Amazing Moments in Birth Control
A curious history
The pope disapproves of it. Teenagers are confused by it. And it may be one of the world's most politically charged health issues. Though most people associate birth control with the advent of the Pill in the '60s, contraception is an age-old concern.
With an estimated 62% of American women ages 15 to 44 currently using some form of contraception, it's worth knowing how we've evolved from creams made from crocodile poop (yep, crocodile poop) to the development of rubbers, rings, and other types of
Condoms come first
"There is no society that's been found that didn't practice birth control. It's a universal and eternal practice," says Linda Gordon, PhD, a professor of history at New York University and the author of The Moral Property of Women.
Though archaeologists debate the exact origin of the condom, the earliest known illustration of a man apparently
using one for intercourse was engraved on a cave wall in France about 12,000 years ago. But guys weren't having all the fun. Thousands of years later, ancient Egyptian women began experimenting with contraception of their own: crocodile dung as spermicide. Talk about a mood killer!
Forget postcoital cuddling
In the classical period, authors began referring to some interesting (though likely ineffective) choices for contraception.
Soranus, a Greek physician, studied several different suppositories, made from everything from pomegranate peels to ginger.
His work paved the way for modern-day gynecologists, but we know now that some of his methods were less than brilliant.
Forget postcoital cuddling: Soranus recommended that women squat down and sneeze immediately after intercourse. And if a woman thought she was pregnant, he recommended simply jumping up and down seven times.
You put that...there?
Pessaries, or cervix blockers, were another popular form of contraception. Women had been using less-than-appealing objects during menstruation, and they began experimenting with similar objects as birth control. "There are substances in nature—anything acidic—that help prevent pregnancy," says Gordon. "The issue is how you make it stay [in place during sex]."
African women used chopped grass or cloth, Japanese prostitutes used bamboo tissue paper, and women along the Mediterranean used sponges. These sponges weren't Today sponges from a box—they were from the sea. And often they were soaked with lemon juice, vinegar, or other supposed sperm-killing agents. Doesn't sound chic? On the contrary: Even the mighty Cleopatra is rumored to have used them.
Why "penis sheaths" didn't catch on
In 1564, Gabriel Fallopius (the doctor who discovered the tubes that bear his name) published the first description of a linen sheath for the penis. At that time, condoms were also made from animal intestines and skin, and were used primarily to prevent syphilis—not pregnancy.
Even the lover of all lovers, Casanova, used what he called "English riding coats" before heading to the bedroom. But because condoms weren't cheap, they were often reused, leading to not-so-sterile relations.
The advent of "rubbers"
Good-bye, linen; hello, rubber! In 1844, Charles Goodyear patented the process of vulcanizing rubber—making it waterproof, stronger, and more elastic—and condoms became mass-produced. To the dismay of Christian groups, advertisements for Dr. Power's French Preventatives appeared in the New York Times.
The Comstock Law of 1873 outlawed sending "any article or thing designed or intended for the prevention of conception" through the mail, making these mass-produced "rubbers" increasingly difficult to find. As a result, the unsanitary practice of "recycling" condoms continued.
Give me birth control or give me death
During World War I, the U.S. government approved the distribution of condoms to the troops stationed abroad in order to combat sexually transmitted diseases.
Meanwhile, Margaret Sanger (pictured) was crusading for reproductive rights for women. "She established the need for women to control their fertility as a mainstream issue and a right," says Paul D. Blumenthal, MD, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Stanford University School of Medicine.
Defying the government, she distributed
birth control information to the public. Her efforts played a role in the amendment of the Comstock Law in 1936 to exempt physicians from its ban.
Peace, love, and the Pill
Hormonal birth control was tested in the '40s and '50s, but it wasn't approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) until 1960. Five years later, it became the leading method of reversible birth control.
But holy hormones! The original Pill contained more than 100 mcg of estrogen (now the average dose is 20 to 35 mcg), causing serious side effects such as blood clots. "I don't think women realize that
today's side effects —the bloating, weight gain, and headaches—are so minimal. They weren't as tolerable at first," says Julie Oyler, MD, an assistant professor at the University of Chicago Medical Center.
In 1969, Barbara Seaman released The Doctors' Case Against the Pill, which resulted in a mandatory insert in the birth control packaging describing potential side effects.
Contraception and pop culture
The '70s brought the legalization of tubal ligation and the first scientific study of emergency contraception (though the FDA wouldn't approve it until the '90s). The '80s brought the short-lived Today sponge, which reappeared in pharmacies early this year; its withdrawal from the market prompted a hilarious 1995 Seinfeld episode in which Elaine attempted to deem her boyfriends 'sponge worthy'.
Once taboo, birth control had hit the mainstream. The '90s brought the first mass-produced
female condom, and 2001 brought the patch and the ring. "Trojan Man" radio advertisements hit airwaves and the first condom ad went live on primetime in 2005—although this popular Trojan ad (pictured) was rejected by some networks.
Withdrawal gets the OK
We might want to pass on most of the contraception methods of the past, but some age-old strategies just won't go away. Although it's often touted by doctors as ineffective, withdrawal got a tentative thumbs-up in a 2009 report published in the journal Contraception.
Lovesick teenagers probably aren't wise to rely solely on this method, but the report did state that withdrawing on time, every time has only a 4% pregnancy rate. By comparison,
condoms, when used every time, have a 2% pregnancy rate, according to the report.
"I think there's a lot of variation in effectiveness" says Jennifer Wu, MD, a gynecologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. "Someone in a long-term committed relationship will have very different results than 17-year-olds."
What's the future?
Contraception has made leaps and bounds, but there's still room for improvement and more options. "We live in a big market," says Dr. Blumenthal. "A product with tolerable side effects and high effectiveness could weigh in big." Here's what's coming up.
• The 'career pill' Women could put their ovaries on hold, delay menopause, and make fertility last longer.
• Adjudin: This hormonal male birth control will prevent sperm from maturing. Too bad it will be years before it's available.
• Reversible Inhibition of Sperm Under Guidance (RISUG): A reversible vasectomy? It's currently in Phase III clinical trials in India.
• Dry orgasm pill:This pill prevents the muscle movements triggering sperm and bodily fluids, but it's not even close to clinical trials.