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

It’s My Body

Posted in History by patriciahysell on June 7, 2013
Estelle Griswold

Estelle Griswold

June 7, 1965: Griswold v. Connecticut is decided. The US Supreme Court case 381 U.S, 479 (1965) was argued March 29, 1965. Estelle T. Griswold and C. Lee Buxton v. Connecticut had begun in 1962 in the Circuit Court for the Sixth Circuit. The case was brought to Circuit Court, Appellate Division in 1963 and the Connecticut Supreme Court in 1964. The case challenged a Connecticut law prohibiting “any drug, medicinal article or instrument for the purpose of preventing conception.” The law had been passed in 1879 but was rarely enforced.

Tileston v. Ullman (1943) saw a doctor/mother challenge the constitutionality of the law. The case was dismissed by the Supreme Court who said the plaintiff had no standing to sue on behalf of her patients. Poe v. Ullman (1961) was dismissed again, this time because the plaintiffs had not been charged or threatened with prosecution. Justice John Marshall Harlan II filed a dissenting opinion in the Poe case decrying the lack of Due Process by imposing laws of “arbitrary impositions and purposeless restraints.”

Estelle Griswold was the Executive Director of the Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut. Dr. C. Lee Buxton was a physician and professor at Yale School of Medicine. To once again test a law prohibiting contraception, the two opened a Planned Parenthood clinic in New Haven, Connecticut. They were immediately arrested, tried, found guilty, and fined $100 each (≈ $700 today). The court system upheld the convictions as the case moved up the appeals ladder.

The Supreme Court heard arguments by Griswold stating the law was unconstitutional because it was in conflict with Amendment 14, Section 1, that states “no state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law…nor deny any person the equal protection of the laws.” This early reversal only applied to married couples. Single women were not afforded the same protection until 1972 when Eisenstadt v. Baird found they, too, had a right to privacy.

“A crying baby is the best form of birth control.” – Carole Tabron

“Contraceptives should be used on every conceivable occasion.” – Spike Milligan

“It is now quite lawful for a Catholic woman to avoid pregnancy by a resort to mathematics, though she is still forbidden to resort to physics or chemistry.” – H.L. Mencken

“When the history of civilization is written, it will be a biological history and Margaret Sanger will be its heroine.” – H.G. Wells

“Those who in principle oppose birth control are either incapable of arithmetic or else in favor of war, pestilence and famine as permanent features of human life.” – Bertrand Russell

This article first appeared at in 2009. Editor’s update: Trying to control fertility is an ago old problem. Since ancient times, women have increased the amount of time they breastfed babies in the hopes of forestalling the next pregnancy. Even in the Bible, there is evidence of coitus interruptus used as birth control (and where the Catholic Church gets its stance on the subject) when Onan uses the method. Both birth control and abortion were documented in Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt. The Kahun Gynecological Papyrus lists various methods of birth control and is dated about 1859 BC. It lists pessaries and acacia gum which acts as a spermicide. There were a variety of plants used throughout the Middle and Far East as well as in Ancient Greece and Rome that would help with contraception. Silphium was once such plant and was in such demand that eventually the plant went extinct. 

Also on this day: A Man, A Plan, A Canal – Panama – In 1914 the Panama Canal was found to work.
Treaty of Tordesillas – In 1494, this treaty was signed, parceling out the New World.
Lee, but not Robert E. – In 1776, the Lee Resolution was presented to the Second Continental Congress.