Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Birth Control Through the Ages

Listening to the debate about birth control an observer might think it is a product of our decadent society. Not true. Birth control is not a modern idea. Various contraceptives have been used since ancient times.

Condom use dates back thousands of years. Some ancient societies were unaware of their birth control powers; condoms were used to prevent the spread of disease. Cave paintings in France dating back 12,000 to 15,000 years indicate condom use. King Minos of Crete used condoms made of goatskin around 3000 B.C. There is evidence of condom use in ancient Egypt and Rome.

Numerous records exist of items inserted in a woman’s vagina to prevent pregnancy.

Hippocrates, a Greek physician practicing around 400 B.C., discusses a birth control device similar to modern intra-uterine devices. The IUD was a hollow tube filled with mutton (old sheep) fat. 'Pessaries' composed of a variety of substances were common birth control devices in ancient Greece.

What is a pessary, you might ask? Defined in the Medical Dictionary: “an instrument placed in the vagina to support the uterus or rectum as a contraceptive device.” The second definition, “a medicated vaginal suppository.”

The Greeks believed pungent, sweet smelling odors attracted sperm and helped a woman become pregnant. On the other hand a foul smell deterred sperm and prevented pregnancy. Therefore, depending on a woman’s wish, either sweet smelling or foul smelling products were placed in the vagina. 

The Greeks used Pennyroyal, a mint-flavored plant, in cooking and winemaking. It also induced abortion.

I wanted to stick with credible contraceptive methods, but I cannot resist citing this one by Soranus, a Greek gynecologist practicing around 200 A.D. He suggested a woman hold her breath during intercourse, then sneeze, then jump up and down to prevent sperm from entering the womb.

Neglect of an effective birth control policy is a never-failing source of poverty which, in turn, is the parent of revolution and crime.
                                                            - Aristotle (384BC-322BC), Greek philosopher

Moving on to other parts of the world…

In New Zealand small stones were inserted in a woman’s uterus to prevent pregnancy.

Around 7 B.C. the discovery that a North African flower called silphium had contraceptive properties created demand throughout the civilized world. Eventually demand exceeded supply and the flower became extinct by 300 A.D.

The flower Queen Anne’s lace, or wild carrot, has been known for millennia as a birth control method. Seeds eaten within eight hours after sex prevented pregnancy - think morning-after pill.

Dong quai, or Chinese Metallica, was widely used for menstruation problems. Taken early in pregnancy it induced abortion.

It is not economical to go to bed early to save the candles if the result is twins.
                                                - Chinese proverb

Rue was another plant used to relieve menstrual problems. It also resulted in abortions.

American slaves chewed cotton root bark. Ancient Egyptians prepared a mixture of several ingredients, including acacia bark, applied it to wool and inserted the soaked wool in the vagina. The bark acted as a spermicide and the wool a barrier to insemination.

Unripe papaya was eaten to prevent or terminate pregnancy in parts of Asia. Papaya seeds are a male contraceptive, cutting sperm count to zero. Sperm count returned to normal when the man stopped eating the seeds.

Mercury was used in many cultures for a lot of physical ailments as well as for birth control. The problem is mercury is highly toxic and caused a variety of serious illnesses.

Knowledge collected over centuries on a wide variety of subjects was lost when Rome fell and Europe entered the Dark Ages. Birth control information, often passed down by midwives, practically disappeared in medieval Europe. After the plagues decimated the population in the 14th and 15th centuries, the Church and secular leaders launched an effort to repopulate the continent.  A hidden agenda in the Church's campaign against witchcraft and midwives was an attempt to ensure the elimination of birth control information.

Citric acid inhibits sperm and sponges soaked in lemon juice and inserted in the vagina were a deterrent to pregnancy. Legend says Casanova inserted half a lemon rind into his lovers as a precaution against pregnancy. Lemon and lime douches following sex were recommended as a birth control method, but apparently were not as effective as pre-sex citric acid procedures.

Coitus interruptus was widely practiced throughout history.

The first oral contraceptive pill - ocp - manufactured and available to the public was produced by G. D. Searle and Company. The year was 1960.

Birth control that really works: Every night before we go to bed we spend an hour with our kids.
                                 - Roseanne Barr (1952-   ), actress and comedian

And finally I will end with the lyrics from Loretta Lynn's song "The Pill," first recorded in 1972 but not released until 1975. The song was written by Lorene Allen, Don McHan, and T. D. Bayliss.

 You wined me and dined me
When I was your girl

Promised if I'd be your wife
You'd show me the world
But all I've seen of this old world

Is a bed and a doctor bill

I'm tearin' down your brooder house

'Cause now I've got the pill

All these years
I've stayed at home

While you had all your fun

And every year thats gone by

Another babys come

There's a gonna be some changes made

Right here on nursery hill

You've set this chicken your last time

'Cause now I've got the pill

This old maternity dress I've got 

Is goin' in the garbage

The clothes I'm wearin' from now on

Won't take up so much yardage

Miniskirts, hot pants and a few little fancy frills

Yeah I'm makin' up for all those years

Since I've got the pill

I'm tired of all your crowin'

How you and your hens play

While holdin' a couple in my arms

Another's on the way

This chicken's done tore up her nest

And I'm ready to make a deal

And ya can't afford to turn it down

‘Cause you know I've got the pill

This incubator is overused

Because you've kept it filled

The feelin' good comes easy now

Since I've got the pill

It's gettin' dark it's roostin' time

Tonight's too good to be real

Oh but daddy don't you worry none

'Cause mama's got the pill

Oh daddy don't you worry none

'Cause mama's got the pill


  1. This was very interesting. I loved the Chinese proverb about saving on candles!

  2. Interesting. But...but...if we allow birth control people might be having sex just for fun instead of for procreation. Imagine.

  3. That was an interesting and fun read. Sure glad we have progressed a bit.
    Laughed out loud at the Roseanne Barr quote.

  4. I'm so tired of the continued controvery about birth control. Someone on TV said that since the reports are that the economy is improving the politicians had to have another hot button topic to throw at Obama...thus the birth control/abortion controbersies coming to the forefront.

    How many times do we have to fight this battle?

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