A Brief History of Population Control and Contraception

By Bullough, Vern L.; Bullough, Bonnie | Free Inquiry, Spring 1994 | Go to article overview

A Brief History of Population Control and Contraception


Bullough, Vern L., Bullough, Bonnie, Free Inquiry


Few, if any, individuals or societies have ever approached the maximum level of fertility, and the conclusion seems obvious that various customs and methods have been adopted to limit the number of births. Statisticians like to talk of a "total maternity ratio," which could be defined as the average number of previous live births per woman now aged forty-five or over, regardless of whether a particular woman has children (not all women can or do have children). This ratio varies with different groups and societies.

Note that the "total maternity ratio" is based upon live births, which means that abortions are excluded whether they are spontaneous or induced. Being born alive, however, does not mean that the infant survives to reach adulthood. Though infant mortality figures of the past are notoriously difficult to determine accurately, it is estimated that somewhere between 25 and 40 percent of the infants born alive prior to the nineteenth century did not live beyond their first birthday.(2)

Though infant mortality certainly cuts down population growth, it is not a form of birth control. Still, there is considerable evidence that the high mortality rate of newborns in many societies has not always been due to natural causes but has resulted from actions that would either consciously or unconsciously have led to a high death rate. Though few individuals and societies deliberately murder their infants (infanticide), various policies subtly (and some not so subtly) encourage it. A good example of this is the practice of wet nursing as it existed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Paris and elsewhere. Infants who had survived the first three or four weeks (during which mortality is the highest) were removed from the mother and sent to the country to be fed by other women, who usually kept them for a year or more. Since wet nurses by definition usually had infants of their own to feed, and the parents of the boarded infant did not live close, the care varied tremendously and the mortality rate was very high, much higher than it would have been had the birth mother fed her own infant. One study estimated that of those infants sent out to wet nurses, some 25 percent had died by the end of the year. This would lead to a total mortality rate of over 40 percent.(3)

Perhaps the most obvious way to avoid either becoming pregnant or getting someone pregnant is to remain celibate. This in essence was the Christian remedy, and lifelong celibacy is still encouraged among such groups as Catholic priests and nuns. In the past, however, only a few societies have been either willing or able to impose long periods of celibacy upon more than a small minority of their members. Instead, most societies in the past were content to adopt short periods of continence by imposing prohibitions upon sexual intercourse during certain times of the year such as Lent, various feast days, or during certain periods of a woman's life (e.g., when she is lactating or menstruating). It is highly unlikely that such prohibitions originally were established as birth control measures, although they undoubtedly helped to cut down the pregnancy rate. The modern rhythm method is a deliberate effort to utilize periods of temporary continence to cut down the possibility of conception, but its effectiveness depends not only on understanding the menstrual cycle, something that we have only recently begun to do, but on the ability of any particular woman to determine when she ovulates, something that was impossible in the past and is still not easy.

Throughout history, people have also tried to utilize artificial means of preventing conception, although only a few have been particularly effective. Contemporary peoples who still live in tribal or nomadic groups, for example, are known to use douches and drugs, to practice withdrawal (coitus interruptus), and to insert tampons and pessaries, all to avoid pregnancy. Sub-incision is also practiced in some groups, and has a long history, although whether it was originally done for ritualistic reasons or contraceptive purposes is not now clear.

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