The Evolution of Birth Control Throughout History

Health Writer
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We think of birth control as a modern concept, but condoms, in some form, have been around since at least 3000 B.C. Spermicides made an appearance around the year 1500 in the way of linen condoms soaked in a chemical solution. But thankfully, since those times, birth control has evolved and become safer and more effective; now, there are more options available than ever before.


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Strange birth control methods of the past

Throughout the centuries, a number of odd methods were used to prevent pregnancy, according to Planned Parenthood. In the sixth century, women smeared a concoction of cedar rosin, myrtle, lead, alum, or wine on their cervix, and men smeared alum, pomegranate, gallnut, or vinegar on their penis. In the 1500s, women soaked linen in acacia juice and inserted it in the vagina to prevent pregnancy. And in the 1800s, cocoa butter suppositories were used.


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Abstinence: The age-old, fool-proof birth control method

Beyond the concoctions used in the early days of birth control, abstinence has also been a form of birth control for centuries. However, according to Planned Parenthood, abstinence was originally used as a way to assure men that children were theirs, rather than as a way to prevent pregnancy. When married women relied on abstinence, their husbands would turn to prostitutes. Despite numerous effective methods of birth control available today, abstinence is the only 100 percent guaranteed method to prevent pregnancy.


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This history of condoms

Ancient Egyptians used “sheaths” made of linen during sex to help protect from diseases, according to a 2013 article in the Indian Journal of Urology, and Ancient Romans used linen and animal bladders or intestines for contraception. Condoms as we know them today were invented in the early 1800s and were made from vulcanized rubber. Latex was invented in 1920 and is the material still used in the effective condoms we use for birth control and protection against sexually transmitted infections (STIs) today.


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The first birth control clinic

The first birth control clinic was opened in Brooklyn, New York, in 1916 by Margaret Sanger, who also coined the phrase “birth control.” In 1951, Sanger encouraged and funded endocrinologist Gregory Pincus’ work on developing an effective birth control pill.


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Diaphragms

Margaret Sanger was also instrumental in bringing diaphragms, a barrier method of birth control, to the United States in the 1930s. At this time, the Comstock Act forbade shipping the diaphragms and confiscated any that Sanger had shipped from overseas. In 1936, a judge allowed a package to be delivered, weakening the law, and by the 1940s, doctors recommended the device as an effective method of contraception, according to Planned Parenthood.


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The first birth control pill

In 1960, The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Enovid, the first oral contraceptive. It wasn’t until 1965, however, that the Supreme Court granted married couples the right to use birth control.


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The marred history of the IUD

Several years after birth control pills, in 1968, FDA approved the “Dalkon Shield” device to be used in the uterus as birth control: Enter the intrauterine device (IUD). However, it was pulled from the market after users began reporting perforations and pelvic infections — several women died. These events surrounding the first IUD led to a lasting stigma surrounding modern, safe forms of IUDs that are used today. As of 2018, IUDs are some of the most effective forms of birth control available.


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Birth control pills: Concerns over side effects

The 1970s brought new oral contraceptives, and this was when they were first prescribed as emergency contraception, sometimes called the “morning after pill.” But in 1979, concerns about the safety and side effects of birth control pills caused some women to stop taking them. Due to the large number of safety concerns, voluntary sterilization, including vasectomy for men, became popular in the 1990s, according to Planned Parenthood.


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Continued research on birth control methods

The next several decades provided a large array of research into birth control methods. The original pill was taken off the market and was replaced with a variety of new pills and other methods, including some that limit the number of periods per year, ones that are implanted, and others that require a shot once a quarter. IUDs and other contraceptives have also continued to improve.


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The future of birth control

Scientists are always looking for ways to improve birth control and provide people better control over family planning. For example, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is funding research for a remote-controlled, implantable birth control device the user could turn on and off, and researchers have completed preliminary testing for a male birth control pill. As technology continues to improve, it’s likely that we will continue to see more — and better — birth control options.