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Early methods of birth control

Willow plants were drunk for their alleged birth control properties.

Willow plants were drunk for their alleged birth control properties.

Credits:Wellcome Library, London.

Numerous types of contraception have been practised for thousands of years. Ancient texts record herbal recipes intended to prevent conception. Plants such as hawthorn, willow and ivy were alleged to show sterilising properties when drunk. Natural substances could be applied to the genitals before or after sex, creating a chemical barrier that effectively kills sperm. Substances could also form into solid plugs, pessaries or suppositories, which a woman could insert to create both a physical and chemical barrier. Ancient Egyptians used honey, acacia and crocodile dung!

Roman women famously used douches. This is the rinsing of the vagina with fluids, such as sea water, lemon juice or vinegar, before or after sexual activity. Douches flushed out sperm and hopefully killed any that remained. These techniques were still used well into the 20th century.

An unwanted pregnancy or an unwanted child led to more drastic measures such as abortion, infanticide or abandonment. In Ancient Greek and Roman cultures there is evidence that unwanted infants, or those with disabilities, were sometimes murdered. More common was abandoning babies, often at a known location away from the town or city. This was called ‘exposure’. Most infants succumbed to starvation or wild animals, or were taken for slavery or prostitution, though a few were reared by kindly strangers.

 

 

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Bibliography

J M Riddle, Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to The Renaissance (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1992)

A McLaren, A History of Contraception: From Antiquity to the Present Day (Oxford: B. Blackwell, 1990)

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