5 Things We Didn't Know About Contraceptive History


In honor of the Pill‘s 50th anniversary, Time‘s Nancy Gibbs takes a look back at its history and influence. Her piece includes a couple of facts we were surprised to learn — including the origin of the condom.

— Pre-Pill, abortion and contraception advertisements had to use reverse psychology.

In 1873 Congress passed a law banning birth control information as obscene. So women seeking ways to limit the number of children they bore had to know how to read the papers. Through the turn of the century, advertisements for potions to treat “female disorders” or menstrual irregularities carried a bold, bright warning: “Portuguese Female Pills, not to be used during pregnancy for they will cause miscarriage.”
The warning, of course, was the ad.

Margaret Sanger was inspired to advocate for birth control by the death of her mother.

According to Gibbs, Sanger’s mother died at age 50 after having a Duggar-level 18 children. At her funeral, Sanger told her dad, “You caused this. Mother is dead from having too many children.” She went on to open America’s first family-planning clinic and and found the organization that later became Planned Parenthood.

— At 1962’s Vatican II, most Cardinals actually favored liberalizing Catholic doctrine on contraception.

Gibbs writes,

Leaked reports of the commission’s findings suggested that nearly all its theologians and a majority of the Cardinals favored changing the church’s teaching on the immorality of contraception – but the following year, Paul VI issued his encyclical Humanae Vitae, in which he sided with the minority. The teaching against contraception stayed in place. Hundreds of American theologians issued a statement that this was not an infallible teaching and that Catholics could in good conscience dissent. And in any event, it was too late to reverse the trend; by 1970, two-thirds of Catholic women were using birth control, more than a quarter of those the Pill.

— Planned Parenthood initially dispensed the Pill only to married women.

Gibbs writes that most women who took the Pill in the ’60s were married, calling into question the notion that the Pill increased the prevalence of premarital sex. Planned Parenthood wasn’t the only provider to refuse single women — several states actually banned prescribing the Pill to unmarried people. College health clinics often didn’t carry it, although, writes Gibbs, “one elite school would give a prescription to girls if they brought a note from their minister attesting to their impending wedding date.”

— Our favorite: the condom was supposedly invented by one “Dr. Condom.”

The condom is often credited to one Dr. Condom in the mid-1700s, who was said to have invented a sheath made out of sheep intestines for England’s King Charles II to help limit the number of bastards he sired, though such devices had actually been around for centuries.

This account is apparently disputed, but Gibbs’s account has a lot of potential as a new ad campaign. We’re thinking, “Tired of siring bastards? Trojan Man is here to help!” The possibilities are endless.

The Pill At 50: Sex, Freedom And Paradox [Time]

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