Little Bits of History

June 23

Posted in History by patriciahysell on June 23, 2017

1960: Mestranol/norethynodrel (trade name Enovid [US] and Enavid [UK]) is approved for use as a contraceptive. Mestranol is a synthetic, steroidal estrogen and norethynodrel is a steroidal progestin making this the first combined oral contraceptive pill (COCP) to be approved. Enovid was first approved on June 10, 1957 but only for treatment of menstrual disorders. It wasn’t until this day it got its new designation. It took until 1961 to be approved in Canada and the United Kingdom. Today, there are still COCPs available, but the brand was discontinued in 1988 along with most other first generation high estrogen COCPs.

COCPs, familiarly known as The Pill, are taken daily in order to inhibit female fertility and are reversible. They are used around the world with more than 100 million women using this form of birth control and about 12 million of them live in the US. It is the most widely used form of birth control in the US for women between the ages of 15 and 44. Use varies by age, education, marital status, and country. In the UK, about 34% of women 16-49 use COCPs or progestogen-only pills while in Japan, only about 1% use this method. If used perfectly, there is about a 0.3% chance of pregnancy in the first year, but when seen as regular usage the pregnancy rate increased to 9% with these being attributed to poor instructions, mistakes of the user, or willful misuse or non-compliance.

The history of birth control is tightly entwined with the history of abortion. Both have been well documented in ancient history from Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt. The Ebers Papyrus from 1550 BC and the Kahun Papyrus from 1850 BC both list various ways to prevent pregnancy. Honey, acacia leaves, and lint were inserted into the vagina to prevent sperm from traveling. The older papyrus also included a description of a pessary (akin to a diaphragm) using acacia gum, which recent research has found to have spermatocidal qualities and is still used in some contraceptive jellies. The ancient texts also recommend covering the cervix with gummy substances and suggested lactation as a method of birth control. Coitus interruptus was mentioned in the Bible. Other regions of the world also found different plants to be helpful in slowing sperm.

Barrier methods improved with time but it wasn’t until the 20th century that use became more routine. Early condoms were made of a variety of materials, some better at slowing the spread of disease more than as actual birth control. Intrauterine devices also were on the market, but they have a higher rate of side effects and do nothing to stop the spread of disease. There has always been the option of not engaging in reproductive activities, either while it was assumed one was fertile or even eschewing sexual relations altogether. All the above methods are reversible without issue. Sterilization is also available. They are not readily reversible. Tubal ligations for women have been available since 1930 and vasectomy for men has been available since 1899 with first experimentation tried in 1785.

The only remedy against hunger is reasonable birth control. – Friedrich Durrenmatt

I do not want to speak about overpopulation or birth control, but I think education is the way to give new impetus to the poverty question. – Harri Holkeri

I always joke with people that having nephews is the best birth control there is. – Tahj Mowry

We have access to practical, ethical and scientifically established methods of birth control. So I think that is the most ethical way to reduce our population. – Christian de Duve

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