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PERSPECTIVES IN BIOLOGY AND MEDICINE Volume 10 · Number ? · Autumn 1966 THE HISTORY AND FUTURE OF BIRTH CONTROL GARRETT HARDIN, Ph.D.* In 1822 there was published in England a tiny pamphlet entitled To the Married ofBoth Sexes ofthe Working People. In clear and decent language , it told poor women how they could avoid having more children than they wanted. With this publication the birth control movement (as it was later called) was launched. Two things should be noted about this event. First, note the authorship : Francis Place was a powerful labor leader. Most people now think of birth control as a medical subject—and so it is, in part. But for the first century of its history, the birth control movement was more opposed than supported by the medical profession. The leading activists were not physicians. Margaret Sanger was a nurse; Marie Stopes was a botanist; and Francis Place started his career as a maker of leather breeches. Second, we should note that Francis Place did not invent birth control. He merely took the first steps toward making the topic a legitimate one for public discussion. Before his time, almost as far back as recorded history , birth control was part ofthe private lives ofmen and women. The Ebers papyrus, dating from about 1550 B.c., is quite explicit in this matter. Norman Himes's Medical History of Contraception abundantly establishes the point that people in every culture have tried to control the size of families [1]. Many cultures could come up with nothing better than abortion and infanticide—but not for want of trying. Just run your eye over this small sample ofthe immense roster ofsubstances and procedures employed by one culture or another: okra seed pod, tannic acid, seaweed, lemon-juice douche, root of spotted cowbane, castor beans, marjoram, * Professor of Biology, University of California, Santa Barbara. Based on the annual Research Lecture, May, 1966. thyme, parsley, lavender, rosemary (what is this? a recipe for a cake?), crocus, myrtle, camphor, black hellebore, ball of opium, elephant dung, crocodile dung, camel dung (no, it's not a recipe), olive oil, cedar oil, copper sulfate, willow, fern root, cabbage blossoms, a piece of bark tied in three knots, gunpowder tea, foam from a camel's mouth, stepping three times over a grave, and holding your breath. Some of these were no doubt partially effective—the lemon-juice douche, for example; but it is doubtful ifany ofthem were as effective as this simple recipe, recorded [2] in the medical literature as long ago as 1888: "Before going to bed, drink a glass of cold water and don't touch another thing all night." Effective , but not popular. Birth control, olderthan civilization, was until recently a private matter, a matter of information passed from mother to daughter, or from midwife to wife. With the coming of the nineteenth century, it became a public matter, for various reasons. First, Malthus raised the specter of overpopulation in his essay of 1798. Francis Place was well aware of Malthus' ideas, but his reason for publicizing birth control was slightly different: Place was a great friend ofthe workers andhe regarded the overproduction ofthis particular segment ofthe population as a threat to their bargaining power. Labor, said all the economists of the day, is a commodity . Very well, said Place, let us make this commodity scarce, and then it will command a living wage as its price. Later, another concern became the principal support for birth control: the women's rights movement. Annie Besant, Marie Stopes, and Margaret Sanger (to mention only the most illustrious) supported the revolutionary ethical principle that no woman should ever bear a child she does not want. This idea contradicts "eternal" principles ofmorality in every major religion in the Western world, but after a century ofagitation, it is rapidly replacing traditional ethics. Most of us, I think, regard this victory as a good one, and weep few tears over the loss ofthe old morality. Women are being freed, and we are all the gainers. The Purpose ofCoitus Accompanying this change there has been a dramatic change in the official attitude toward sexual intercourse. (The unofficial attitude ofcommon people has probably changed little over...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-8795
Print ISSN
0031-5982
Pages
pp. 1-18
Launched on MUSE
2015-01-07
Open Access
No
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