A Brief History Of Birth Control

For almost as long as humans have existed, we’ve been trying to avoid getting pregnant. This journey through contraception's complicated past will make you feel lucky you live today.
birth control pills

Fun Fact: the progestin birth control pill was originally submitted to the FDA for approval as a treatment for “menstrual disorders,” because the researcher feared it would not be approved as a contraceptive product. Once approved, the box featured a warning label that stated “warning, this pill will likely prevent pregnancy,” and doctors began prescribing it off label. Source: NPR

For almost as long as humans have existed, we’ve been trying not to get pregnant, often in some interesting and creative ways. While abstinence is the only form of birth control that’s 100% effective, it’s not that interesting to write about. This journey through the history of contraception–from ancient herbal concoctions to glow sticks for your vagina–will make you thank your lucky stars that all the average American woman has to do to receive quality birth control today is buy health insurance, find a doctor who takes that health insurance, make an appointment, allow aforementioned doctor to stick things inside of her, pay her co-pay, bring her prescription to the pharmacy, wait for a pharmacist to fill the prescription, and then take one pill every day at the same time.

Ancient History

birth control ancient egypt

Source: Write Work

If you think pausing for a condom kills the mood, you should try rubbing crocodile dung on your cervix. That’s one technique ancient Egyptian women used to prevent pregnancy. Records detailing the use of birth control in Egypt date as far back as 1850 BCE. Most methods involved covering the “mouth of the womb” with some sort of sticky barrier to physically block any hopeful sperm. Besides crocodile refuse, Egyptian women also used a mixture of honey and sodium carbonate, or honey, acacia leaves, and lint for this purpose.

The acacia plant (also called thorntree, whistling thorn, or wattle) is native to parts of Northern Africa and has natural spermatocidal qualities. It’s still found in contraceptive jellies today. Another plant commonly used to prevent pregnancy in the past was silphium. It was related to certain types of fennel, and could only grow in one location: a small strip of land on the shores of Cyrenaica, a coastal city in modern day Libya. All attempts to cultivate silphium elsewhere failed.

Silphium was used for cooking as well as medicine, and became a such prominent part of the economy that by the 1st century BCE it was worth “more than its weight in silver.” Many Greek, Roman, and Cyrenean coins featured an image of the plant.

A monthly tincture of silphium was the birth control of choice for Ancient Greeks from the 7th century BCE until about the 2nd century CE when overharvesting drove the plant to extinction. Add that to your list of reasons to be annoyed with the Greeks, right below the cynical thought that everything you observe is a gross distortion of reality which bears little resemblance to the truth.

birth control silphium

Have you ever wondered how the heart symbol (♥) came to exist? Silphium seed pods were shaped like a heart, and many historians believe that the plant’s associations with sexuality and passion is the reason love and the heart symbol eventually became synonymous. Source: Edgar Lowen

Julia Day
Julia Day
Julia Day is a New York based writer and illustrator. She attended Colby College where she studied 17th Century Poetry, Environmental Science, and Philosophy.
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