7 Facts About the History of Birth Control

This Women’s History Month we’re taking a closer look at how birth control has evolved throughout the centuries, and how it’s impacted women’s health. Reliable contraception has been revolutionary since it became available, but its history has also been dark, dangerous, and at points downright weird. Get comfy and join us as we take a look at 7 surprising facts about the history of birth control…

timeline showing different methods of birth control

1. The pull out method is really, really, really old

We might think of birth control as a fairly new invention, and while there are more advanced birth control options available now, the truth is that people have been trying to prevent pregnancy for millennia. One of the oldest mentions of this dates back to the story of Onan in the Torah where withdrawal or the pull out method is described - this reference is more than 2,500 years old. 

Today the pull out method is still widely used. While there are some natural advantages of the pull out method - it’s free, and easily available - it’s simply not that effective (80% with typical use). Keep in mind that timing can be tricky and even if timed properly, some pre-ejaculate can still get into the vagina.

2. Lemons were used as an early form of birth control

When it comes to ancient birth control methods, there have been some pretty unusual choices. In a bid to find a more effective form of birth control, things got a bit fruity. Natural sponges soaked in lemon juice were a very early form of birth control, while in the 1700s the infamous lothario Casanova reportedly asked his lovers to use halved lemons as a kind of cervical cap to prevent pregnancy. 

We don’t have any numbers on the birth control effectiveness of these citrus-based contraceptives - but they’re definitely not doctor recommended today. While it’s possible the natural acidity of a lemon might kill off any straggling sperm cells, the whole thing sounds a bit too…. zingy for our taste.

3. The first condoms were reusable 

Now, let’s take a look at a birth control method you can find in your local drugstore. Condoms were invented surprisingly early with examples cropping up in Japan and China before the 15th century. These early condoms covered only the head of the penis, and were made out of animal intestine, silk, or horn. Even more horrifyingly, early condoms were not for one-time use. Instead, they were designed to be used again and again.

In Europe, the first mention of condoms dates back to 16th century Italy where they were recommended to be worn to protect against syphilis, a sexually transmitted infection. Unlike the earliest condoms, these versions covered the whole penis, but unfortunately, they were still designed to be reused. 

It wasn’t until 1844 when Charles Goodyear patented vulcanized rubber that the condom we know today really started to take shape. Modern condoms are easily available, affordable and one of the most popular forms of birth control out there. Thankfully, they’re no longer reusable either.

While contemporary condoms might look (and feel!) radically different, the way we use them hasn’t changed - today we still rely on condoms both to prevent pregnancy and to protect against STIs.

4. The birth control pill has a complicated history

The launch of the birth control pill is considered a landmark moment in the history of birth control and reproductive health more widely. The birth control pill was approved by the FDA for use as an oral contraceptive back in 1960. However, it took a bit longer before it became widely available in the United States. 

In 1965 Planned Parenthood won a case that rolled back the ban on married couples using contraception. Amazingly, it wasn’t until seven years later in 1972 that the pill became available to unmarried women in the US.

There’s no doubt that gaining access to the birth control pill was a pivotal moment for women’s rights. However, it’s important we recognize the darker side of the history of the birth control pill. Many of the clinical trials carried out would not meet today’s standard - the Puerto Rico pill trials, in particular, have received much criticism. The women in the trials did not have informed consent and three women died taking an early version of the birth control pill.

Even after they came on the market, the first birth control pills contained far higher doses of hormones than we now know are required. This led to women experiencing increased side effects, including increased risks of heart attacks and strokes. It took more than ten years before doses were lowered to the safer synthetic hormone levels prescribed today.

5. The copper IUD changed how we use contraception

The birth control pill isn’t alone in making waves. The intrauterine deceive, or IUD has drastically changed how we think about and use contraception. The copper IUD was approved by the US FDA in 1984. IUDs are long-lasting, highly effective forms of contraception. The copper IUD doesn’t contain any hormones, and once fitted it can be used to prevent pregnancy for as long as ten years. 

The fact that the IUD is more than 99% effective, paired with the convenience of using a long term birth control method, makes it a very good option for lots of people. However, intrauterine devices aren’t without their own drawbacks. There has been criticism of these long-acting methods too.

Since IUDs require a healthcare professional to remove them - there has been controversy about how long-acting methods can in fact remove bodily autonomy, if the user does not have full consent or knowledge of that option.

Very recently, Britney Spears referenced the IUD during her conservatorship - claiming it was fitted against her will to stop her falling pregnant. These cases highlight the importance of individual contraceptive choice - we should all be free to discuss, choose, use and stop using birth control on our own terms.

6. Emergency birth control gave us a plan B

Emergency birth control has brought one more contraceptive option to the table. While the copper IUD has been a form of emergency birth control since it became available, it took a bit longer for the morning-after pill (also known as Plan B) to come to market in the US. Cleared by the FDA in 1999, it wasn’t until 2006 that Plan B became available over-the-counter.

Plan B has long been a controversial birth control option, mainly since it’s taken after unprotected sex, and so it’s often associated with ending a pregnancy. However, the morning after pill cannot terminate a pregnancy. Instead, it works by delaying ovulation by releasing a higher dose of the same hormones contained in the regular birth control pill. In fact, Plan B is unlikely to work as an emergency birth control if it’s taken after ovulation.

We celebrate increased contraceptive choice, and Plan B is just one more birth control option. Keep in mind that even today not everyone has easy access to emergency birth control. Age, location, and other factors can affect your access to emergency birth control.

7. Today there are more birth control options than ever before

Many new options have come on the market since the pill got its FDA clearance back in 1960. The vaginal ring, the birth control shot, the patch, and more birth control options have become available in recent years. In 2018, the US FDA cleared Natural Cycles as the first contraceptive app, making birth control history once again. 

Designed by Swedish Physicist Elina Berglund, the app is a hormone-free way to prevent pregnancy. It comes with a basal thermometer that works with the app so you can learn the pattern of your unique menstrual cycle and know exactly when you’re fertile. Natural Cycles is prescription-free and is available to order online and is stocked in some clinics and pharmacies.

Supporting contraceptive choice for everyone, always

The history of birth control has been a complex one, with some big victories for reproductive rights, and times of darkness too. If there's one thing we’ve learned from looking back at the colorful history of contraception, it’s that access to information and the ability to make an informed choice about your birth control method is absolutely crucial.

Here at Natural Cycles we offer a non-hormonal, non-invasive alternative birth control option. Natural Cycles is just one method and we always encourage you to discuss your options in full with a healthcare professional. If you’re thinking about switching birth control, why not find out more about how Natural Cycles works?

Ready to get started?

Jen on the roof terrace at Natural Cycles headquarters.

Written By

Jennifer Gray

A writer with a passion for women’s health, Jennifer Gray has years of experience writing about various reproductive health topics including birth control, planning pregnancy, women’s anatomy, and so much more.

Jack in a suit and tie holding a microphone and giving a presentation.

Scientifically Reviewed

Jack Pearson

With 10 years of experience working in the field of fertility, Dr. Jack Pearson is Natural Cycles’ in-house expert. As Medical Affairs Manager, he dedicates his time to conducting groundbreaking research and educating healthcare professionals.

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