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The History Of Birth Control

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From ancient Egypt to modern America people have attempted to control the human reproductive process. Human beings have long tried to stop the conception and birth of offspring for physical, emotional, social and economic reasons. Throughout history the actual thought behind the various methods have not changed much as evidence for barrier methods, abortions, withdrawal methods etc. can be traced back thousands of years. Egyptian papyruses dating from around 1850 B.C. show recipes for vaginal suppositories called pessaries thought to be effective in preventing a woman from conceiving. Ancient Romans used birth control because they did not feel that hoards of children fit with their highly civilized urban lifestyles (Clemmitt, 2005). In 200 A.D. Greek gynecologist Seranus concluded that women were fertile during a period known as ovulation. However, during a period known as ovulation occurred during menstruation Oyler, 2003). In order to prevent unwanted pregnancy Seranus suggested that women smear olive oil, pomegranate pulp, ginger , or tobacco juice around the vagina in order to kill sperm. He also suggested drinking water that blacksmiths used to cool metals, and jumping backwards seven times after intercourse to dislodge sperm. In Europe from the 800s to the 1900s European peasants wished only to expand their families during times of prosperity. Women of the time would attempt to prevent pregnancy using agents they called douches and purges which contained salt, honey, oil, lead mint juice and cabbage seed (Clemmitt, 2005). Birth control methods were taboo but accepted until the 1860s when care for women began to leave the hands of midwives and enter the hands of male doctors most of whom did not believe in a woman's right to prevent or terminate a pregnancy (Gordon, 1976). Early 20th century birth control included withdrawal methods, primitive condoms, the rhythm method, extended lactation, abstinence, abortion, and surgical sterilization. While contraception was not widely available to women of the time, the repeal of anti-birth control legislation brought about more reproductive freedom in the second half of the 20th century. Mass production of condoms, the introduction of the birth control pill and emergency contraception allowed women greater control over reproduction. While it can be agreed upon that birth control methods put control in the hands of women, historically the issue has been surrounded by controversy as the debate over the ethics of reproduction continues to thrive.

Ancient evidence suggests that women have attempted to abort unwanted pregnancies both alone and with the help of other women. There is evidence of potions known to cause termination of pregnancy. One notable potion called for a paste of mashed ants , foam from camels mouths, and tail hairs of black tail deer dissolved in bear fat (Clemmitt, 2005). Modern recipes from the late 19th and early 20th centuries include the use of turpentine castor oil, tansy tea, quinine water in which a rusty nail has been soaked, Epsom salts and gin with iron filings, rosemary, lavender and opium (Clemmitt, 2005). Aside from these potions, historically women have tried methods like severe exercise and heavy lifting to terminate unwanted pregnancies. History shows that prior to the 19th century abortion practices while considered taboo and rarely discussed were not considered sinful (Clemmitt, 2005). During this time there were no laws prohibiting women from taking actions to terminate early pregnancy. Also during this time both the protestant and Catholic permitted the termination of pregnancy until "quickening" , the time when it is believed that the fetus begins life. (Oyler, 2003) In the 1870s it was estimated that there were 200 full time abortionists practicing in New York City. At the time more women died during childbirth that during abortion procedures (Gordon, 1976). By the first half of the 19th century many states had made abortions illegal. Many abortionists remained illegally in practice as they were seldom severely punished by authorities. During this time however, moral disapproval of abortion increased. Attitudes toward abortion changed in the Catholic Church as new science suggested that life began before what was originally thought. Abortion did not become legal again until 1973 when the Supreme Court declared that a woman had a constitutional right to have an abortion in the case of Roe vs. Wade (Clemmitt, 2005). New issues arose in 2000 with the introduction of the abortion pill. Mifepristone of RU-486 which can be taken up to two months after a woman's last menstrual blocks the hormones needed to maintain pregnancy thus terminating it (Clemmitt, 2005)

Behavioral methods in controlling reproduction can also be traced back to ancient times. The practice of coitus interruptus requiring the withdrawal of the penis before ejaculation can be traced back to Africa, Australia, the Middle East, and Europe (Gordon, 1976) It was widely practiced in medieval Europe but was later condemned as a "vice against nature" (Gordon, 1976). Studies conducted in the 1920s and 30s found withdrawal to be the most common pre-medical form of birth control. Ancient Sanskrit text shows evidence of the practice of coitus obstructus, which required pressing the forepart of the testicle, which blocked the urethra forcing semen into the bladder. Less popular was the method of coitus reservatus, a practice through which the male avoids ejaculation entirely (Oyler, 2003). The process of calculating and abstaining from sexual intercourse during a woman's fertile period known as the rhythm method was widely popular during the 19th and early 20th centuries. This method was relatively ineffective however, due to a lack of true understanding of a woman's cycle. The availability of more reliable birth control methods during the 20th century marked a drastic decline in the practice of behavioral methods in birth control.

Barrier methods to prevent semen from entering the vagina are perhaps the most widely used forms of birth control today. The ancient Egyptians used a linen sheath to protect against disease suggesting the first real barrier method of contraception (See Figure 1 (Avert , 2005). Cave paintings form 100-200 A.D. show evidence of condom use in Europe (Avert,2005). During the 1500s in Italy, Gabrielle Fallopius invented a sheath (See Figure 1) for a male to wear over his penis during sexual intercourse. He later conducted experiments on 1,100 men, none of whom contracted syphilis while using the sheath. (Oyler, 2003). In the 1700s condoms made from animal intestines were used but were expensive. Because of the expense, often the condoms were reused decreasing the effectiveness (Avert, 2005). 1844 signaled the beginning of mass production of condoms. These condoms were made from vulcanized rubber, which



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