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» Scarleteen Boards: 2000 - 2014 (Archive) » SCARLETEEN CENTRAL » Safer Sex & Birth Control » History of Birth Control?

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Author Topic: History of Birth Control?
Tashi
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This was more just a passing curiosity that I had today, so I figured that I'd ask and see if anyone knew anything about the topic.

Before the conception of modern contraceptives ( [Smile] ), what sorts of methods did women use to avoid pregnancy? I assume there must be *something* that midwives or healers used (herbal remedies or whatnot) that would help to prevent pregnancies.

I'm not sure how true this is, but I recall hearing somewhere that old-fashioned barrier methods such as condoms made from intestines of animals or their skin were used as well.

Does anyone have any background in this subject and provide information on what people did for the past few thousand years to avoid pregnancy?

Thanks!

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Heather
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Oh, I love this subject!

So, the oldest forms were (vaginal) pessaries, herbal remedies and barrier methods, basically. Condoms came a little later than pessaries, and weren't made of latex, but usually of animal bits or fabric.

Pessaries were used of a whole host of things: honey, resins and gums, for instance. There were also various kinds of spermicides made. Suffice it to say, a lot of these early methods were often ineffective.

There are also herbs that can alter fertility, so a lot of herbal/plant remedies were used, too. These herbal methods were more likely effective than the above methods.

Withdrawal was another popular method through history before the advent of modern birth control. Same goes for natural family planning.

Technically, abortion isn't birth control, but for a lot of history, it was often one of the only ways to prevent birth, and it's been around for as long as reproduction has, really, even though the methods were certainly not always the same as the ones we use today. Sadly, infanticide was also common through a lot of human history.

Not sure how modern you mean when you say modern, but those were all the most common methods before the 20th century in most areas.

[ 12-07-2010, 04:53 PM: Message edited by: Heather ]

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Heather Corinna, Executive Director & Founder, Scarleteen
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Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has. - Margaret Mead

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Tashi
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Do you happen to know how some of the herbal methods came about? What made people realize that if they ate/used plant X, they were less likely to have children?

How were early abortions performed? I know there are natural/herbal abortifacients, was this the main main method? I can't imagine any sort of surgical procedure ended well for the woman, since medicine had not advanced enough until more recent decades.

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Heather
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Just a few years ago, I found out that DEER know how to terminate pregnancies: they somehow figured out that eating juniper berries accomplishes that.

I don't know of any good documentation of how people figured out herbal methods for contraception or abortion, but I imagine much like with deer, you're probably dealing with an awful lot of instinct and experimentation.

So, yep, with early abortion, from what we know, it was often about plants, but sometimes too, things like various kinds of abdominal pressure, physical activity, fasting, and yes, some surgeries. For sure, even just based on what we know about surgical abortion pre-Roe here in the states, we can be very sure a lot of the surgical methods resulted in death or injury. But then, some of the herbal methods likely did, too: a lot of abortifaecents are poisons, after all.

Love these kinds of questions, I completely geek out on this stuff. [Smile]

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Heather Corinna, Executive Director & Founder, Scarleteen
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Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has. - Margaret Mead

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Heather
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P.S. Tashi: have you seen this artist's project yet? It's very cool stuff: http://4000yearsforchoice.com/

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Heather Corinna, Executive Director & Founder, Scarleteen
About Me Get our book!
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has. - Margaret Mead

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Tashi
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That's a really awesome concept/project!

What I'm seeing as a theme in it, though, is that for centuries, cultures had no problems with women using herbal concoctions or a variety of things to prevent pregnancies, or even to induce an abortion. A bit off topic, but when did the change start happening and the shift begin between using contraceptive methods/abortifacients being acceptable and normal and it being a bad/immoral thing? I imagine there is some tie to the spread of conservative religions, but I don't know much about the issue.

Also, it seems that a lot of these herbal methods were decently effective for preventing pregnancies or terminating them. Do you know what sort of effectiveness rates some of the more successful herbal methods have? Are modern hormonal contraceptives still the most effective, or could women in developed countries be using more "natural" methods instead?

(Another thought - some of the methods mentioned in the project seem like while they may prevent pregnancy, they would also give the woman using them an infection or something. I believe there were things like a mixture of cocoa butter and salicylic acid or some mixture of crocodile feces that were inserted into the vaginal opening. Do you know at all what some of these methods did for the vaginal health of the woman?

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Heather
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Isn't it? I love what she's done so far.

And yep: you're seeing that correctly. In fact, even the catholic church has gone back and forth on abortion a good deal in it's history: it's not always been anti (though I would say it's never been exactly supportive, either).

Per the shift and the change, I'd say that really depends on what culture you're talking about. If you're talking about Western culture, I think a safe, loose estimate is to say the last 200 years.

We really can't say how effective these methods were (I don't know of any studies that were done and documented to give us that information), save to say that it's obvious from how many more children women used to have that they were not very effective a lot of the time. We certainly can't begin to even compare them to a lot of the methods we have now.

However, for instance, we do still have older methods like withdrawal and natural family planning around (even though the latter has become much more effective with more recent information and the advent of the thermometer). Both of those can feasibly be very effective in perfect use, however they are both not very effective in typical use. I don't imagine that's new.

For sure, some of the older methods most likely did cause infections and health problems. For instance, a pessary that literally blocked the opening of the cervix for weeks or months would create massive health problems. And again, some of the plants used were poisonous.

Again, though, this isn't something where I know what the actual effects were, mostly because you have to remember that no one in science or medicine paid much care or attention to women's health for most of human history, just as was the case for pretty much all of women's lives and experiences (thanks, patriarchy!). Through most of history, the people paying that attention were people like midwives, who were hardly given a voice in science or medicine.

if you're really geeking out on herbs and plants around all of this, I'd see if you can't find a copy of Jeannine Parvati Baker's (who sadly, is no longer with us, she was such an amazing person) book and thesis, Hygeia, A Woman's Herbal. It is chock full of that info, including more modern applications of it and potential ways to use that ancient information and practice now. It's a very cool piece of work.

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Heather Corinna, Executive Director & Founder, Scarleteen
About Me Get our book!
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has. - Margaret Mead

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Tashi
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Thanks for all the informative responses. I'll have to see if I can find a copy of that book. It sounds like an interesting topic to study. I think that sexuality issues and contraception issues are becoming my hobby. [Smile] I find it quite fascinating, I need to go back to the library and find some more books to read. On that note, do you have any of your favorite books to recommend? Pretty much any topic that this site covers would interest me.
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Heather
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If you want another great book about the history of contraception, particularly in the last century or so, Andrea Tone's "Devices and Desires" is fantastic. I'd strongly suggest that one, it's just an excellent piece of scholarship and also a great read (as in, it's not so academic your eyes glaze over).

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Heather Corinna, Executive Director & Founder, Scarleteen
About Me Get our book!
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has. - Margaret Mead

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Tashi
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I've read a few books covering the pro-choice movement, and really enjoyed those as well. Do you have any suggestions for books on that topic too?
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Heather
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Sure thing!

You may already have read some of these, but around this issue -- and including a bunch of different aspects and histories -- I very much like:

The Story of Jane: The Legendary Underground Feminist Abortion Service by Laura Kaplan
This Common Secret: My Journey as an Abortion Doctor by Susan Wicklund
The Girls Who Went Away by Ann Fessler
Targets of Hatred: Anti-Abortion Terrorism by Eleanor J. Bader and Patricia Baird-Windle
Dispatches from the Abortion Wars by Carole Joffe

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Heather Corinna, Executive Director & Founder, Scarleteen
About Me Get our book!
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has. - Margaret Mead

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Tashi
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Thanks so much! I'll be sure to hunt these down at the library!
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