“The history of birth control.” Because people have been trying to understand how NOT to get pregnant for centuries, the history of birth control is a long one.
Honestly, we could go on for days detailing the past of every method known to man, but instead of composing an entire textbook, we thought I’d be more fun to just give you the highlights. Consider this your history lesson light on the sometimes-turbulent journey of birth control to become the methods we know, use and love today.
The History of Birth Control: 1. Behavioral Methods
First off, there’s behavioral birth control. Many of the oldest methods fall into this category and date all the way back to ancient times. Abstinence is a clear standout, and likely has the longest history of any other method. For the people who first made the connection between vaginal intercourse and pregnancy, abstinence was key.
Also in the behavioral realm comes outercourse. In colonial New England, unmarried couples would “bundle,” or sleep in the same bed with clothes on. It was expected that they may fool around, but they were supposed to avoid actual sex. They used outercourse instead to express their affection. Other masturbatory and outercourse activities have been in play for long before that and continue to be very popular today—as most of you probably know.
There’s also withdrawal, or coitus interruptus in Latin, is pulling out before ejaculating and was used by the ancients as a form of contraception. What’s more, for decades prior to the 1980s, the Catholic Church was the leader in fertility awareness research and promotion, and this method has held some very interesting global views. Women in Eastern Africa believed that abstaining from sex for a few days after their menstrual cycle would prevent them from getting pregnant. Ancient Egyptians, Alaskan Natives and Native Americans figured out that it was more challenging to get pregnant while also breastfeeding (a method still in use today).
The History of Birth Control: 2. Condoms
Next, let’s talk barrier methods. More rudimentary forms of the modern male condom have been in use since around 1000 BC when Egyptians used a linen sheath to protect against disease. In the 1500s, people started soaking the sheaths in a chemical—a sort of spermicide—to protect against syphilis, and later in the 1700s, custom condoms were being produced in London, and the legendary lover Casanova (among others) used them to prevent more “illegitimate” children. Then came big change in the 1800s when thanks to innovations by Goodyear Tires, rubber started its rise as the material of choice for condoms. Interesting fact: The New York Times even ran ads for these spiffy new contraceptives even though it was illegal to do so. Throughout the 1900s, condoms’ design and materials saw plenty more improvements, and couples continued to use them as the primary method of birth control. Condoms lost some popularity after the release of the pill, but have bounced back in more recent years thanks to their ability to protect against HIV and other STDs.
The female condom is a fairly new birth control method, and even after its big introduction in the 1980s, it has been taking its sweet time to catch on, in part because it is more expensive than male condoms. Female condoms (worn inside the vagina instead of over the penis) are a unique, non-hormonal option for women who don’t want to rely on their male partner to wear a traditional condom for STD/STI protection. That’s right, girls: this one’s OUR rubber.
The History of Birth Control: 3. Modern Contraception
The first oral contraceptives, aka birth control pills, were approved in the U.S. in 1957, but were only prescribed for women with severe menstrual problems. The steady dose of hormones provides predictable periods, can reduce cramps and can help prevent other unpleasant symptoms from Aunt Flow. In 1960, doctors were approved to prescribe the pill as a contraceptive for married women, and within five years 6.5 million women used it even though it was still illegal in eight states. Pill use dropped by the late 1970s due to concern over side effects, but by the late 1980s, safer and lower-dose forms hit the market and the pill reclaimed its popularity throne. Eventually, oral contraceptives were approved for the treatment of acne and were found to reduce the risk of ovarian cancer and pelvic inflammatory disease.
The original IUD, or intrauterine device, was invented in the early 1900s and was circular instead of t-shaped. In the 1960s, the familiar t-shape was introduced and has maintained its iconic form to this day. There are a couple of hormonal IUDs available now, plus the non-hormonal Copper-T or ParaGard IUD, which was first used in 1984.
Contraceptive implants were first conceived (Ha! See what we did there?) back in 1940s, but it wasn’t until the early 1980s that manufacturing actually began. Moreover, they weren’t introduced to the U.S. until the early 1990s. The first contraceptive implants were known as Norplant and required six small plastic rods to be inserted under the skin. Luckily, Implanon and then Nexplanon were created in the early-to-mid 2000s, and now women can enjoy three years of highly effective pregnancy protection with the simple insertion of just one rod in the upper underarm.
The Depo shot has been around since 1967, but the FDA didn’t approve it until 1992. Today, it is approved for contraceptive use in over 90 countries.
And for the ladies who’d rather avoid the pinch of a needle, the patchand the ring are good options and have both been around for more than a decade. These methods release the same hormones in the birth control pill, but through your skin or vaginal walls. How handy!
The History of Birth Control: 4. Permanent Sterilization
Surgical tubal ligation or “getting your tubes tied” is a method that was first performed in Toledo, Ohio in 1880. This surgery involves making cuts or applying clamps the fallopian tubes, and until the mid-1970s, it was a major surgery that involved some serious recovery time. Nowadays, thanks to Fiberoptic technology, these procedures can be done safely with anesthesia and a very small incision. There is another even easier procedure that can be done where a doctor will insert tiny plastic or metal devices into your fallopian tubes that help block them so sperm can’t reach the egg. This can be done in a doctor’s office with a little local anesthesia. The male version called a vasectomy started in the 1800s as a way to treat men’s prostate and then moved into a birth control method during WWII.
The History of Birth Control: 5. Emergency Contraception
Emergency contraception (EC) is based on the same science as the pill and was first used to prevent pregnancy in humans in the mid-1960s. In the late 1990s, the FDA began approving different EC options for women, and today it’s finally available over-the-counter without a prescription for people over 18. This new law enabled better access to emergency use after unprotected sex, and starting in 2013, some brands are available over the counter to people of all ages. Important note: EC works by stopping an egg from being released, it does not cause an abortion.