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    The history of birth control

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      Pack of contraceptive pill

      When was the pill invented?

      The very first pill was invented by a chemist in Mexico City called Dr Carl Djerassi in the late 1940’s. Using wild yam roots, he was able to synthesise progestogen, a steroid hormone that produces the effects of the natural female sex hormone. A progesterone pill works by thickening the mucus in the cervix to stop the sperm reaching the egg. Whilst the pill had been invented in chemical form, Dr Carl Djerassi was not equipped for proper testing or manufacturing, so distribution of the pill was still years away. The first commercially available birth control pill was made by an American chemist called Frank Colton in 1960.

      When was the pill introduced in the UK?

      Women have faced a long history of discrimination when it comes to birth control. Up until the mid-20th century, women were largely expected to stay at home and produce children whilst their husbands were out at work. They had little control over when they became pregnant. This all began to change when Maria Stopes founded the first UK birth control clinic in London in 1921. Five other clinics opened up shortly after, and their slogan became ‘children by choice, not chance’

      The pill was first introduced in the UK in the early 1960’s after clinical trials in London, Birmingham and Slough. Around this time, the UK health minister Enoch Powell announced that married women who wished to use oral contraceptives would be able access it through the NHS. At first, contraception advice was only given to older married women who no longer wanted children, or to those whose health would be at serious risk during pregnancy. In 1967 the NHS Family Planning Act 1967 was passed, which recognised that unwanted children in low income households caused a serious financial strain for those families. As a result, the oral contraceptive pill became more widely available on the NHS, and the FPA (Family Planning Association) were able to approve the use of it in their clinics.

      What is the oldest form of birth control?

      The oldest forms of birth control date back to antiquity:

      Withdrawal method
      This method of birth control is one that is still in practice today, also known as coitius interruptus. This is where the man removes his penis from the vagina before ejaculation in an effort to avoid insemination (pregnancy). The withdrawal method has been used throughout history and is even mentioned in the Bible.

      Vaginal suppositories
      There are early recorded examples from around 1850BC of Egyptian women mixing sodium carbonate with honey or even animal dung to create vaginal suppositories (solid treatments inserted directly into vagina) in an effort to prevent pregnancy.

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      Natural ointments
      The Greeks and the Romans combined natural ingredients to make basic spermicides (a solution that stops the sperm reaching the egg). Aristotle wrote that applying olive and cedar oil to the entrance of the womb would reduce the chances of pregnancy.

      A countless number of natural forms of birth control have been recorded throughout history, most of them largely ineffective.

      What was used before latex condoms?

      Latex condoms as we know them today have not always been around. The history of the condom dates back to Ancient Greece, where King Minos of Crete is said to have used the bladder of a goat to protect his wife during intercourse. The Romans also recorded using bladders as a condom, although more for the prevention of disease rather than pregnancy. Ancient Chinese and Egyptians civilisations recorded using ‘sheaths’ made out of linen or plant extract. These natural sheaths were described as ‘chalice shaped’ and were inserted into the vagina to act as a barrier.

      In England during the 17th century, the use of condoms made by animal intestines as a contraceptive was well documented, and by the 18th century the beginnings of wholesale production had started. Condoms made from animal intestine became outdated by the end of the 19th century with the advent of the rubber condom, invented by Charles Goodyear.

      What was used for birth control in the 1920s?

      Largely, American and European countries were not entirely open to the concept of birth control during the 1920s, as many saw it as encouraging lewd behaviour. Nonetheless, the following forms of birth control were in circulation:

      Latex condoms
      In the 1920’s, Latex was invented. This material was recognised as being better quality than rubber condoms and was created by dispersing rubber in water.

      Silver ring
      Early intrauterine devices (IUD) such as Ernst Graefenberg’s silver ring had been invented by this point. IUD devices work after being inserted into the uterus and stop the sperm from being able to fertilise the egg. Modern versions of the silver ring use copper coated in spermicide, a much more effective form of contraception.

      Over-the-counter treatments
      Items such as douching solutions and vaginal jellies were available for women to buy and were sometimes advertised as forms of birth control, although would have been ineffective.

      References
      www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3520685/
      www.fpa.org.uk/sites/default/files/a-history-of-family_planning-services-october-2011.pdf
      www.fpa.org.uk/factsheets/contraception-past-present-future
      navigator.health.org.uk/theme/nhs-family-planning-act-and-abortion-act

      www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6434646/
      www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK235269/
      www.jstor.org/stable/177539?seq=1
      www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3649591/

      Authors and editors

      • Written by

        Dr Sameer Sanghvi
        GMC number: 7085078
        Date published: 11th Aug 2020

      • Edited and updated by

        Dr Jean Wong
        GMC number: 6132403
        Date reviewed: 2nd Mar 2021

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