The concept of contraception goes way back in history and actually began millennia earlier. It can be safely said that the desire to prevent pregnancy is as old as the existence of sex. That is Right!
Humans have been trying to figure out different ways to experience sexual pleasure and avoiding pregnancy from the very beginning. If you go back in history, you will find that in most primitive societies people were trying to control fertility in some way or other. And by this, it does not mean the contraception alone but through abortions too. These abortions were performed by the same midwives who help in the delivery of newborns.
When people discuss the history of contraception and how it all started, most go back to the time when the iconic Pill was invented. This post is intended to take you through the history of birth control, movements act, and its evolution in America.
Early Birth Control Methods
Most of the early implementation and process of birth control were not based on science. They were instead mostly based on magical and mythical thinking. Until the 19th century, people did not even believe in the biological fertilization process of sperm and egg. The understanding of the entire reproduction process was very limited throughout history.
Many birth control methods either failed or were unsafe and also bizarre. Think of some unpleasant ointments, herbs, some weird edible stuff, tinctures and more such methods to avoid pregnancy. What else? Wearing amulets with dead animal’s organs like weasel testicles during the Middle Ages, mule’s uterus in ancient Greece. Sounds crazy, right?
One such primitive practice mainly seen in almost all societies throughout history has been coitus interruptus. It is also known as ‘pulling out’ or ‘withdrawal method’.
Amidst all these not so practical methods, the ancestors also brought in some surprising, yet innovative ways. It is to be understood that most of the birth control technologies that are available in today’s time are simply the extended modification of the ancient methods.
Different IUDs in Old Times
Even the use of IUDs goes back centuries old. The exact processes are not discussed in detail, but they were similar to non-hormonal IUDs. The early version of IUDs caused mild soreness of endometrium leading to the interference with ovulation and fertilization.
However, the barrier method has been the most tried and tested form of contraception throughout history. Women used organic matters such to make pessaries which were tiny, round vaginal insert devices. These devices were made in different structures using metal, stones, and other substances. They were similar to old cervical caps and primitive diaphragms and used to block the sperm from entering the cervix.
One such simple barrier method that survived the test of centuries and turned into the baseline for the popular Seinfeld scene is the “Sponge Method”. In olden times people who lived close to the sea would use the natural sponge that grows around.
The sponges were inserted into the vagina for blocking sperm so that they do not reach the uterus. Women also experimented with spermicides where they would use a type of citrus scent that stung really bad. They would soak the natural sponge in orange juice and lemon juice and use it in the vagina or sometimes wash their vagina with it.
For men, there are records of them using primitive condoms that were made of tortoiseshell and leather. The use of primitive condoms became more sophisticated during the 16th century. Men started using linen clothes soaked in various herbal tonics, so as to prevent STIs such as syphilis. Towards the early 19th century, men in America started using condoms made of animal intestines.
Introduction of Condoms
After centuries of various nature-based methods, in 1839, the first technological contraceptive revolution started. In colonial America, vulcanized rubber was introduced. The material was similar to latex and was used for the manufacturing of high-quality condoms.
The same technology was used to create vaginal diaphragm that grips vaginal and blocks the walls of the cervix to prevent sperm entry. Unlike sponges and pessaries, these diaphragms have flexible rings that make it easier to insert. These vaginal diaphragms were the only reliable contraception for women for a very long time.
Period: 1840-1890: Battle against Birth Control in the U.S.
When the condoms were introduced in 1839, it was also the same time when the American government started the crusade against birth control. It also gave the monotheistic religious bodies a little push to keep riding on the battle that they started from the beginning of the modern period.
Most states had almost eliminated, or banned contraceptives. During the 1840s to 1890s, they termed it to be illegal throughout the country. As per the Comstock Act in 1873, the distribution of pornography, artificial contraception, and all obscene materials was made illegal in the country.
However, the act did not stop women from taking care of their control in giving birth. The use of other low key methods such as douches and pessaries were still being used. The women who belonged to the upper class got birth control from overseas. Smugglers brought contraceptive Pills to the U.S. and sold them in the black market.
Fight for Contraception: Movements
As a part of the women’s rights movement during the start of the 20th century, many powerful political, as well as socioeconomic forces, united to focus on the demand for birth control. There were state laws that raised the women’s marriage age, compulsory education for children. This, in turn, helped in removing kids from the workforce and getting an education in their childhood.
During World War I, when men went to the battlefield, women took up many jobs. Hence, the change in modern life made it impractical for women to keep giving birth one after another.
Hence, it can be said that World War I was responsible for setting the foundation for a revolution. Prostitution industry flourished around seaports, army bases leaving U.S. Navy to face the grave epidemic of sexual diseases. This resulted in the massive loss to the Navy when sailors were missing on active duties. Navy secretary made it compulsory for sailors to use condoms, which in turn lead to men getting accustomed to the protection.
Soon, the condoms were sold in drug stores as a labeled solution to prevent sexual diseases. However, women did not like the idea of this advantage because there was still nothing for women to get legally. Also, they wanted more power in their hands to choose contraception than trusting men.
Margaret Sanger- Woman of Brave Accomplishments
The contraception fight was still on, and there came the ambitious women Margaret Sanger. She transformed the birth control movement from private practice to a public movement. Her appalling experience as a nurse where she saw women from lower-class suffering from poor health due to unaffordable childbirth and dangerous abortions galvanized her work in the years to come.
During her visit to Europe, she met many people who were working on the contraception issue and learn about vaginal diaphragms. On her return, she was brave enough to open America’s first birth control public clinic. She also founded an organization in 1921 which was later named “Planned Parenthood“.
By 1920s every city in America was running grassroots campaigns. There were organizations that ran illegal clinics and spread the word. It was one of the most powerful movements for contraception that made the general public change their opinion. PPFA developed the first contraceptive pills which were publicly available in the 1960s.
While the condoms continued to win the supremacy over other birth control methods after a few decades, science was bringing more options for contraception. In the 1950s, Margaret Sanger started her search for Pill with the help of scientists John Rock and Gregory Goodwin Pincus.
While looking for infertility treatment, fertility doctor John Rock thought about inducing pregnancy hormones to trick the body by artificially suppressing the ovulation stage. After repurposing and more experimentation in the next few years, Sanger got something productive. The drug was highly successful in regulating menstruation and prevent fertilization.
In the year 1957, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration approved the drug for the treatment of period-related disorders. In 1960, the FDA approved the Pill for the prevention of pregnancy. There were few insignificant obstacles from the conservative citizens, but the Pill reached its successful state. While some states’ laws still kept contraception illegal, it was easy to smuggle pills across the borders. Women’s increasing interest in contraceptive pills showed a reflection on their desires. It was discreet, 100% effective, and finally, female-controlled.
“The Pill was a boon for the whole of the birth control industry.”
In 1965, the Supreme Court legalized birth control for married couples, and a year later, abortion was also legalized. In 1970, the backlashes started again due to concerned side effects like heart attacks and embolisms. After checking the dose and concerning side effects, the low potent and progestin-only pills were introduced.
Role of Other Contraceptives
In the last century, more birth controls have emerged that are being tested and experimented for people looking for permanent solutions. After the Pill came into existence, the implants, birth control patches, vaginal rings, and hormone-releasing IUDs soon followed in the birth control market. These are different and convenient vehicles for delivering results.
It is important to recognize the availability of different hormonal contraceptives in today’s time. They are now important aspects of gynecological medicine. They not only provide prevention from fertilization but also treat painful periods, endometriosis, and menstrual irregularity.
There is only one safe non-hormonal and reliable contraceptive that is introduced almost a decade back along with the Pill. It is a non-hormonal IUD. In the 1960s, the T shaped device that was made of metal or plastic came into existence.
But in the 1970s, due to the severe safety issues concerning the certain brand of IUD reported infertility, pelvic issue, and also death in some cases, which lead to the ban of the IUD by FDA followed by removal of other IUDs.
The comeback was made in 1988 with the introduction of Copper IUD that is one of the successful IUD that is still high in demand. Copper IUD is used to prevent pregnancy for up to 10 years.
When you look back in history, it is amazing to see the extent of the impact made by Pill on the lives of American women. The effective birth control movement was one of the major game-changer for women in the 20th century. This control gave women the choice to manage their fertility choices and freedom to own their sexuality and health. In the 1960s, the introduction of Pill transformed the lives of both single as well as married women, and couples.
Moreover, it gave women a new degree of freedom to shape the future in terms of their career choices, how many kids they wanted, and when, and whether they wished or not. The change was fast. In 1970, there was a 20% increase in college enrollment by women who were educated about Pill by the age of 18. Women empowerment and higher education and adding to the workforce had been the deepest transition in the history of America.
Today over 62% of women between 14-45 use at least some other types of contraception. The good news is that it is now covered by insurance by the ACA ( Affordable Care Act). Birth control is an essential aspect of a morally sound society, which is also an important consideration for the modern life where the safety, freedom, and the rights of women has their own place and recognition.