An Ancient Interest
A survey of early contraceptive methods reflects an odd combination of human knowledge and ignorance. Some methods sound absurd, such as the suggestion by the ancient Greek Dioscorides that wearing of cat testicles or asparagus would inhibit contraception. Yet some early methods used techniques still practiced today.
The Egyptian contraceptive tampon, described in the Ebers Papyrus of 1550 B.C., was made of lint and soaked in honey and tips from the acacia shrub. The acacia shrub contains gum arabic, the substance from which lactic acid is made, a spermicidal agent used in modern contraceptive jellies and creams.
Aristotle was one of many ancient Greeks to write about contraception. He advised women to use olive oil or cedar oil in the vagina, a method which helps inhibit contraception by slowing the movement of sperm. Other Greeks recommended the untrue contention that obesity was linked to reduced fertility.
Roman birth control practices varied from the use of woolen tampons to sterilization, which was typically performed on slaves. Another common ancient practice, still in use today, was the prolonged nursing of infants which makes conception less likely although still possible.
Ancient Asian cultures drew from a wide range of birth control methods. Women in China and Japan used bamboo tissue paper discs which had been oiled as barriers to the cervix. These were precursors of the modern diaphragm contraceptive device. The Chinese believed that behavior played a role in fertility, and that women who were passive during sex would not become pregnant. They suggested that women practice a total passivity beginning as early as 1100 B.C. In addition, they suggested that men practice intercourse without ejaculating.
The Chinese were not alone in promoting contraceptive methods based on men's ejaculation practices. The practice of withdrawal of the man's penis before ejaculation during intercourse, also known as coitus interruptus, has been called the most common contraceptive method in the world. While it was believed that coitus interruptus prevented conception, pre-ejaculatory fluid can contain sufficient sperm to cause pregnancy. A 1995 study found that 19% of women who depended on withdrawal became pregnant accidentally within their first year of using the method.
Magical potions were also used extensively throughout the world as contraceptives, including a wide range of herbal and vegetable preparations. Some may have actually caused abortions.