: This article mentions Margaret Sanger who is a supporter of the eugenics movement.
When talking about the different birth control methods, you would immediately think of condoms, IUDs, and the most famous one — the pill. But these were not the methods that were used when birth control was first introduced. In many countries, there were a lot of strange and possibly dangerous types of birth control methods. The traditional methods are now outdated and abandoned. The evolution of birth control methods did not start with the pill, and they were only introduced only recently. The methods have gone through many changes from 400 BCE to 1965.
The archaic methods of birth control
Early forms of birth control methods were not based on science but myths. A primitive practice that was seen in the earlier ages was called coitus interruptus (withdrawal method) or ‘pulling out.’ The traditional methods were bizarre and somewhat dangerous because it involved inserting questionable objects inside a woman’s body. The methods included ointments, tinctures, crocodile dung, herbs, and leeches. In ancient Egypt, 1500 BC, for women to have sex, they would mix honey, sodium carbonate, and crocodile dung into a thick paste. In China, concubines would drink lead and mercury to avoid pregnancy. The side effects of this practice were sterility, brain damage, kidney failure, and death.
In the 10th century Persia, women were told to jump backward seven or nine times after intercourse to remove sperm. Greek gynecologist, Soranus suggested various methods to prevent pregnancies. He advised women to abstain from sex during menstruation. This was because he believed that it was the most fertile time of the month. Also, he suggested that women hold their breath during sex and sneeze afterward to stop sperm from entering the wombs.
Other earlier devices used in the 19th and 20th centuries were mainly pessaries or tools used to block the cervix. In 1880, a gold wishbox stem pessary was an intra-cervical device (IUC). They were used as a contraceptive towards the end of the 1880s. From the 1910s, contraceptive sponges were used as a cervical blockage. Women started using contraceptive devices or pessaries, which were small, round vaginal inserts, previously known as diaphragms or caps. These were used to block sperm from entering the cervix. This device came from many materials like stones, metal, and glass.
Here comes the rubber!
After centuries of using archaic methods and crafty devices for birth control, along came the condom. Condoms were made from bizarre materials — or rather from animal guts that dated back to 1640, which was used to reduce the spread of sexually transmitted infections. This was the oldest condom that was found in England. In the 18th century, men wore condoms that were made out of linens. Once Charles Goodyear invented rubber-condoms, he manufactured and patented the vulcanization of rubber in 1843, which he had invented five years earlier.
The Comstock Act
In America, as more contraceptives were being introduced, there was a lot of effort to prevent information about family planning to the public. The earlier beliefs of the Comstock Act prohibited distributing information about contraceptive methods and information about birth control. After the Comstock Act was passed in 1873, many people were influenced by conservative religious beliefs. According to Archbishop Hayes, a leader of the Catholic Archdiocese of New York stated that “the law was enacted under the police power of the Legislature for the benefit of the morals and the health of the community.”
But despite the demands of many women who wished to have access to contraceptive methods, the laws were not changed. This law affected families from lower-class backgrounds. As families grew, it became difficult for them to provide for their families, and lead to poverty and high mortality rates. Some contraceptives were not entirely reliable. They were also not being readily accessible by doctors; families of lower-class backgrounds suffered the most from this law. Upper-class families were not affected by this law and had better access to birth control. They did not have any difficulty accessing information and learned about it during their travels to Europe. These laws did not stay for long as the birth control movement began.
Margaret Sanger and the birth control movement
Margaret Sanger, a nurse and an activist who coined the term ‘birth control,’ revolutionized the movement. She began to educate families who did not have access to birth control and decided to make some changes. She started the National Birth Control League (NBCL), an organization that aimed to discuss birth control. Sanger published Woman Rebel in 1914, which focused on challenging the beliefs around birth control. Although the Comstock laws prohibited discussion of birth control, Sanger resisted. She continued publishing more magazines and wrote a pamphlet called Family Limitation, which was a brief guide to available contraceptives.
While publishing the latter material, Sanger was charged for publishing Woman Rebel. She was tried in court for both of these offenses. However, the District Attorney dropped the charges because the case was no longer relevant. Sanger continued to educate and support the birth control movement and eventually opened the first birth control clinic in 1916. The clinic was a success. There were a large number of people that were eager to learn about birth control and family planning. After ten days, Sanger was forced to shut down the clinic, and she and her colleagues were arrested. Sanger was determined to open another clinic, which she did. But unfortunately, she was forced to shut it down again. This was because her clinic was providing information on contraceptives, which were illegal under the Comstock Act.
Sanger would fight to challenge the state of New York for years. She was arrested many times and fought the beliefs and morals of the Catholic church, and opened a second birth control clinic. But her work did not stop with the movement as she created the most iconic form of birth control method — The Pill.
The first pill
As the success of the second birth control clinic paved the way to open more birth control clinics, Sanger’s new goal was to create the first contraceptive pill. Planned Parenthood Federation of America began to operate the clinics in 1942, which was formally adopted by the National Birth Control League (NBCL). Sanger had previously attempted to create contraceptive pills, but it was unsuccessful. In the 1950s, Sanger, with Geroge Pincus’s help, raised money to fund and conduct research for the contraceptive pill. Pincus discovered that by artificially creating a hormone, progesterone, the body could avoid conception by making it believe that it was pregnant.
In 1960, the FDA approved The Pill, and it was immediately successful. Millions of American women were taking The Pill, and Sanger’s work helped a lot of families and women who wished to have a proper contraceptive method. During this time, it was only legal for married couples to purchase The Pill, and it was not until 1972 when unmarried people were finally allowed to purchase it. The Catholic Church and other religious conservatives were deeply against the pill. But that did not stop women from smuggling it from one state to another. In some states, it was still illegal. But for American women to buy the pill, but because they had been waiting too long for self-agency and it just did not matter to them at all. The Comstock Act was finally outlawed in 1983.
After the pill
Even with the work that was done to legalize contraceptive pills in America, it is still not a universal privilege. In developing countries, some women who want to use birth control are being restricted from these methods because they do not have access to it. Sanger’s determination to educate women and families on the importance of family planning and contraceptive pills helped a lot of people. While she took a stand against the law and became an influential figure, it is important to remember that Sanger is a supporter of the eugenics movement. Sanger advocated racist and controversial campaigns to eliminate African-Americans. Sanger’s justified her work by urging doctors to employ African-Americans so that they would be able to get closer to the Black population. But Sanger did not wish to publicise the true intentions of her missions and rather, work to complete it in secret.
The road to legalizing abortion and contraceptive pills was a long and hard path. A woman’s body should not be controlled by religious conservatives or a law that failed to provide relevant information because it was believed to benefit the morals and health of the community.’
The long and fascinating history of birth control methods shares a common thought. A universal belief that people want to have sex without the need to reproduce. The reasons why people are reluctant to take birth control pills are religious beliefs, doctors who are judgemental and pharmacists who refuse to fill the prescription and the myths behind the pill itself. Even with decades of research, the attitudes towards birth control are more or less the same. Restricting access to birth control pills can be harmful to women who wish to choose a different path. There is one truth that can be said about this; birth control pills are not going anywhere.