Contraception is by no means a new discovery. There have been men and women finding ways to prevent unwanted pregnancy since the beginning of time. Some methods may be unconventional and others completely miss the mark on their intended purpose but there is always someone out there looking for a new and more effective way to help people stay in control of their reproductive paths. In the 1870s, a man named Anthony Comstock, who was the secretary of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice at the time, managed to pass national laws that prohibited the distribution of contraceptive information through the United States’ mail because he felt that this type of information was offensive. These laws were known as the Comstock Laws. Considering this ban, the only “real” form of birth control was abstinence (Crooks 298). During this time, a woman named Margaret Sanger stood up against this ban by opening the first, and illegal, birth control clinic in the United States in approximately 1915. Sanger’s clinic was a place where women could go to obtain and learn to use diaphragms that Sanger had shipped to the United States from Europe. She also published information about contraception in her newspaper which she fittingly named The Woman Rebel. Because of the ban she was deemed a public nuisance and sentenced to time in prison but that did not stop her. After returning from Europe, where she had gone to avoid capture, she began promoting research on birth control hormones. This project was financed by her friend Katherine Dexter McCormack (Crooks 298). Her efforts showed that there were people, even then, that felt having options for what happens with one’s body being in their power is monumentally important. She was a visionary and influenced many people, including the person who opened the Chicago Medical Bureau in the late 1920s. The clinic was open for over a decade and in that time, was able to cater to nearly 1,300 women a year (Holz 117). Just as Margaret had fought for the option for women to have choices it is also very important for people to be knowledgeable about the options available to them. This paper will explore and analyze the evolution and development of contraception throughout history from as early as 3000 BC to the birth control of today.
One of the first forms of contraception made was the male condom. In 3000 B.C. condoms were supposedly made from materials such as fish bladders, linen sheaths, and animal intestines. It is interesting to see that one of the most common contraception methods of today is dated back further than most. Some even say there are cave paintings that depict cavemen wearing them. In “ancient times”, as Robert Jütte puts it in his book Contraception: A History, people thought that wearing amulets made from animal parts would make the characteristics of these animals affect the people that wore them. Such thinking also created the idea that by eating the ashes of a castrated mule, the infertility of the animal will be passed on to the person (Jütte 50). This was when people looked more into magical cures rather than sciences when it came to most ailments, including pregnancy. One of the earliest forms of contraception for women, which does not focus on a magical cure, was the Egyptian pessary which was made in about 1850 B.C. It was a mixture of crocodile dung, honey, and sodium carbonate. It was said that by inserting this concoction into a woman’s vagina it will prevent pregnancy by blocking and killing sperm. Around the year 1500, the first spermicides presented the use of condoms made from linen cloth that were soaked in a chemical solution and dried before using. Although the first spermicide was not introduced until the 1500s it would seem that it and the Egyptian pessary have shared attributes, such as blocking and killing sperm. In the late 1500s, approximately 1564, an Italian anatomist described a penile cover made of cloth like it was a revolutionary idea, and it was at the time. However, mass manufacturing of the more modern condoms started after the development of vulcanized rubber in the 1840s (Crooks 314). During this time diaphragms also entered circulation while being made of the same material as the modern condoms of the 1840s.
In the 1920s, the invention of latex came around. The first latex condoms were produced by the Youngs Rubber Company. They were produced in mass quantities, and were much cheaper the make as the labor needed was not as high. Also in the late 1920s to the mid-1960s women tried using Lysol disinfectant as a way of preventing unwanted pregnancy. However, the use of the disinfectant did not have the effect it advertised and even had severe side effects that included death. In the midst of this period, doctors came about with a technique to avoid pregnancy that they called “The Rhythm.” By 1940, the Rhythm faced high levels of criticism because of its high failure rate. Variations of this method were later introduced in an effort to predict ovulation more accurately. These variations included temperature, hormonal, and mucus methods (Viterbo 34). Lucky for the women, The FDA approved the first birth-control pill, norethynodrel, also known as Enovid in the 1960s. The pill became quite popular, in a matter of two years more than 1 million women had started taking it. Later research connected the pill’s high levels of artificial estrogen to an increased risk of heart attacks, blood clots, and strokes. Before it was approved by the FDA Enovid was a commercial product made by the McCormick company for the treatment of mental disorders, not for contraceptive use (Prescott 12). During this time, there were laws that kept doctors from prescribing contraception to unmarried women in any state of the U.S. without the consent of a parent. By 1972, the “age of majority” had been lowered to 18 years old in most states which made it so that anyone 18 years of age or older could be prescribed birth control without the consent of a parent (Goldin and Katz 732). Moving on to the 1990s, birth control methods started to move beyond oral and rubber use. In the early 1990s, the FDA approved Medroxyprogesterone or Depo-Provera, making it the first hormone shot to prevent pregnancy for several months at a time. Around the same time, the first female condom was made. The female condom was made of polyurethane or latex and was worn inside the vagina (Crooks 317).
In the early 2000s, four new birth-control products went on the market. These products included the Ortho Evra, which is commonly known as the birth-control patch; the NuvaRing, a ring that is inserted into the vagina; Lunelle, a hormone injection like Depo- Provera that was approved about a decade prior; and Mirena, also known as an IUD, an intrauterine device that’s effective for five years. According to Robert Crooks in his book Our Sexuality, there are three IUDs available in the United States, they include the ParaGard, Mirena, and Skyla (Crooks 320). In 2006 Implanon entered the market. Implanon is a small, thin, implantable hormonal contraceptive that is implanted in the skin of a woman’s upper arm, it prevents pregnancy for up to three years. The year following the appearance of the hormonal implant a new pill was approved by the FDA. Lybrel was the first low-dose contraceptive pill that gave a woman the option to stop her menstrual cycle much like the birth control pills that are on the market today. In 2010 a new emergency contraceptive pill called Ella followed by Skyla in 2013, which was a new levonorgestrel-releasing IUD that used its copper components for emergency contraception.
The birth control that is available today very much reflects the advances in each item’s history. For example, the modern-day condom remains one of the primary contraceptives used and uses latex to manufacture. Some of the differences between condoms of the past and those of today is that today’s prophylactics can be colored, flavored, and even glow in the dark. Condoms still remain the only method of birth control that prevents sexually transmitted infections. Today birth control pills come in three varieties. There is the combination pill, which contains both estrogen and progestin; the progestin-only pill, which contains only progestin and is usually only prescribed if the person has had side effects from other types of pills; and extend cycle pills, these are the Lybrel pill that was mentioned previously. Just as the condom has not changed much, neither has many of the birth control methods that were developed in the past. The Nuvaring, female condom, intrauterine devices, spermicides, and diaphragms have not changed very much over the years, mostly it is the popularity of their brands that change. Most of these methods need a prescription or a clinical visit to insert. There has been talk about a new form of birth control for men that have been deemed controversial. In 2016, it was announced that there will be a male birth control shot that will work up to 10 years. At the same time, a gel was developed for men to use that could also be considered a spermicide. It is not clear whether or not these new developments will be effective but it appears that there are many of those who are hopeful.
In closing, so much has happened in the world of birth control. The concept of birth control is possibly as old as time itself. Through research, it was found that even in its earliest stages birth control was a strong idea. There were periods of time that it was even illegal to use or even learn about any form of contraception but that seemed to only make it stronger as there were people who fought the system for these methods to be spread. There were even people during that period of time that continued to develop new forms for future use. Each of the methods that were developed in the past found their way to the present in some shape or form. For example, the male condom remains from the 1920s, despite being the oldest form in history. This just shows that the concept of birth control in constantly expanding and people are always learning new things to aid in the development of new contraception. One can only hope that one day there will be more methods, besides the condom, that protects and prevents both diseases and pregnancy. It is only a matter of time before such a discovery is made.