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Ancient Birth Control Methods: How Did Women Prevent Pregnancy Throughout the Ages?

Since the beginning of time, humans have engaged in sexual activity for purposes other than reproducing. Until the late 19th and 20th centuries, people used all kinds of homemade ancient birth control methods to prevent pregnancy. Let’s take a peek at how our ancestors avoided pregnancy.

9 forms of birth control used in ancient times

Before the birth control movement, which was closely tied to the feminist movement, women relied on homemade oral contraceptives made from herbs, spices, or even heavy metals; homemade barrier methods made from animal guts; and various other sperm-blocking ingredients that were placed directly in or on the genitals to prevent pregnancy. 

Wondering what kinds of ancient birth control women used in ancient Egypt, Rome, and Greece, or in medieval Europe until the late 1800s? After reading this list, you may feel pretty thankful that you were born into the world of modern birth control.

Honey and acacia

Records dating back to 1850 BC show us that some of the most popular ancient Egyptian birth control methods included the use of honey, acacia fruit, and acacia leaves as natural spermicides. Women would mix honey and acacia fruit and soak lint or cotton in the mixture. They inserted the lint or cotton into their vaginas before having sex, and the combination would kill some sperm before they reached the uterus.

Crocodile dung

Using probably the least hygienic ingredient used to prevent pregnancy, ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians would mix crocodile dung with other ingredients to form a pessary — a block that was inserted in the vagina.

That isn’t the only record of animal feces being used as ancient contraceptives. In ancient India and the Middle East, people tried elephant feces in a similar way to prevent pregnancy.

Today, we’re not sure whether these ancient birth control methods were effective.

Lead and mercury

Long ago, people freely applied and consumed poisonous substances such as heavy metals that we now know are extremely dangerous.

All across the world, ancient civilizations used heavy metals like mercury, lead, and arsenic to prevent pregnancy. Ancient Egyptians, Assyrians, Greeks, and Chinese women would drink liquid mercury, liquid lead, or arsenic — or a combination of these — to prevent conception. Unfortunately, these poisonous substances would also lead to kidney and lung failure, as well as brain damage. But they did work as birth control!

Silphium

In ancient Rome and Greece and the ancient Near East, women used an oral contraceptive called silphium, which was a species of giant fennel. They would also soak cotton or lint in the juice of this herb and insert it into their vaginas to prevent pregnancy.

Silphium seeds eventually became so valuable that they were used as a form of weight-based currency, deemed even more valuable than silver. The plant became extinct in late antiquity.

Queen Anne’s lace

Queen Anne’s lace has been used as an effective form of birth control for thousands of years. It is considered one of the old forms of birth control, as some people still use it today as a contraceptive.

Sometimes referred to as wild carrot, Queen Anne’s lace was famously described by Hippocrates more than 2,000 years ago as an oral contraceptive.

Unfortunately, Queen Anne’s lace chemically resembles hemlock, which is highly toxic. 

Olive oil

To make an ancient birth control mixture proposed by Aristotle, women in Greece used olive and cedar oils to decrease sperm mobility. This would give them time to rinse or douche after having sex to reduce the chance of pregnancy.

Lemon

In the past, people assumed the citric acid in lemon possessed spermicidal qualities, making this fruit an effective form of ancient birth control. Women would soak sponges or cotton in lemon juice and insert them into their vaginas. It would both act as a barrier to the cervix and as a spermicide.

Rumor has it that Casanova, the famous Venetian ladies’ man of the 18th century, would fashion a cervical cap out of half a lemon to use with his sex partners.

Douches

Douches were popular in ancient Rome to prevent pregnancy. Women would rinse their vaginas with all kinds of substances such as seawater, lemon juice, and vinegar. 

Until the early 1900s — before the legalization of birth control in the United States — women would use toxic cleaning agents such as Lysol to douche. There were many poisonings and even a few deaths linked to Lysol douching.

Condoms

The use of condoms began hundreds of years ago. In the 1600s, the first known condoms were made from animal membranes, including bladders and intestines. The use of condoms may go back even further to the ancient civilizations of Egypt, Greece, and Rome, but we lack evidence proving this.

What we do know is that condoms were first used to prevent the spread of disease. Only later were they utilized as a primary form of birth control as well.

Birth control methods: from then to now

Until modern contraceptives were invented, women relied on all kinds of ancient birth control methods that had inconsistent results. Some were even dangerous, including the use of heavy metals such as mercury, lead, and arsenic, which did prevent conception but also led to organ failure and brain damage.

In the beginning of the 20th century, the first intrauterine device for birth control was introduced. Over the following decades, many other methods of birth control were developed, including sponges, cervical caps, and condoms (not the ones made from animal intestines).

The first birth control pills emerged in the 1950s and were publicly available in the year 1960 in the United States.

With modern medicine, birth control options are regulated and tested for efficiency and safety. We’ve come a long way from crocodile dung, and now people can choose from a variety of birth control methods, including:

  • Combined hormone pills
  • Progestin-only pills
  • Contraceptive patches
  • Injections
  • Implants
  • Vaginal rings
  • Condoms
  • Spermicides
  • Diaphragms
  • Cervical caps
  • Intrauterine device (IUD)
  • Sponges
  • Sterilization (vasectomy, tubal ligation)

Of course, other birth control methods do not require any devices or procedures. These include fertility awareness-based methods (FAMs), withdrawal (pull-out method), and outercourse (sexual stimulation without penetration).

Each method of birth control has advantages and disadvantages. You may choose to use one method for a time and switch to another whenever you feel it’s necessary.

Conclusion

Contraception has always been an important part of the human experience. 

Luckily, we’re no longer stuck with ancient forms of birth control that not only make us cringe but also caused quite a few nasty infections. Let’s give a shoutout to modern medicine for keeping animal dung from coming anywhere near our genitals.

Connell, E B. “Contraception in the prepill era.” Contraception vol. 59,1 Suppl (1999): 7S-10S. doi:10.1016/s0010-7824(98)00130-9 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10342089/

Amy, Jean-Jacques, and Michel Thiery. “The condom: A turbulent history.” The European journal of contraception & reproductive health care: the official journal of the European Society of Contraception vol. 20,5 (2015): 387-402. doi:10.3109/13625187.2015.1050716 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26065675/

Wessel, Gary M. “Of camels, silkworms, and contraception.” Molecular reproduction and development vol. 81,9 (2014): Fmi. doi:10.1002/mrd.22416 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25209327/

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