Almost as long as we’ve had sex, we’ve been trying to control reproduction. After all, there’s more than one reason why people like to do it.
We put countless potions into our bodies in an attempt to prevent pregnancy – some innocently ineffective and some dangerous or even deadly. Birth control has certainly changed over the centuries. But the reasons for this remain much the same.
An ancient view of birth control
The ancient Egyptians took many strange concoctions that they claimed could prevent pregnancy. They advocated the use of a special mixture of crocodile dung and acacia honey. according to the book “The History of Contraception: From the Ancient Egyptians to the Morning After.,” the mixture was placed and then “left in the vagina for long periods before intercourse.” After sex, people used a combination of wine, garlic, and lavender as an ancient method for the morning after.
In ancient Rome, Hippocrates instructed the use of a birth control method that involved a mixture of iron sulfate and copper. Even the Bible mentions birth control, though not in a positive light: using the “withdrawal method” to prevent pregnancy was frowned upon, though widely used. An article in International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences describes “coitus interruptus or withdrawal of the penis before ejaculation” as condemned in the book of Genesis.
The first documented use of a condom came in 1564 thanks to Fallopian anatomist (think fallopian tubes). However, condoms did not gain widespread acceptance until the rubber revolution in 1839, when Charles Goodyear discovered vulcanized rubber — rubber that has been treated with heat and chemicals to increase its strength. When people began to widely use condoms, they did so not only to prevent pregnancy, but also to prevent sexually transmitted diseases, which were often deadly before the development of antibiotics.
Additionally, when women became pregnant, they may have taken a “feminine preparation” containing the herbs savin and pennyroyal to induce a miscarriage. Unfortunately, pennyroyal is also highly toxic and can prove fatal to women who take it.
The pill makes its debut
Perhaps the greatest innovation in birth control came in the 1960s: the pill. It was the first time women had complete control over their reproduction without their partner even knowing, says Elaine Tyler May, historian and author ofAmerica and the Pill: A Story of Promise, Peril, and Liberation. “Almost immediately, women from all walks of life started using the pill, including Catholic women, even though the church disapproved of it,” she says.
However, some states did not legalize the pill until the Supreme Court case Eisenstadt v. Baird in 1972, giving birth control rights even to unmarried women. Before that, in places where it was illegal, the pill for things other than birth control, like irregular periods, May says.
Those who took the pill did so en masse because it gave them the freedom to live their lives and work outside the home if they chose to. But they also suffered severe side effects such as blood clots from a much stronger formula than is used in modern pills.
Read more: The search for non-hormonal birth control
“When it was first approved, it was a much heavier dose of hormones than it is today,” says May. “The developers wanted to make sure it worked because abortion it wasn’t legal at the time, so there was no remedy for the pill’s failure. Some 60 years later, however, abortion is once again illegal or highly restricted more than a dozen countries.
However you slice it, women and men have always had intercourse for reasons that have nothing to do with reproduction. And as a result, they’ve tried almost anything—disgusting, dangerous, futile, and even deadly—to prevent it. Fortunately, with 12 forms of birth control available today, this venture is not as risky as it used to be.