Contraception: A Short History

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Contraception: A Short History

Babies are a joy, but the results of unwanted pregnancies range from the problematic to the downright dangerous. Humans have always been concerned with controlling when we have babies, and how many babies we have; in fact, contraception was so important to ancient Egyptian women that they buried contraceptive recipes in their tombs, so that they would not have to have babies in the afterlife unless they really wanted them!

From ancient times to the 1838 invention of vulcanized rubber

Babies are a joy, but the results of unwanted pregnancies range from the problematic to the downright dangerous. Humans have always been concerned with controlling when we have babies, and how many babies we have; in fact, contraception was so important to ancient Egyptian women that they buried contraceptive recipes in their tombs, so that they would not have to have babies in the afterlife unless they really wanted them!

These ancient contraceptives are enough to make you profoundly thankful you live in contemporary times. They ranged from a douche made of honey, dates, and acacia juice (can you say “yeast infection”?) to pessaries made of crocodile or elephant dung and honey, inserted vaginally. Science alleges that dung pessaries might work because the pH of the pessary would act as a spermicide. My personal theory is that they prevented pregnancy mostly by ensuring men would never come near you!

In China, women would drink mercury to prevent pregnancy, and European women drank the water a blacksmith had quenched his metalwork in. Both of these methods probably worked, because a body poisoned with heavy metals is most likely not healthy enough to sustain pregnancy.

Animal-related remedies such as a necklace made of weasel testicles, various animal bones either ground up and ingested or strapped to the body, and shots of whiskey in which dried beaver testes had been marinated were also used. Natural sponges and wads of wool soaked in various juices and substances probably had variable effectiveness.

Of the physical barrier methods, there is some evidence that condoms have been used for perhaps as long as 15,000 years. Certainly we have written indications that King Minos of Crete used goat bladders for this purpose some 3,000 years ago. Some of the oldest actual condoms ever found were sausage casings discovered in the foundations of Dudley Castle in England, dating from the mid 17th century, but we had to wait on the invention of vulcanized rubber in 1838 for condoms and diaphragms to become what we know today. The precursors of the diaphragm included cervical caps made of gold and silver.

In comparison, the Pill, the IUD and modern chemical and barrier methods seem pretty tame. Every method has its failure rate, but it’s nice to be out of the dung age.

Vascectomy: A Story of the Snip

In 1847 a French doctor by the name of Gosselin, inspired by information he’d obtained by dissecting human corpses, decided to investigate the effects of “ligation and resection of the vas deferens” in dogs. After performing this surgery on unwitting canines, he noted that this prevented them from siring further litters of puppies. Enter the vasectomy.

Perhaps it’s poetic that “the snip” was invented the same year the first Mormon pioneers reached the Salt Lake valley intent on filling it with progeny, but it did take medical science several decades to perfect the surgery and—weirdly enough—even to figure out what it was actually best used for.

In 1890 it was suggested as a cure for enlarged prostate, and in 1902 records show it was being practiced as a cure for tuberculosis. In 1918, Dr. Eugen Steinach of Austria was promoting vasectomy as a “rejuvenation” procedure. Both Sigmund Freud and W. B. Yeats had vasectomies, hoping that the surgery would provide them with better health and more vitality as they aged. Unfortunately, during the age of eugenics between the World Wars, many men were sterilized against their will in various jurisdictions around the world.

The uncomfortable relationship between government and fertility was documented in a 1967 report which noted that Utah (as well as Kansas and Connecticut) outlawed vasectomy for the purposes of sterilization…but that it was still legal for therapeutic purposes. Other jurisdictions were not so coy; in a cash-for-vasectomy drive at a “family planning festival” in Kerala, India, in 1971, some 62,913 surgeries were performed.

Utah laws regarding vasectomy have been relaxed for decades now, and the procedure is popular here. Dr. Ralph Wade of Bountiful has been performing them since 1987, and now has over 900 of the surgeries under his belt. “When I first performed them, we made a small incision, but now we use a no-scalpel technique that punctures the skin. No sutures are required,” he says. The success rate of the surgery is very high. “There is a very small risk of failure because some men have three vas deferens instead of two!” says Dr. Wade. This is why giving a sample to confirm you’re shooting blanks afterwards is necessary.

Men who have had vasectomies are generally satisfied with the results, but across the board they recommend saying “no” if your doctor asks you if you’d like to watch the procedure as he does it.

 
 
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