A brief history of contraception

As a tribute to World Contraception Day, Vanshika Dhyani discusses the complicated history of birth control.

Pregnancy and birth control have been at the epicentre of the women liberation movement for centuries. They have dictated the course of feminism from its very first wave and are paramount to a conversation about women and their rights on their bodies. 

Today discussions surrounding abortion, contraception and family planning cannot be justified without acknowledging them as human rights that allow individuals to prevent pregnancy until their body is ready to conceive. These discussions have been around for longer than one might think. The importance of fertility control can be traced back to ancient civilizations that practised birth control and terminated unwanted pregnancies.

Ancient Contraception

In Egypt, acacia fruit and leaves were used as a natural spermicide, while Greece and Rome relied heavily on silphium—a medicinal gum-resin and oral contraceptive that was driven into extinction due to excessive consumption. Egyptians and Mesopotamians inserted chunks of crocodile muck into the vagina to halt pregnancy, similar practices were adopted in ancient India and the Middle East using Elephant crud. Queen Anne's lace or wild carrot was also extensively used as means of post-coital contraceptive and is still in use in parts of South-East Asia. Ancient methods of contraception were not limited to herbal alternatives, as many consumed lead, mercury and arsenic in a liquid form as birth control. Norman E. Himesan—an American sociologist known for his unprecedented work on the medical history of contraception—believes that these methods are unlikely to be effective.-


Precursors to present-day condoms that were crafted from animal skin, started showing up simultaneously in various parts of the world. Pre-15th century China used condoms made  from oiled silk paper and lamb intestines. In Japan, condoms were made out of tortoise shells, animal horns and leather. The Egyptians refined the existing prototypes by using linen sheaths as condoms. The Romans also used linen, alongside muscles from warriors they had slain in battle.

The first widely accepted handbook on the use of condoms was published by Gabriele Falloppio, in 16th-century Italy. He devised a covering for the glans penis from linen sheaths. The cloth was first immersed in a chemical solution, dried and then kept in place using a ribbon. By the 18th century, the demand and supply of condoms grew rapidly and they were being sold at pubs, theatres, open-air markets and even barbershops. As the market for the product soared, so did the availability of different sizes and materials. Most commonly condoms were made out of chemically treated linen and sulphur softened bladders and intestines. In the 1840s, British newspapers started advertising for the barrier method and by 1861, condoms had made it to the New York Times. 

19th-century condoms owe their popularity to syphilis and other venereal diseases that it was rumoured to protect against. It's only drawback was that it was often unreliable, riddled with holes and could easily come undone. That is probably why major rubber companies started the mass production of condoms after the discovery of vulcanized rubber. These condoms were reusable, economical, and soon became the norm around the world.

For decades rubber condoms only covered the glans of the penis. They were tailor-made for every individual using medical measurements taken by doctors. Raw rubber was placed in penis-shaped moulds to achieve the required dimensions. However, once the manufacturers realised that they could mass-produce full-length, one-size-fits-all condoms, the glans condoms soon became obsolete. 

The invention of Latex,— an aqueous solution of rubber— in 1920, reduced the labour required to produce condoms and replaced rubber which was required to be hand-dipped into cement, smoothed and trimmed. With the advancement of automation, condoms made out of latex could be mass-produced in factories, which were thinner and tougher. 

From the mid-50s, condom sales soared. Over 42% of Americans of reproductive age and 60% of English married couples reported using condoms as their preferred contraceptive.


We've come a long way from unhygienic crocodile muck to condoms with in-built medication that offer resistance against STDs. Modern science has evolved to provide us with other adequate alternatives like the oral contraceptive pill that was approved by the FDA nearly sixty years ago.  It works on the principle of suppressing ovulation and solidifies the entrance to the womb so that the sperm is unlikely to fertilize the egg. 


Contraception has been a controversial topic in Ireland as it was under the heavy influence of the Catholic Church that openly condemned contraception and other efforts to restrict pregnancy. Selling and importing contraceptives was banned in the country from 1935 until 1980.

In 1979, a Family Planning act—proposed by Charles Haughey, the Health Minister at the time —was passed. It limited contraceptives to married couples and chemist shops that needed a doctors’ prescription to approve the purchase.

It wasn't until early 1985 that the Irish government legalised contraception. The first amendment to the Health Act authorised the sale of condoms to those above eighteen. The second amendment further lowered the age limitation to seventeen. Amid the AIDS epidemic, contraception became more than just a means to limit fertility. As a result, contraceptives became available without any age constraints in 1993. 

UCD Professor Abbey Hyde—from UCD’s School of Nursing, Midwifery and Health Systems—whose research has been used by the World Health Organisation (WHO) to understand gender-responsive actions to prevent and manage adolescent pregnancy believes that “being able to control their fertility is perhaps the single most important advance for women's health. Contraception has only been available in Ireland in recent decades, and previous generations of women risked having pregnancy after pregnancy without choice, with all of the limits that this placed on their lives. It is important that universal access to contraception is available to populations globally, which is a target of the  UN Sustainable Development Goals."