A (not so) Brief History of Birth Control

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According the the Guttmacher Institute, 99% of sexually active women in the US use birth control - the demand for birth control is nothing new. Since the first time humans understood "how babies are made" they have wanted to stop it. So, let's take a look at some of the birth control trends over the last few thousand years:

3000 BC: First use of condoms made of fish bladders and animal intestines is documented. 

1550 BC: An Egyptian manuscript called the Ebers Papyrus directs women on how to mix dates, acacia and honey into a paste, smear it over wool and use it as a pessary to prevent conception - The Egyptian pessary is the earliest contraceptive device for women. Egyptians also used a concoction made of crocodile dung, honey, and sodium carbonate and inserted it into the vagina to block and kill sperm.

1400 BC: The Book of Genesis depicts “coitus interruptus” aka the pull-out method, when Onan “spills his seed”

901 BC: Persian women were told to jump backwards seven or nine times (considered magical numbers) after intercourse to dislodge any sperm

700 BC: Ancient Chinese concubines would often drink lead and mercury to prevent pregnancy

500 BC: In ancient Greece, the plant silphium is so effective as a birth control agent that it is harvested to extinction. Other ancient societies use tufts of grass, cloth, or sea sponges tied with string to block sperm

200 BC: Greek gynecologist Soranus advised women to abstain from sex during menstruation in order to prevent pregnancy because he thought it was a woman’s most fertile time (NOT TRUE)

476-1500 AD: Women of the Middle Ages were advised to tie the testicles of a weasel to their thighs or around their necks during intercourse

1500: European doctor Gabriel Fallopius (for whom the fallopian tubes are named) suggested the use of linen condoms after an outbreak of syphilis spread across the continent. 

1700s: Casanova’s memoirs detail his experiments in birth control, from sheep-bladder condoms to the use partially squeezed lemon half as a makeshift cervical cap. Other foods used like diaphragms include limes, apples and oranges

1823: A British surgeon performs the first recorded vasectomy - on a dog

1837-1901: Disillusioned Victorian Era women (who often suffered from depression, sexual frustration and general boredom) were diagnosed with “hysteria”. The cures ranged from genital massage or intercourse administered by their physician to the removal of the uterus and ovaries

1839: Charles Goodyear invents the technology to vulcanize rubber and puts it to use manufacturing rubber condoms, intrauterine devices, douching syringes and "womb veils"

1855: Rubber condoms hit the market

1873: Congress passes the Comstock Laws, an anti-obscenity law that deems the circulation of birth control pamphlets obscene and outlaws the distribution of birth control. The U.S. is the only Western nation to criminalize contraception - still, the contraceptive industry flourishes. Products are marketed as promoting "feminine hygiene."

1876: Oscar Hertwig’s work on sea urchins proves that fertilization involves the fusion of sperm and egg

1880s: A large cervical cap is developed - an early version of the diaphragm

1909: The first intrauterine birth control device made from silkworm gut is developed by Richard Richter.

1916: Margaret Sanger opens America's first family-planning clinic in Brooklyn. Nine days later, police raid the clinic. Sanger serves 30 days in jail.

1920: Scientist study fertility and develop the “rhythm method”

1920 - 1960: The most popular female contraceptive is Lysol disinfectant. Ads tout it as a feminine hygiene product and include testimonials from European "doctors." Later investigation by the American Medical Association shows these experts don't exist. Lysol did not to work as a contraceptive, several women allegedly die from using it and others suffer severe inflammation and burns.

1921: Sanger founds the American Birth Control League which later becomes the Planned Parenthood Federation of America

1930: Anglican bishops approve limited use of birth control; Pope Pius XI affirms church teaching against contraception, declared it a “grave sin”

1938: A judge lifts the federal obscenity ban on birth control, but contraception remains illegal in most states

1951: Prompted by Sanger, Gregory Pincus begins research on the use of hormones in contraception. In Mexico City, chemist Carl Djerassi creates a progesterone pill

1954: John Rock, in collaboration with Gregory Pincus, conducts the first human Pill trial on 50 women in Massachusetts

1960: In May, the FDA announces its approval of Enovid as a birth control pill (almost half a million American women are already taking it for "therapeutic purposes”). Within two years, more than 1 million women are taking it. But research links the pill's whopping levels of synthetic estrogen to an increased risk of heart attack, blood clots, and stroke, sparking panic among pill users.

1965: In Griswold v. Connecticut, the Supreme Court strikes down state laws prohibiting contraception for married couples; 6.5 million American women are on the Pill

1969: The addition of copper makes IUDs over 99% effective

1970: Concerns about the Pill's safety and side effects prompt Senate hearings

1972: The Supreme Court legalizes birth control for all U.S. citizens, single or married, in Eisenstadt v. Baird.   

1980s: Lower-dose Pills dominate the market; 10.5 million American women are taking the Pill

1988: Copper IUD Paragard is first marketed in the United States.

1990: Norplant, a birth control implant that is placed under the skin of a woman's upper arm, is introduced. It was taken off the market in 2002.

1992: Though it has already been used by more than 30 million women worldwide since 1969, the FDA approves Depo-Provera, the first hormone shot to prevent pregnancy.

1993: Reality, one of the first female condoms, is introduced.

1998: The FDA approves the first emergency contraceptive in the United States. Nicknamed "the morning-after pill," it can be taken up to 72 hours after unprotected sex.

1999: Plan B, the "morning-after pill," first hits shelves.

2000: Jennifer Erickson, a 27-year-old pharmacist in Seattle, gets tired of telling female customers that their insurance doesn't cover birth-control pills, so she sues her employer for not covering it. She wins the suit a year later, sending a message to employers nationwide that a failure to cover the Pill is sexual discrimination.

2000 - 2002: Four new birth-control products enter the U.S. market: Ortho Evra, a birth-control patch; NuvaRing, a vaginally inserted ring; Lunelle, a hormone injection; and Mirena, an intrauterine device that's effective for five years.

2005: After its withdrawal from the U.S. market because of manufacturing plant deficiencies in 1995, the FDA approves the Today Sponge. It prevents pregnancy by covering the cervix and releasing spermicide. According to packaging information approved by the FDA, 13 to 16 percent of women using the sponge will get pregnant within a year of typical use.

2006: Implanon—a small, thin, implantable hormonal contraceptive—enters the U.S. market. Implanted in the skin of a woman's arm, it prevents pregnancy for up to three years.

2007: The FDA approves Lybrel, the first low-dose contraceptive pill that gives a woman the option to stop her menstrual cycle.

2010: Some 100 million women around the world use the Pill

2013: Edward R. Korman, a federal district judge in Brooklyn, rules that Plan B should be available over-the-counter to any and all who seek it, without age restriction.

2016: Currently half of all pregnancies are unintended. A third of American women are so dissatisfied with the pill they abandon it within the first year. 

2022: Researchers are developing a testosterone-based gel that men rub onto their shoulders. Other research includes a reversible, snip-free alternative to the vasectomy and a “clean-sheets” pill that would allow men to have dry orgasms

As we can see, trying to control fertility is something humans have been doing since ancient times. It is innately human. Thousands of years later, when we have many safe and effective methods to choose from, we still have to fight for our rights to afford, access and use birth control. Let’s not take for granted how far we’ve come, but let’s not get complacent either. Reproductive healthcare is constantly under fire from lawmakers who find it their duty to tell people what they can and cannot do with their bodies. Let’s not let them take us back to ancient times when women inserted crocodile dung into their vaginas or drank lead. 

If you feel so compelled, feel free to contact your congressperson to voice your opinions on reproductive healthcare in America. 

*To keep the contents of this article from becoming too cluttered with links, here are the resources I used to compile this comprehensive timeline of birth control:


amy sutherland - founder

Hey all! My name is Amy Sutherland (she/her), and I have been passionate about sexual health since before I hit puberty. I've spent most of my adult life working as a writer focusing on health and wellness. More particularly, women’s reproductive health. 

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