Historical texts depict a wide array of barriers and oral methods utilized to avoid pregnancy. Even in ancient civilizations, women and men used various methods to plan their families using their understanding. Although early intra-uterine devices (IUDs), cervical caps, diaphragms, and condoms showed improvements in contraceptive effectiveness, some substances introduced into the vagina in the ancient civilizations were mechanical and toxic and could potentially cause discomfort injury. Throughout the extended history of trials to control pregnancy, social influences have been significant as research ideas. Moral and religious beliefs have interconnected with social and economic factors in the adoption and ban of contraception. It was unlawful to provide contraception information in most ancient civilizations, but health care providers had the authority to recommend methods in some cultures due to health concerns.
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Premodern Period Contraceptives
During the course of history, several information sources describe the utilization of various birth control methods. These methods were in the type of magical chants and charms, potions, and devices, and they were all utilized to avoid conception. However, their safety and efficacy left a gap to be filled. For instance, the texts of Aetius of Amida instructed females to dress in cat testes in a hose around their belly button.1 The 13th-century women from Islamic culture were recommended to urinate in a wolf’s urine to prevent pregnancy. Other contraception methods included withdrawal (coitus interruptus) and abstinence, which are seen as the oldest known methods. Although not a pregnancy control method, infanticide (used by the Spartans) and abortion (used by Muslims) also had a significant role in establishing family size all over history.
Besides, historical writings portray a wide range of oral contraceptives, including formulas with allegedly sterilizing products such as bark or leaves of poplar, willow, ivy, and hawthorn.2 Several women perished from strychnine, mercury, arsenic, and lead poisoning during the middle ages because these products were considered highly contraceptive.3 Barrier birth control methods were proposed, such as smearing alum to the uterus and covering the reproductive organs with genitals.4 Contraceptive diaphragms made from mixtures of pomegranate seed, lime, and a crocodile or elephant dung were put in the vagina to avoid pregnancy. Other contraceptives included gold balls depicted and used in Casanova, sponges, sicklewort leaves, and wool tampons immersed in wine.5 The following transitory histories demonstrate the several ways that men and women across cultures tried to enjoy their sex life while planning their families sensibly during the ancient civilizations.
Most of the ancient birth control methods were dependent on sexual deeds and are still applied today by millions of individuals worldwide. For centuries, abstinence, breastfeeding, foretelling fertility, and ancient people utilized outercourse to prevent unwanted pregnancies. Even today, these methods still play a significant role in family planning. Continuous abstinence, especially for women, was very crucial for ancient individuals who knew the relationship between vaginal sex and conception. After their initial menstrual period, women in different cultures were required to abstain from sex. Activists believed that both husbands and wives should live without sex to control the size of their families.6 Although abstinence among women in ancient civilizations was primarily intended to ensure the paternity of the children by their husbands, it played a significant role in preventing unwanted pregnancies out of wedlock.
Complete breastfeeding can delay menstruation and ovulation. Women from different cultures, especially the underprivileged, have used extended lactation to set apart their pregnancies throughout history. Women from ancient Egypt were recommended to breastfeed their babies for three years to reduce the high rates of infant mortality and decrease the number of unintended pregnancies.7 Individuals have tried hard to understand how a woman’s fertility works. Although the process was not well understood, various ancient cultures tried to introduce contraception methods based on their knowledge then. For instance, in ancient India, vaginal sex was urged during menstruation as it was believed that menstrual blood was semen, and babies were formed when it joined with a man’s semen.8 Therefore, this was the perfect time for couples to make babies.
Other cultures, such as the Jewish culture, prohibited sex during and days after menstruation as they believed that the woman is in her peak fertility after menstruation. In ancient Europe, periodic abstinence was compulsory due to religious reasons, which might have had a significant impact on preventing pregnancy. Christian men and women were obligated to abstain from sex for at least five months every year – during menstruation, at least three days before receiving communion, all Sundays, all feast days, 20 Pentecost days, 20 Advent days, and 40 Lent days.9 Sexual intercourse was also prohibited during pregnancy. In ancient civilizations, everybody had to abstain from sex during these times because spiritual union was obligatory.
In the ancient past, an efficient calendar technique and a novel vaginal mucus technique were other popular techniques used by women to prevent pregnancy. Women with consistent menstrual cycles could count days to determine their unsafe and safe days. Women were trained to identify their cervical discharges and recognize their safe days when they could consider unprotected sex.10 Africans were amongst the initial people to become familiar with their fertility sufficiently to plan their births in the ancient past. They noticed that examining the properties of their cervical secretions could assist them in avoiding or planning pregnancies.11
Withdrawal of the penis during intercourse before ejaculation is another contraception method used during ancient civilizations. Although it was considered a sin by Christians, it was among the most accepted birth control techniques in the world. In ancient India and China, men were inspired to practice withdrawal without ejaculation because people believed that ejaculating caused a significant loss of masculinity. Too much ejaculation would weaken men’s staying power and would be less likely to produce baby boys. Although not practiced as a birth control method, this withdrawal without ejaculation in a woman’s vagina acted as a contraception method. Since sexual pleasure was considered a sin by most ancient Christians, having intercourse without ejaculation was not considered a sin because having ejaculation was the only man’s pleasure during sex. Therefore, sex without ejaculation was the only innocent sex man could get. Although it was not formerly understood as a birth control method, withdrawal was broadly practiced among Christians and other religious cultures, and it helped in family planning in a way. In Genesis, there are references of withdrawal (coitus interruptus) as a contraception method when Onan ejaculates on the soil to avoid fathering a child with Tamar – his late brother’s wife.
Outercourse is a word that stands for other alternatives to penile-vaginal sex, such as masturbation. Masturbation and other nonreproductive sexual deeds are contraceptives in that they cannot lead to pregnancy. The Kama Sutra is one of the greatest written celebrations of nonprocreative sex practices practiced in ancient civilizations. Authored in 400 CE, the Kama Sutra describes erotic nonprocreative sex, which was part of life for the ancient Hindus. In ancient New England, outercourse was urged by the practice of “bundling.” Due to the long distances for courtships and the scarcity of bedroom areas, unmarried partners slept in one bed, either completely clothed or with a barrier between them. It was allowed for the young couples to become intimate but not to have vaginal sex. Anal and oral intercourse were other forms of outercourse used during ancient civilizations. Women and men were discovering the pleasures of seduction and outercourse to prevent pregnancies.
The barrier contraception methods used in ancient civilizations include condoms, vaginal sponges, contraceptive suppositories, films, jellies, creams, foams, cervical caps, and diaphragms. In China and Japan, condoms were used before the 15th century. In China, condoms were made out of lamb intestines and oiled paper. In Japan, they were made of thin leather and tortoiseshell.12 They were mainly intended to prevent sexually transmitted diseases. They were usually one-size-fits-all and had to be put in water before wearing. The first female condom is believed to have been utilized in ancient Greece. Due to a curse, King Minos ejaculated scorpions and snakes that killed the women he slept with13. As a result, his physician thought of inserting a goat’s bladder into his partners, thus holding all these poisonous animals before they could cause any harm.
All over history, females have been using various constituents to obstruct the passage of semen to the uterus and soak up semen. In South Africa, women used vegetable seedpods; in ancient Greece, empty halves of pomegranates were utilized; in Japan and China, wads of bamboo, moss, and seaweed were used. Sponges were possibly the most universally applied materials to absorb and block semen. Ancient Hebrew texts describe a contraception method of inserting natural sea sponges in the vagina to avoid conception. The texts recommended that the sponge had to be soaked in vinegar would prevent semen from getting into the uterus. Before the 15th century, French women used a soaked sponge in brandy to make the sperm weaker.14 The contraceptive sponge was used to protect girls who were too young to endure pregnancy, to prevent the risk of fertilizing another egg in pregnant women, and to avoid pregnancy while the mother was breastfeeding.
Barrier control methods can be dated back to 1850 BCE in ancient Egypt when substances were buried with deceased women to avoid pregnancy in the next life. The contraceptives they used included crocodile dung, sodium carbonate, and honey.15 In 1550 BCE, Egyptians used cotton bandages soaked in fermented acacia juice to prevent conception. They would insert the sponge in the vagina, and the acacia in the sponge would develop into lactic acid, which was an effective spermicide. In the 6th century, Greek women smeared their cervixes with cedar rosin mixed with wine, alum, lead, or myrtle. It was also recommended that the men smear their penises with vinegar, gallnut, pomegranate, or alum.16 Aristotle proposed smearing the vagina with cedar oil, lead ointment, or olive oil mixed with frankincense.17 In the first century, Indian women utilized rock salt immersed in lubricant for contraception18. They also used palasha tree seeds, ghee, honey, and elephant dung. Cocoa butter contraceptive suppositories were also used by some ancient cultures in Europe in the ancient civilizations.19 Ancient American slave women would chew the bark of cotton roots to avoid conception as it was believed to contain compounds that obstruct the production of progesterone, making it impossible for pregnancy to continue.
Ancient versions of cervical caps or diaphragms also existed in ancient civilizations.20 Women placed items that would obstruct semen from reaching the uterus in their cervixes. These substances had been utilized for years all over the world. Asian prostitutes used oiled paper discs to cover their cervixes. Opium balls, vegetables, fruits, rock salt, tree roots, silver, seeds, pepper, wool, rubber, beeswax, tissue paper, and sponge have all been used to cover womens’ cervixes in attempts to prevent unwanted pregnancies.21 In Ancient Rome, women used a bronze pessary to block the cervix. While it could stay there during sex, such sex would be painful.
In ancient Britain, there were several pessaries that were being used throughout the empire.22 Sponges enfolded in silk nets with withdrawal strings were used and marketed in magazines and newspapers in the US. However, there were laws that put down the distribution of contraceptive information and devices in ancient civilizations.23
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According to an ancient Greek myth, Persephone declined to eat anything else apart from pomegranate seeds when she was taken from her mom. Medical historians believe that she only consumed pomegranate seeds because they were among the best ancient oral contraceptives. That prevented her from conceiving a baby when she did not want to be. Greek women distinguished her for many years, and men were prohibited from these celebrations. Four plants – pomegranate, vitex, pine, and pennyroyal were key to these secret rituals. All these trees are now known to have contraceptive effects.24 It appears that women met to share the birth control secrets that Persephone acquired from her mother.25 In this way, they learned the various ways they could control unwanted pregnancies and conceive only at the tie of their choosing.
During the seventh century BCE, a stimulating contraceptive market developed in North Africa. A flowering plant known as silphium was believed to be a reliable contraceptive that it had a high demand all over the ancient world.26 Women from different cultures used herbs to plan their families. For example, women in Sri Lanka and India ate papaya when they wanted to prevent pregnancy. The papaya seeds were also used as a male contraceptive. They believed that eating them on a daily basis could reduce the sperm count of a man to zero – a process that was overturned when the man stopped consuming them. Modern researchers are usually surprised to find out how effective these ancient contraceptives were at preventing unwanted pregnancies.
Contraceptive information started vanishing in the 13th century in Europe because those who had the information became more dreadful about disseminating it. After all, sharing contraceptive knowledge at this time was considered heresy or witchcraft – which were punishable to death. In colonial America, African-Caribbean slaves became adept in contraceptives because they did not want to bear children who would later be sold as slaves by their masters.27 Therefore, women ensured that they utilized the available means to prevent conception.
The birth control pill emerged in the mid 20th century and was used by millions of women for family planning. However, the foundational research for the pill was based on the notion that several generations of Mexicans had been consuming a particular type of wild yam, the Barbasco root – for birth control. The progestin that was combined with estrogen to make the first pill was extracted from this yam. Although the first pill was not perfect, its straightforward application and simplicity spread to millions of females, and for the first time, they were able to disconnect vaginal sex from reproduction. That shows the effectiveness of the ancient use of the wild yam in avoiding pregnancy.
Using contraceptives after vaginal sex is a prehistoric practice. There have been various post-coital techniques that women and men throughout history have used. One method involves getting the ejaculate out of the vagina before fertilization occurs. This has happened in various ways. The woman possibly utilizes her fingers to guide urine to clean out the ejaculate from the vagina.28 Another way was the woman sneezing or blowing out her nose a number of times, then shouting loudly and jumping backward several times.29 Early Hebrew women were believed to be able to eject the ejaculate out of their vaginas by forcefully contracting their vaginal muscles.30 A much less strange way of removing the ejaculate was using a vaginal douche. This method involved using a syringe full of a mixture of alum and mixtures of raspberry leaf, green tea, hemlock bark, or oak. This recipe was claimed to remove most of the semen in the vagina and damage the fertilizing properties of any remaining semen.31
In the 9th century, a Persian doctor commended inserting paper into the vagina. The paper was could into probe-shaped material and smeared with ginger water.32 They were functional but caused infections that potentially caused death. Most of these ancient contraception methods were not tested for safety and thus caused adverse impacts to their users.
Ancient Period Contraceptives
The difference between the contraception methods used in the ancient era and those developed later is that the subsequent contraceptives were established on a more accurate understanding of the contraception process. The evolution to a modern age of birth control devices was exhibited by the discovery of the male condom by physicians in ancient civilizations. Also, in ancient civilizations, both the contraceptive nozzle used to insert a fluid solution of zinc sulfate or alum into the vagina and the contraceptive sponge were available in some cultures.
People throughout ancient civilizations understood that various plants could help avoid pregnancy. Some barks or seeds were used as natural spermicides – chemicals that destroyed sperms before fertilization.33 Several intravaginal devices comprising of barriers of diverse shapes or paddings became widespread to avoid pregnancy. Also, although it was not considered a contraception method, abortion was practiced in some ancient cultures. However, the practice was highly prohibited by the laws due to the complexity of the practice in the ancient world. Some cultures allowed women to undertake abortions after a divorce so as to prevent getting a child with a hateful husband. Women used secretive phrases to refer to various vaginal douches, suppositories, and powders because it was prohibited to market contraceptives in most ancient cultures. The original IUD used in ancient civilizations was a loop made of silkworm belly.
Modern-day contraceptives, mainly the IUD, cervical cap, diaphragm, and condom, represented an improvement in terms of efficacy compared to ancient contraceptives. Although all except the IUD depended on penis withdrawal and thus required a higher degree of conformity, they presented an improved contraceptive efficacy than the earlier methods. However, the safety of the ancient birth control methods was still a major concern. Various constituents put inside the vagina were irritating and toxic. Some mechanical tools had the possibility of injury and discomfort.
Factors That Influenced the Availability of Contraceptives
Various legal obstacles and social issues have impacted the availability of birth control methods, including health effects, familial organization, gender relations, religious prohibitions and beliefs, social or economic class, and moral arguments.34 Moral pressures on child conception were apparent in ancient Greece, where Plato argued that “if too many children are being born, there are measures to check propagation [and] a high birth rate can be encouraged and stimulated by conferring marks of distinction or disgrace.”35 Throughout history, religion has been a key player in instilling social attitudes toward birth control. While Judeo-Christian faiths formerly opposed contraception, the Roman Catholic Church has likely been its most insistent opponent.
Moral arguments are interconnected with class and economic factors in support of contraception. Ancient philosophers believed that overpopulation resulted in the overuse of scarce resources and lacked enough resources. Therefore, they advocated for underprivileged families to avoid childbearing. However, access to contraception seemed to be less available to the less fortunate, the very individuals in whom society deemed birth control as most necessary. Class differences in birth rates were clear in the early civilizations when contraception advocates were advocating for the rights of poor women.
Numerous legal hindrances impeded the efforts of those wishing or seeking to provide contraceptives. For instance, the Catholic Church disallowed all contraceptive information and devices, although it was independent of local and state laws. However, the public was granted the chance to loosen up the ban, but most chose to keep the law operational. It was prohibited to disseminate information on birth control in most ancient cultures, even though women wanted such material and asked for it from physicians, creating a challenging situation for doctors who preferred providing contraception devices and information. There were no many writings existing in the ancient past regarding birth control methods.36 that physicians could use on patients in the event that contraception was clinically allowed. The restriction of the negation was clear: contraceptives were only to be given by healthcare providers exclusively for health concerns.
The use of contraceptives is not a modern or new idea. Even ancient societies understood the connection between vaginal intercourse and ejaculation and the consequent conception of a baby. Some of the ancient contraception methods were interesting. However, most of them were unsuccessful, and many were not safe if not essentially deadly. Throughout the prolonged history of efforts to control birth, social dynamics have been of great significance, affecting the utilization and access of these methods. Disputes encompassed the development and initiation of contraceptives, and in some cultures, it was highly contentious and extremely politicized. With the arrival of oral contraceptives, women acquired the ability to plan their families for the first time and consequently gained control over their lives.
A Selected Bibliography on the Technique of Contraception and Social Aspects of Birth Control. 1931. New York: Holland-Rantos Co.
Asbell B. 1995. The Pill: A Biography of the Drug That Changed the World. New York: Random House.
Asbell, Bernard. 1995. “The pill: a biography of the drug that changed the world.”
Bullough, Vern L., and Bonnie Bullough. 1987. Women and prostitution: A social history. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books.
Chesler, Ellen. 2007. Woman of valor: Margaret Sanger and the birth control movement in America. Simon and Schuster.
Finch BE, Green H. 1963. Contraception Through the Ages. Springfield, Illinois: Charles C. Thomas, 98-99.
Fowkes, Charles, ed. 1991. The Illustrated Kama Sutra: Ananga-Ranga, Perfumed Garden: The Classic Eastern Love Texts. Park Street Press.
Hawley, Richard, Barbara Levick, Barbara Levick, and Beryl Rawson. 1995. Women in antiquity: new assessments. Psychology Press.
Himes, Norman Edwin. 1936. “Medical history of contraception.”
Keown Jr, Kenneth K. 1977. “Historical perspectives on intravaginal contraceptive sponges.” Contraception 16 (1): 1-10. doi.org/10.1016/0010-7824(77)90124-x
Knowles, Jon. 2001. “Vasectomy Lapel Pins.” personal remembrance. Tracking Your Fertility Pattern to Prevent Pregnancy. New York: Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
McLaren A. 1990. A history of contraception: From antiquity to the present day. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Basil Blackwell, Inc.
Parisot, Jeannette, and Geraldine Rudge.1987. Johnny Come Lately: A short history of the condom. Journeyman Press.
Plato. 1942. The Laws. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
Ranke-Heinemann, Uta.1990. Eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven: Women, sexuality, and the Catholic Church. New York: Doubleday.
Riddle, John M. 1992. Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance. Harvard University Press.
Shivanandan, Mary. 1979. “Natural Sex. New York: Rawson.”
Skuy, Percy. 1995. “Tales of contraception.” North York, Ontario, Canada: Janssen-Ortho.
Speroff L, Darney PD. 1996. A clinical guide for contraception, 2nd ed. Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins, 25–35.
Suitters, Beryl, and Fédération internationale pour le planning familial. 1967.
The history of contraceptives: University of Chile, Casa Central, Alameda Bernardo O’Higgins, Santiago... Fanfare Press.
Tone, Andrea.1967. Devices and desires: A history of contraceptives in America. Macmillan, 2002. World Health Organization. Mechanism of action, safety and efficacy of intrauterine devices: report of a WHO Scientific Group, Technical Report Series 753. Geneva: World Health Organization, 1–91.
- Asbell B. The Pill: A Biography of the Drug That Changed the World. New York: Random House, 1995, p. 6.
- McLaren A. A History of Contraception: From Antiquity to the Present Day. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Basil Blackwell, Inc., 1990, p. 15.
- Finch BE, Green H. Contraception Through the Ages. Springfield, Illinois: Charles C. Thomas, 1963: p. 98,99.
- McLaren, A History of Contraception, p. 16.
- Finch, Contraception Throught the Ages, p. 98.
- Speroff L, Darney PD. A Clinical Guide for Contraception, 2nd ed. Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins, 1996: p. 27.
- Lipsey, Richard G., Kenneth Carlaw, and Clifford Bekar. “Historical Record on the Control of Family Size.” (2005): p. 337.
- Fowkes, Charles, ed. The Illustrated Kama Sutra: Ananga-Ranga, Perfumed Garden: The Classic Eastern Love Texts. Park Street Press, 1991, p. 3
- Ranke-Heinemann, Uta. Eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven: Women, sexuality, and the Catholic Church. New York: Doubleday, 1990, p. 8
- Knowles, Jon. “Vasectomy Lapel Pins.” personal remembrance. Tracking Your Fertility Pattern to Prevent Pregnancy. New York: Planned Parenthood Federation of America, 2001, p. 7
- Shivanandan, Mary. “Natural Sex. New York: Rawson.” (1979), p. 18
- Parisot, Jeannette, and Geraldine Rudge. Johnny Come Lately: A short history of the condom. Journeyman Press, 1987, p. 19
- Rose, Herbert Jennings, Herbert William Parke, Charles Martin Robertson, B. C. Dietrich, and Alan AD Peatfield. “Minos.” In Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Classics. 2016: p. 17
- Keown Jr, Kenneth K. “Historical perspectives on intravaginal contraceptive sponges.” Contraception 16, no. 1 (1977): p. 4.
- Suitters, Beryl, and Fédération internationale pour le planning familial. The History of Contraceptives: University of Chile, Casa Central, Alameda Bernardo O’Higgins, Santiago... Fanfare Press, 1967, p. 24
- Himes, Norman Edwin. “Medical history of contraception.” (1936), P. 21
- Suitters, The History of Contraceptives, p. 25
- Himes, Medical history of contraception, p. 33
- Chesler, Ellen. Woman of valor: Margaret Sanger and the birth control movement in America. Simon and Schuster, 2007, p. 29
- Suitters, The History of Contraceptives, p. 18
- Himes, Medical history of contraception, p. 12
- Asbell, Bernard. “The pill: a biography of the drug that changed the world.” (1995), p. 4
- Chesler, Woman of Valor, p. 13
- Hawley, Richard, Barbara Levick, Barbara Levick, and Beryl Rawson. Women in antiquity: new assessments. Psychology Press, 1995, p. 21
- Riddle, John M. Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance. Harvard University Press, 1992, p. 34
- Riddle, Contraception and Abortion, p.19
- Tone, Andrea. Devices and desires: A history of contraceptives in America. Macmillan, 2002, p. 14
- Himes, Medical history of contraception, p. 5
- Skuy, Percy. “Tales of contraception.” North York, Ontario, Canada: Janssen-Ortho (1995), p. 4
- Himes, Medical history of contraception, p. 13
- Bullough, Vern L., and Bonnie Bullough. Women and prostitution: A social history. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1987, p. 11
- Suitters, The History of Contraceptives, p. 13
- Asbell, The Pill, p. 8
- Asbell, The Pill, p. 9
- Plato. The Laws. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1942, p.15
- A Selected Bibliography on the Technique of Contraception and Social Aspects of Birth Control. New York: Holland-Rantos Co., 1931, p. 11