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The History of Contraception

These days, perhaps, only small kids may still believe that babies are brought by the storks or found in the cabbage. The world is on that stage of evolution when people know exactly why and how kids are born. Furthermore, the majority of us know well how to plan and space our children and avoid the unwanted pregnancies.

At the dawn of the human civilization people lacked the knowledge we have now; thus, they explored their specific points of view of the surrounding world, usually based on the myths and beliefs, and tried to explain the things in their own way, which may seem fantastic or even ridiculous to the modern man.

The history of contraception, as any other aspect of our life, can possibly be traced to the very moment the history of human kind began. Ancient people linked the bearing of a baby to different animals and birds. For example, they believed a woman could become pregnant by bathing in the lake containing eels. They also thought a baby entered a woman in the shape of a serpent or snail. The well-known belief that storks bring babies is traced to the same period of our history.

Later people progressed to the stage when they started to believe in the existence of the spirit world; therefore, pregnancy was thought to be induced by the entrance of a spirit baby into the body of a woman. Those spirit babies were supposed to live in the lakes, fruits, etc.

Even during those ancient times people understood it would be good to control procreation. Methods they used depended on the beliefs and concepts our ancestors had about pregnancy and child-bearing. For example, they tried to avoid the places where spirit babies could live, or animals associated with pregnancies.

Wearing different parts of the animals on the wrist or waist was supposed to be a very effective means to avoid pregnancy. Usually women tied cat’s liver or testicles, lioness uterus, or wolf’s testicles to induce infertility. Ritual dances, sleeping out of the moonlight – everything was tried to avoid the unwanted pregnancy.

No matter what beliefs there existed, ancient people never linked pregnancy to the sexual intercourse. It took people much time to understand the role of men and sex in the process of conceiving a baby.

The very first studies, which, actually, led to the development of somehow scientific points of view upon child-bearing, were made during Cleopatra times. It was the period when the structure of a human body (especially that of a woman) was studied; however, its functioning remained a mystery for much longer period of time.

Many methods of pregnancy prevention (by the way, abortion was also practiced at all the times) developed when the role of sexual intercourse and male reproductive organs became known. Some of them seemed to be effective, and some - not so effective: women took beverages of different plants (pine tree bark, onion, thistle, pineapple, ivy); made pessaries to insert into the vaginas prior to intercourse (animals excrements mixed with honey or animal earwax, chopped grass and linen, lemon pieces, acacia tree bark mixed with honey); jumped backwards after sex, men pushed hard or even jumped on the woman’s abdomen to prevent pregnancy.

Men also did their best to participate in family planning: they used condoms made of animal intestines; similarly to women, drank concoctions prepared from the plants; underwent different kinds of surgeries to become infertile, and so on.

Taking into account historical facts, it is possible to single out three most popular ways of pregnancy prevention during the Middle Ages: withdrawal, abstinence, and anal sexual intercourse.

Europeans of the 17th-19th centuries practiced late marriages (women usually got married in their late 20s) with no sexual life before them. Aristocrats tried to avoid the bearing of many children by sleeping in different rooms; a maid often shared the room with the mistress in order to save her from the passionate husband.  

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In general, many methods we use nowadays have their predecessors in the past: tinctures to drink are now oral contraceptives, pessaries correspond to the barrier method of pregnancy prevention. Spermicides, IUDs, douches also have equivalents, which were used many years ago. The difference is that nowadays the ways of unwanted pregnancies prevention have a scientific background, are more effective and much safer.

Actually, modern life seems to be much more pleasurable, easier, and finally, more humanistic in many aspects. Looking through the history of contraception, I cannot help thinking how lucky we are to live in the 21st century – these days we can really enjoy our life. No doubt, a man is a master of his life now.


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