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History of Birth Control

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Birth Control: A History

Throughout history people have tried to prevent pregnancy in many unique ways. Some methods were effective others were not, but as technology improved and more about the human body became known, the effectiveness of birth control steadily increased. The first evidence of birth control comes from ancient times, and once it begins great advancements were achieved that continue to today. There are thorough recordings throughout the Greek and Roman eras, the Middle ages, and the American West, all the way through today.

When first addressing this subject it may seem that none of the people throughout history could possibly have found an effective form of birth control or a safe method of abortion because their ways are not ours. Today we have pills with very complex structures with just the precise chemical make-up to change our bodies from fertile to infertile temporarily. How could any ancient civilization even come close to that type of innovation? It is true that the people in history were very limited in their knowledge of the human body and alkaloid chemistry was a distant dream, but they were very resourceful in their use of plants and other methods when it came to population control and avoiding social stigmas especially in the upper classes.

The first evidence of birth control begins in ancient times, especially in Egypt. For example, in the Berlin Papyrus that dates back to 1300 B.C.E. a prescription is written for prevention of pregnancy: "You should [make] for her a prescription to loosen semen" (Riddle 66). These scrolls verify how far back the practice of oral contraception goes but this is only the first written record. It is probable that these practices dated back much farther than that written record. Oral contraception was a very important part of Egyptian life according to the evidence. In these times fertility and population growth and decline were essential to survival. Sometimes it was necessary to produce as many children as possible, so the focus shifted to promoting pregnancy and endorsing fertility. On the other hand, in times of famine or drought there were too many mouths to feed so birth control was important to control supply consumption. The focus was shifted to preventing pregnancy at all costs for a better chance of survival.

In the earliest known writing from Egypt , the Kahun Medical (or Obstetrical or Gynecological) Papyrus that dates back to 1850 B.C.E. the need for birth control is reflected in the three fragments of prescriptions for preventing pregnancy. They are all vaginal suppositories.

Recipe I (Kahun. No. 21 [3, 6]):

Not to become pregnant, thatÐ'...

Feces of crocodile, smash up with fermented dough [or paste];


Recipe 2 (Kahun 22 [3, 7]):

Another Recipe.

6/7 Pint of honey; sprinkle in her vagina.

This is done with [hr shm] of soda/saltpeter.

Another Recipe.

[Ð'...mashed up] with fermented dough/paste, sprinkle in her

VaginaÐ'... (Riddle 66)

The full translation of this passage has been lost but its purpose rings clear: to prevent pregnancy. These concoctions, while having little to no chemical activity should have been effective for the most part in preventing pregnancy as a barrier method if not as a deterrent from copulation entirely because of its ingredients.

Another vaginal insertion to prevent pregnancy is an amulet with the Egyptian god Seth on it. When inserted into the vagina it supposedly served as a device to open the womb to assist in child birth and menstruation but also used to close the womb thus causing hemorrhaging, miscarriage, or abortion. This amulet does not come with any proof of success with any of the problems with which it was said to assist.

Another notable source of early birth control information comes from a familiar scroll, the Ebers Papyrus which dates back to between 1550 and 1500 B.C.E. This papyrus contains numerous entries that pertain to a woman's cycle including contraception, menstruation, and especially abortion. The writings refer to abortion as "loosening a child in the belly of a woman" (Riddle 70). While many of these ingredients and concoctions are arbitrary a few represent substances that actually possess antifertility substances such as acacia and date palm. Acacia especially produces lactic acid anhydride with fermentation which, when dissolved in water, produces a similar chemical structure to the spermicides that are used on diaphragms today.

It is easily observed that the Egyptians while having limited information about the human body were able through trial and error to come up with methods of birth control that worked. It is amazing to think that we as humans are able to recognize the potential in the environment around them and to use it for whatever was necessary.

The next civilizations to try their hands at birth control and abortion were the Ancient Greek and Romans. In these civilizations it was the individual physicians that held their own beliefs and writings about the woman's cycle and reproduction.

One influential Greek physician was Soranus. Soranus lived from the 1st to 2nd century C.E. He practiced in Alexandria and Rome and specialized in obstetrics, gynecology, and pediatrics. Soranus provides one of the first records of coitus interruptus or pulling out. He states:

At the critical moment of coitus, when the man is about to discharge the seed, the woman should hold her breath and hurl herself away a little so that the seed may not be lodged too deeply within the cavity of the uterus. Then the woman should immediately get up and squat down, induce sneezing, and wipe the vagina (clean) all around and maybe drink something cold. (Riddle 30)

We now know that this method of birth control is only effective 75% of the time. However, this is a huge success rate for the people of this time.

Soranus's contribution to birth control did not stop with this advice. He like most other physicians who had an opinion on the matter also had a plethora of vaginal concoctions, and even more creative ways of preventing fertilization such as: "dislodging the sperm by jumping backwards seven times after intercourse; and sitting down on bent knees in order to provoke sneezing!" (London)

Another physician with much to contribute to the plight of women



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