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Influential Inventions: Birth Control

Written by Collin Fifer

Man has always sought control. Bloody campaigns and mighty empires have exerted control over neighbors. Religions and philosophies have attempted to gain control of emotions and minds. Technologies have allowed for control over nature and bodies. 

Birth control is one of those technologies. For millennia, man has used a world of methods to control the reproductive process. Now, I say “man” because, like many parts of history, men have taken center stage in the saga of contraception. 

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Model_of_a_contraceptive_pill,_Europe,_c._1970_Wellcome_L0059976.jpg

In fact, it’s not until the 20th century that a woman took center stage and made the story of birth control one of female health and empowerment. But even still today, it’s men arguing about and legislating the use of birth control. 

Like this “expert” here, Alex Jones. Using “irrefutable” science, he discovered that birth control makes women crazy, shortly before discovering chemicals in the water turning frogs gay. You know, as much as history progresses, it never really changes. 

So, who better to talk about the influential invention of birth control than me: a man who totally knows everything there is to know about the topic? Don’t worry, the writer is also a man who totally knows everything about it, so we have all the bases covered. What did I say about history progressing? 

History

Evidence of birth control practices date back to 1850 B.C.E. Papyrus scrolls discovered from Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia describe the use of a paste made from honey, acacia leaves, and lint as a cervical cap. 

Many ancient methods of birth control make use of what we may see now as eclectic herbal concoctions. Ancient Greeks and Romans held the silphium plant in high regard for its uses as both an aphrodisiac and a contraceptive. Two birds, one stone, I guess. 

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Silphium_laciniatum_COMPASS_PLANT_(5146424300).jpg

This North African plant was valued so highly that Julius Caesar kept a stash in the government treasury, and the ancient Greeks put it on their money. Experts today even claim that silphium may have been the first effective contraceptive in history. 

I say “may have” because the plant seems to have simply disappeared. Some experts claim that the high demand led to over-picking. Chalk that up to horny Romans, I guess. But the plant has left its mark on history. Some theories claim that the modern heart symbol derives from the shape of the silphium plant’s seeds. 

Still other herbal mixtures were used to induce abortion. Concoctions ranged from mashed ant paste, to foam from a camel’s mouth, to hair of a blacktail deer dissolved in bear fat. 

Some cultures even used infanticide as birth control since they saw it as less risky and painful for the woman. Various scenarios would spur groups to use this method, from the need to stay mobile, to relieving the economic burden on the mother after the death of the father, to controlling the gender ratio in society. 

Now, I know the killing of infants may seem extreme, but it’s a slippery slope to judge past eras with modern standards. After all, the powers that were deemed it was the best option for all involved. If history is any sign, you can guess who were the powers of the time. 

Various other methods we use today have their roots in history. King Minos of Crete receives credit for the first historical mention of condom use. He used the bladder of a goat to protect his wife from the “scorpions and serpents” in his sperm that killed his mistresses. I guess it’s safe to say guys have always been great at avoiding uncomfortable questions from the wife.  

There are even records of the pull-out method being used in ancient times in Africa, Australasia, and the Middle East. If you don’t know what the pull-out method is, just ask any college guy. He’ll swear it’s the most reliable.

The era of modern birth control began in 1909 when the first intrauterine devices made from the guts of silkworms were introduced. Though experts in Europe further developed this technology in the 1920s, resistance in the U.S. made the spread of contraception akin to sowing seeds on arid ground. 

Government bans made birth control practices dangerous for doctors to perform and women’s health advocates to support. 

Religions abhorred contraception as morally wrong. Social reformers railed against the use of these methods and the “sex for pleasure” culture they feared it was creating. Even President Theodore Roosevelt attacked birth control and the tendency towards smaller families as a “moral disease.” 

It’s great that history has moved on from the era of men in government outlawing women’s health, isn’t it? 

In 1914, Margaret Sanger popularized the term “birth control” in public discourse. Two years later, despite laws against the idea, she opened the first birth control clinic in the U.S., marking the beginning of Planned Parenthood.

https://picryl.com/media/the-sanger-clinic-46-amber-street-brooklyn

However, nine days later, police shut it down and tried Sanger in court. At her trial, the judge offered a suspended sentence if she promised to not repeat the offense. She refused and served her time. After her release, she reopened the clinic. The police shut her down again, only to have her complete her sentence and reopen the clinic’s doors again.

This struggle between Sanger and the authorities continued for much of the organization’s early days. The police would send woman cops undercover, shuttering Sanger’s clinics and halting efforts.

Despite setbacks, though, women’s health advocacy pushed onward. The 1950s saw a huge step forward. A collaboration between Planned Parenthood, Gregory Pincus, and John Rock created the first birth control pill. 

The pill became more widespread in the 1960s when the Griswold v. Connecticut case overturned the ban of its use for married couples. The same right was given to unmarried couples in the ‘70s. The development of the birth control pill not only made family planning easier but also spurred the invention of other methods. 

Today, contraceptive devices range from the pill to intrauterine devices to emergency options. There is even research now developing pills and devices for use by men. It’ll be interesting to see how governments legislate those methods. 

It is becoming easier and easier to access safe and highly effective birth control methods. But what are these methods? And how do they work? 

How It Works

Modern birth control has come a long way since the camel spit and goat bladder days. It looks like the fears of those moral crusaders came true: the tight restrictions that bound sexual culture have loosened dramatically. And as far as I can tell, society is still functioning fine. 

Though the most commonly known form is the pill, there is a wide range of contraceptive medicines, devices, and procedures that have allowed families more control over their future, women more control over their bodies, and countless people less worry the morning after. Current methods are typically sorted into six groups: 

Barrier Methods

Like the name says, these methods work by physically blocking the sperm from entering the uterus. In guy talk: like that bouncer at the club during ladies’ night.

Barrier methods include tools that both men and women can use. The most popular method is the condom. We can be eternally grateful that condoms have evolved since the time of King Minos. Nothing ruins a good night like pulling a goat bladder out of your wallet. 

Female condoms, diaphragms, cervical caps, and contraceptive sponges are all used inside the woman, often alongside spermicide to ensure effective use. 

http://contraceptive sponges

Short-Acting Hormonal Methods

These contraceptives are so named for their short period of effectiveness and are often used on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. Unlike barrier methods, these tools are used separate from the sexual act itself. They can take the form of the pill, vaginal ring, skin patch, or contraceptive injection.

They work by releasing hormones (either estrogen, progestin, or both together) that stop the ovaries from releasing the egg or prevent the sperm from getting to the egg. 

In guy talk: like Obi-Wan and the storm troopers. By the time the hormones’ Jedi mind trick has worn off, the uterus is left looking around cluelessly, wondering what happened to the sperm they were looking for.

Long-Acting Reversible Methods

https://flic.kr/p/nZ99CT

Although very similar to the previously mentioned method, long-acting reversible methods differ in two major ways: first, they are long-acting, like the name says, remaining effective for three to ten years. Like a long-term deposit; put the money in the account and forget about it for a couple of years.

Second, they don’t rely solely on hormones. Though the hormonal IUD and implantable rod use estrogen and progestin, the copper IUD works by scraping the uterine wall to prevent the sperm attaching to the egg. Despite their long life, these contraceptives can be removed if family plans change.

Sterilization

These methods are surgical procedures that offer the most permanent birth control solutions. Along with condoms, they are also one of the few methods that men use just as frequently as women.

The sterilization procedure for men is called the vasectomy. The vas deferens, the tube that carries the sperm from the testes, is blocked, either by cutting and tying or by sealing. This prevents the sperm from reaching their end destination. 

Once the vasectomy is completed, however, it takes around 3 months of clearing the tubes for any trace of sperm to be gone. That means, in the meantime, guys can help the process along with their favorite pastime. Until then, they should use other methods of birth control to prevent unwanted pregnancy. Though permanent, it is possible to reverse the procedure.

For women, the procedure is called a tubal ligation. The fallopian tubes are where the egg travels from the ovaries to the uterus. If there is sperm traveling in the fallopian tubes at the same time as an egg, they can join and begin a pregnancy. 

To prevent this from happening, a tubal ligation ties, cuts, or seals the fallopian tubes to prevent the meeting of the sperm and egg. Though it can be reversed, this procedure, like the vasectomy, is one of the most permanent contraceptive options. 

In guy talk: it’s that snip snip motion every man winces at when he sees. However, despite initial off-putting impressions, these methods are completely safe and widely used today. 

Spermicide

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Spermicidal_Foam_%26_Suppositories.png

These contraceptive gels work by inhibiting the function of the sperm. When applied, they either kill the sperm, inhibit its ability to move, or block the cervix to prevent the sperm from reaching the egg. To make sense of it in these COVID times, like sexually safe hand sanitizer.

Fertility Awareness

These methods can be for those who don’t wish to use other forms of birth control and who don’t mind sacrificing spontaneity, or for women who wish to have a better understanding of their cycle. These methods use measurements of body temperature and cervical mucus to track which days of the month a woman is fertile. 

When the fertile days arrive, couples may choose to avoid sex or use other contraceptive methods. In fact, fertility awareness is often used together with other contraceptives to put more control in birth control. 

On the flip side, couples or women who are trying to conceive can track fertility to know when the best time for sex is to maximize the chances of fertilization. Whatever the reason, fertility tracking can help plan the best time for sex. And, no guys, that’s not anytime. 

So, just to review, we have the bouncer, the jedi mind trick, the long-term deposit, the snip-snip, the sexual hand sanitizer, and the sexual schedule. See? Guys can understand birth control, too. Alright, it is at a very basic level, but it’s something, right? Take that Alex Jones.

https://www.picpedia.org/medical-05/b/birth-control-methods.html

Impact

The vast effects of birth control that make it one of history’s most influential inventions stem from a simple concept: control over the reproductive process. This simple desire has affected many aspects of society, from economics to healthcare to governance. 

For millennia, society valued women mainly by their ability to bear children. Sure, there were other female traits husbands and families held in regard, like cooking and cleaning and all that fun stuff. But when it came down to it, society saw women’s most valuable role as reproducing.

Even if it wasn’t stated outright, societal and historical trends reflected the desire for this uniquely female ability. Just look at history’s most infamous monarch: King Henry VIII. He had six wives—beheading two of them—and split from the Catholic church all because his wives couldn’t give birth to a male heir.  

Birth control methods have ground down this societal expectation of women. They have had enormous impacts throughout history. Cultures ranging from industrialized societies to indigenous peoples have had their own understanding of contraception.

At the very base level, birth control has helped women understand when they are most likely to conceive. Used to their full potential, they have allowed women to enjoy the same sexual freedoms men have throughout history while having the same choice to avoid unwanted consequences. 

Governments have also taken advantage of contraceptive methods. Population control in India, eugenics in the U.S., and family size in China are all examples of birth control being used in history for national objectives.

But when modern birth control became more widely available in the late 1900s, it allowed women more autonomy, economic freedom, and healthcare options on a personal level. 

Economically, birth control has given women the freedom to make the lifestyle choices regarding family and work that are best for them. Although, employment laws are still catching up to birth control’s effects in some countries.

Research backs up this link between birth control and female economic empowerment. Studies show that a large fraction of wage increases for women since the 1960s directly result from access to the birth control pill.

Along the same lines, birth control has allowed women more access to higher levels of education. By 1970, just a decade after the FDA approved the first oral contraceptive, research showed a 20% higher university enrollment for women who had access to the pill. 

https://flic.kr/p/7o4hRZ

Health-wise, contraception can help women who are physically or mentally unprepared for pregnancy, even out and ease painful period symptoms, lessen acne and unwanted hair growth, and prevent several illnesses include ovarian cysts and cancer. 

The level of family planning that birth control allows decreases poverty rates in children and adults. 

Even a guy can appreciate how amazing these effects are. If only there was a magic pill like that for men. Oh, wait, it’s called not having to deal with any of this in the first place. 

Modern contraception has given families and individuals unprecedented control over their lives, relieved economic and health hardships, and given liberties historically denied to women. Not influential enough? 

With current research underway improving on existing methods and developing further contraceptives for wider use by men, it’s not likely that birth control will become anything but more important for society.

The only challenge now is ensuring people have access to it. 

Sources

https://teachersinstitute.yale.edu/curriculum/units/files/82.06.03.pdf

https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20170907-the-mystery-of-the-lost-roman-herb

https://www.salon.com/1999/07/01/fennel/

https://www.webmd.com/sex/birth-control/ss/slideshow-birth-control-history

https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/birth-control/in-depth/birth-control-options/art-20045571

https://www.fda.gov/consumers/free-publications-women/birth-control#:~:text=SHORT%20ACTING%20HORMONAL%20METHODS,using%20them%20at%20any%20time.

https://time.com/4065338/margaret-sanger-clinic-history/

https://www.bbc.co.uk/teach/what-did-king-henry-vii-really-want-from-a-wife/zh9s2sg

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