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Evolution of Birth Control

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The Evolution of Birth Control Rarely is there a subject that is considered as divisive as contraception. While we tend to think of birth control as a fairly modern development, it is an idea that has been around for thousands upon thousands of years and has been documented through both written word and various forms of art. The methods have ranged from spiritual and ritualistic to practical and scientific. Because of the length of a woman’s fertile years (about 40 years) the ability to control one’s ability to have children has affected millions of men and women and therefore is an issue that transcends time and place. The methods have ranged from spiritual and ritualistic to practical and scientific. The Ancient Egyptians are the first known to use a contraceptive known as a pessary. The pessary is a concoction made of crocodile dung, sodium carbonate, and honey all missed together, fermented, and inserted into the vagina as a spermicide and blockade to sperm. Other methods included the insertion of the other foods such as sour milk, acacia gum, dates, and the complete removal of the ovaries all together. The Ancient Greeks took a similar approach to birth control but instead of food they used oils such as olive oil, lead ointment, frankincense oil, cedar oil, and an ancient plant called silphium (a large cousin to the fennel plant which, because of such high demand, was extinct by the fourth century A.D.). While barriers such as condoms were documented as far back as about 3000 B.C. but were used as a protection against disease rather than the prevention of pregnancy. In the fourth century B.C., Aristotle actually wrote about early condoms and another method of postcoital contraception where the woman squatted and exerted pressure on her lower abdomen in order to push the semen out of her vagina. Moving on to the Middle Ages, attempts to control sexual activity turned to enforcing abstinence with something called a chastity belt. These devices, which were more like shackles than belts, appeared first in the 15th century and were one-size-fits-most (so larger women had to endure the pain and irritation of the tight fit. They were made of metal and had tiny holes which allowed for defecation and urination but nothing else. They were usually made with padlocks on the side, the key to which was held by the girl’s parents or guardians until she was married. These devices, used until the 1930s, were also used to prevent the ability to masturbate. Condoms, first used to protect against syphilis and other diseases, was first used to prevent pregnancy by the famous womanizer Giacomo Casanova. He called it an “English riding coat.” He also attempted to create a primitive cervical cap out of a hallowed out half rind of a lemon. Animal membranes/ intestines and linen were also used as a reusable contraceptive sheath and packaged in a paper envelope for one to carry around. In the 1840’s, disposable condoms were able to be mass produced because of inverter Charles Goodyear’s vulcanization of rubber. This meant that condoms could be made cheaper and were much more readily available to the public. Sadly, in the 1870’s the US Congress passed the Comstock Act (named after anti-obscenity crusader Anthony Comstock) made it illegal to send any kind of contraceptive device or information via the mail. More than 25 states passed similar law, Connecticut being one of the most stringent in saying that “Any person who will use any drug, medicinal article or instrument for the purpose of preventing conception shall be fined no less than 50 dollars or imprisoned for no less than 60 days nor more than one year or be both fined and imprisoned.” Yet another form of contraceptive that is still used today is a sponge. First used in Egypt, it spread rapidly and these sponges were made of a variety of materials and were usually soaked in some kind of an astringent agent such as lemon juice or vinegar to act as a spermicide. During the great depression, many companies such as the cleaning company Lysol, marketed their products as “feminine hygiene” products that also acted as contraceptives. Lysol marketed a “Lysol douche” as a contraceptive and cleanser for the vaginal area. Not surprisingly, the “Lysol douche” was later found to cause vaginal scalding. Early IUDs came in the form of something called a stem pessary. These devices, made of metal, glass or rubber stems connected to a button or cup, were extremely dangerous and could very easily get lost in the uterus. The first birth-control pill, finalized in 1957, was called Envoid. It was submitted to the FDA as a treatment for infertility and menstrual disorders and by 1959, more than half a million American women were taking this drug. Three years later, the pill was then submitted to the FDA as a contraceptive and by the early 60’s it had become the most popular form of birth-control in the US. From 2000-2002, the FDA approved four new contraceptives: NuvaRing (a pliable ring that is inserted into the vagina and releases hormones for three weeks), Lunelle (a monthly injectable birth-control hormone), Ortho Evra (a patch that women can wear that frees them from the daily pill), and Mirena (an IUD that has effects lasting as long as five years) Then in 2003, a pill called Seasonale was created in order to give women only four periods per year. Today, there is a vast assortment of birth-control methods that range from most to least effective. From surgical sterilization to barrier methods, it is important to protect yourself from disease and unwanted pregnancy. These methods are readily available to the public and often come at little to no cost for those who visit free clinics. All that is needed is the education of all people so that these methods may be used effectively and correctly. It is clear that, throughout history men and women have gone to great length to control when and how they reproduce. It has been a concept for thousands of years and is one that transcends time and space and with all the advancements in the field, it is a blessing that we live in a society that has control over our reproductive system that our ancestors and even some contemporaries lacked. There are still many women and men who lack access to reliable forms of contraceptives. It should be our quest to reach out to people in all walks of life and provide them with the protection they deserve: it is a step towards their freedom and a step away from the problem of over-population and depletion of natural resources. As contraceptive pioneer Margaret Sanger said in Morality and Birth-control, “Birth control is the first important step woman must take toward the goal of her freedom. It is the first step she must take to be man’s equal. It is the first step they must both take toward human emancipation.”

Works Cited
Eldridge, Laura. In Our Control: the Complete Guide to Contraceptive Choices for Women. New York, NY: Seven Stories, 2010. Print.
Gordon, Linda, and Linda Gordon. The Moral Property of Women: a History of Birth Control Politics in America. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois, 2002. Print.
May, Elaine Tyler. America and the Pill: a History of Promise, Peril, and Liberation. New York: Basic, 2011. Print.
"A New Edition for a New Era - Our Bodies Ourselves." Information on Women's Health & Sexuality - Our Bodies Ourselves. Web. 30 Nov. 2011. .
Tone, Andrea. Devices and Desires: a History of Contraceptives in America. New York: Hill and Wang, 2002. Print.

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