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  • History of Oral Contraceptives Post 1

    Posted on July 25th, 2011 Patricia No comments

    Writers and physicians of days gone by did not understand conception as we do. They believed that conception occurred after sexual union but that the male seed started to grow in the female body. It was assumed that the female did not possess a seed. The female body only provided the nourishment to the seed implanted by the male.

    When menstruation ceased, it was assumed that the cause was perhaps fever, malnutrition, depression or disease. To overcome this problem, during ancient times, women took a variety of herbs to induce menstruation. In the present day, these substances could be classed as abortifacients. Starting with the 17th century, substances that induced menstruation were referred to as emmenagogues. Women who took emmenagogues to regulate their menses did not know whether these caused them to abort.

    Archeological evidence suggests that Egyptians did try some methods to prevent conception, but the first well-documented example of an oral contraceptive was derived from the silphion a plant that grew only in Cyrene. Theophrastus wrote about it in 300 B.C. Botanical descriptions indicate that it was a giant fennel probably from the genus Ferula. From coins, pottery, writings and objects of the Cyrenians it appears that silphion was a valued commodity. Hippocrates recorded that it was a difficult plant to grow, while Soranus recorded prescriptions of the sap when taken by mouth prevented or stopped pregnancy. The plant commanded a price that exceeded its weight in silver and was indiscriminately harvested to extinction. A related species, Ferrula assafoetida, which grows in North Africa has been used as a spice and a condiment. Extracts of the sap of this species and one other plant belonging to the same genus has been shown to prevent pregnancy in rats. However, scientists have been unable to duplicate this result in other mammalian species.

    Premodern people probably had knowledge of birth control methods, but the information was not passed down to the modern times for one reason or another. The ancient writers, mostly males, had only secondhand knowledge of the birth-control practices by women. Women knew the plants to gather, the plant parts to use, the optimal doses and the best time to take it during the menstrual cycle. The contraceptive knowledge was never an important part of the medical practice in earlier times and so the anti-fertility lore became part and parcel of midwifery.

    Later the male physicians forced the midwives out of business and gynecology became part of professional medical practice. Religion may have also played a part in preventing women from passing on their knowledge on contraception and abortifacients to future generations. It is no secret that church opposition helped smother birth control in taboo and secrecy. By the time the world population had boomed in the 20th century, society began to look for methods to control birth, but the historical trail had gone cold by then.

    Ancient medicine men and women from various cultures did prescribe anti-fertility preparations made from plant products. However, Western scientists were skeptical about reports from the early Indian and Chinese journals about ancient prescriptions used to control fertility. A reexamination of these beliefs was slow to come. Early medical practitioners did not understand the hormonal basis of the menstrual cycle, but they had some ideas about how conception occurred.

    Their concept of contraception was blurred between what is now considered the boundary between contraception and early-term abortion. Soranus, antiquity’s foremost authority on gynecology, did make a distinction between the two in his writings during the second century C.E., explaining: “A contraception differs from an abortifacient, for the first does not let conception take place while the latter destroys what has been conceived.” He recommended contraception as preferable for safety reasons.

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