The Story of Contraception

An exploration of birth control through the ages


CW: This article briefly mentions religious criticism of contraception, as well as abortion and unwanted pregnancies, which could be distressing to some readers.


What are contraceptives? Put simply, contraception (also known as “birth control” or “family planning”) is a term for various methods used to prevent pregnancies. The reasons for its use are numerous, all of them a personal choice for the pregnant individual. Social movements have arisen in relation to the availability of contraceptives. There have been religious movements criticising the use of birth control, as well as feminist movements advocating for access to them.


Both of these movements still exist today, as the struggle towards adequate and accessible sexual healthcare continues to unfold. The journey to the creation of contraception as we know it today has been a process of trial and error over thousands of years. This article is a non-exhaustive exploration into various methods of contraception - past, present and future.


Ancient contraceptive methods


Scrolls from ancient Egypt detailed the use of acacia leaves, lint and honey as a contraceptive method, as early as the 15th century BC. This method was an early barrier method, the lint being inserted vaginally as a way to obstruct sperm from entering the cervix. It seems as though these scrolls were onto something, as one study showed that acacia leaves decreased the motility and concentration of sperm compared to a control group. Honey is known to have antibacterial properties, but the use of lint sounds like a recipe for PH imbalances and infections.


In ancient Rome, the ‘Silphium’ plant was all the rage. The herb was very effective in preventing pregnancy when consumed in juice form, proving so popular that it was harvested into extinction. If this herb still existed, would it still be in use today? It would be interesting to compare the effectiveness of Silphium with contraceptives that are currently in use. Growing your own birth control would definitely be an eco-friendly approach to contraception!


The middle ages to the 20th century


On the topic of the eco-friendly contraceptive, medieval women were known to ingest herbs and herbal teas to end their pregnancies. Pennyroyal tea, licorice and Queen Anne’s lace are just a few examples of these herbs, the knowledge of their usage being shared among circles of women. However, these methods of contraception faced much backlash. The Catholic church was against these practices, a stigma which continues in many religious ideologies to this day.


A more familiar contraceptive, which we now refer to as condoms, were first introduced in the 16th century in Europe (and even earlier than this in China and Japan). At the time, their purpose was less targeted towards prevention of pregnancy than the prevention of STDs. Syphilis was rampant across Europe during this era. Early condoms were made of animal membranes or fabric, before eventually being manufactured out of rubber. Much more comfortable!


In the first half of the 20th century, vaginal douching as a method of contraception became widely popular in the Western world. Douching was marketed towards women as a cheap and easy way to prevent pregnancy and vaginal ‘odour’ (the latter playing into women's insecurities for profit). This unfortunate campaign was so effective that douches are still available today. However, they are not recommended by doctors because they are ineffective and possibly harmful.


What is available today?


"The Pill" as it is referred to today, is a type of contraception that uses a combination of hormones to prevent pregnancies. It was introduced in the 1960s, allowing a degree of sexual liberation that was previously unheard of in the Western world. Although its availability was limited to married couple in its initial stages, the pill is now one of the most commonly used contraceptives of today.


The NHS has provided the following list of many of the contraceptives currently available, on their website.

(Consult your GP for more information about the methods on this list, as not all of them may be suitable to your individual health needs.)


A far cry from herbs and animal membranes, these methods are much more safe and effective than historical contraceptives that were once used.


Contraceptives of the future


The development of 'male contraceptives' is a topic that has been a large topic of public discussion in recent times. Research is being conducted into both hormonal and non-hormonal methods of preventing sperm from being released during sex. These methods are still being explored and tested, so for now the main methods of contraception for people who produce sperm are condoms and vasectomies.


Historically, the burden of responsibility has fallen largely to women, despite conception occurring as a result of two parties. These developments represent a move towards more balanced responsibility in the prevention of pregnancy. Access to contraception affords women and those who conceive children some much needed control over their own lives and futures. Freedom over one's own body should be a human right for all, and access to effective contraceptives are an important step towards achieving this.