12 Bizarre Facts About The History of Birth Control
Image Credit: Bryancalabro via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
The quest to separate sex from baby-making is an ancient one. From drinking small amounts of poison to shoving dung, rock salt, or oil up the hoo-ha, ladies and gentlemen have been trying to get it on without the responsibility of bearing children for millennia. It’s only been in the last century or so that we’ve really gotten it right, developing modern drugs and implantable devices that can stop sperm from fertilizing an egg with precision and reliability. But the path to making it easy to choose when exactly to have a child (or not to have one at all) hasn’t always been a smooth one. Here are just a few surprising, disturbing, and downright bizarre facts from the history of human research into non-reproductive sex.
1. The Pill wasn’t the first oral contraceptive.
Long before hormonal pills were readily available to women of childbearing age, eating and drinking certain substances served as a rudimentary form of birth control (along with various other fascinating methods). The residents of Cyrene, a North African city-state in the Greek and Roman Empires, ate a plant called silphion (and harvested it to extinction). Some ancient women ate pomegranate seeds to prevent unwanted pregnancies—inspired by the legend of Persephone—or ingested pennyroyal, which is toxic in higher doses. Recent research has shown these techniques to be at least somewhat effective, though other ancient methods, like the Chinese practice of drinking mercury, were downright dangerous.
2. The Talmud OKs the use of contraceptive sponges.
The ancient Jewish text recommends using a sponge soaked in vinegar to block semen in a few select cases: if a girl is too young to bear children, or if a woman is already pregnant or nursing.
3. The idea for the IUD may have come from a camel.
Ancient Arab camel owners reportedly placed small stones in the uteruses of their animals to prevent pregnancy, though this is likely just a legend. However, animals have played a vital role in the development of intrauterine devices. In 1909, a Polish doctor named Richard Richter published the first paper on the successful use of an IUD created from the guts of a silkworm.
4. No IUD has been designed by a woman.
A Grafenberg IUD designed in the 1920s. Image Credit: Wellcome Images via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
Though ancient reproductive medicine was generally a woman’s domain, practiced by midwives, gynecology eventually became a standardized medical practice under the domain of the medical establishment (largely dominated by men). Activists like Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger were instrumental in the fight for easily available birth control, but most of the people involved in developing modern birth control have been men. The IUD, which sits inside the uterus, has been designed by people without uteruses (which may be how some of the devices ended up looking like implantable shark teeth).
As an IUD designer told reporters Lucy Vernasco and Arikia Millikan in their excellent history of the IUD over on Vice:
"When I was in school, [women] were discriminated against. They weren’t accepted," said Dr. Jack Lippes, designer of the Lippes Loop, a once-prominent player in the progression of better, safer IUDs. He listed off all the men who’ve historically made the IUDs. "They’re all males, right."
5. Diaphragms were once known as “womb veils.”
In the late 1800s, American women had some access to early versions of the female condom. These diaphragms and cervical caps were sometimes called “womb veils” or even a “mechanical shield for ladies,” as historian Janet Farrell Brodie writes in her book Contraception and Abortion in Nineteenth Century America.
6. Birth control wasn’t legal for everyone until 1972.
While contraceptives like the Pill were available to married couples looking to plan their families, laws against distributing contraceptives to single people were still on the books until the 1970s. The U.S. Supreme Court finally brought birth control to the masses in Eisenstadt v. Baird, arguing that treating married and unmarried people differently violated the Equal Protection Clause. In the case, William Baird had been charged with a felony for giving Emko Vaginal Foam to a woman after a Boston University lecture on birth control.
7. An IUD can rip a sperm’s head off.
Database Center for Life Science (DBCLS) via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
IUDs work in a variety of different ways, mainly by making the uterus a terrible place for sperm. Copper can act as a spermicide, and non-hormonal copper IUDs have been known to rip sperm heads from tails.
8. We’re still arguing about how an IUD works.
While the IUD is one of the most effective contraceptives on the market, with an efficacy rate of 99 percent, scientists still aren’t precisely sure of the method through which it prevents pregnancy in some cases. The IUD largely hinders sperm mobility and function (see: ripping heads off), keeping the sperm from ever reaching the egg. However, if by chance a sperm does make it to the egg, the IUD thins the cervical mucus to keep the embryo from implanting in the uterus—which is why some lawmakers and craft stores argue (contrary to scientific research) that IUDs are a method of abortion.
9. The Pill’s active ingredient comes from a yam.
In the 1950s, a Mexico City-based company called Syntex synthesized progestin, the main hormone in birth control pills, from a wild Mexican yam called barbasco. Carl Djerassi, the chemist responsible for the breakthrough, is now heralded as one of the fathers of the Pill.
10. Condoms and tires have more in common than you thought.
Modern condoms wouldn’t be possible without Charles Goodyear, the inventor of vulcanized rubber. Ancient incarnations were made with linen and animal intestines, and were typically aimed at reducing the risk of disease, rather than preventing pregnancy. Goodyear patented his method of shaping and strengthening rubber in 1844, and the first rubber condom was produced a decade later. Latex versions, however, weren't invented until 1920.
11. The Pill has a four-week cycle because of the Catholic Church.
John Rock, (far left) one of the inventors of the Pill, in 1948 Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution via
Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
Most birth control pills feature a three-week cycle of active pills followed by one week of placebo pills made of sugar. There’s no biological underpinning that dictates this cycle. Rather, it is the design of John Rock, a devout Catholic doctor who conducted the first human trials of the birth control pill, and biologist Gregory Pincus. Rock argued that the Pill was a “natural” form of contraception, using hormones that occur naturally in the female body almost like a pharmacological extension of the Catholic-endorsed rhythm method—and thus should be accepted by the Catholic Church. (Needless to say, his argument was unsuccessful.) In an era when birth control was still quite controversial—the Pill wouldn’t be legal for unmarried couples in all states until more than a decade after its 1960 approval by the FDA—the researchers speculated that making it seem like birth control wasn’t interfering with the natural menstrual cycle would make it more palatable to the public.
However, the period that women get during the placebo week isn’t even a real period—it’s a withdrawal response from discontinuing the hormones. It’s perfectly healthy to skip your period by continuing to take the active pills.
12. The first trials of the Pill in humans involved test subjects who couldn’t technically consent.
Starting in 1954, gynecologist John Rock and biologist Gregory Pincus began tests of synthetic oral progesterone, or birth control pills. While 50 of Rock’s infertility patients volunteered, the drug was also tested on 28 psychiatric patients at Worcester State Hospital in Massachusetts. At the time, anti-obscenity laws in Massachusetts prevented the researchers from putting out a public call for volunteers.