Family planning is a universal phenomenon, practiced in every known culture for thousands of years despite legal, moral or social restrictions. Fertility control can be achieved through abstinence, with contraception, or through abortion.
Family planning dates as far back as 1850 B.C. when the oldest known prescriptions for contraceptives came from an ancient Egyptian papyrus. Three hundred years later, the Ebers papyrus described a medicated lint tampon to prevent conception. Ancient Hebrews practiced what is believed to be the oldest contraceptive method, withdrawal before ejaculation. In later periods, however, this was widely interpreted as being a mortal sin.
As early as the seventh century B.C., the Greeks were importing silphium, a giant fennel known to have contraceptive properties, from Libya. In the early days of Christianity, Christians were relatively few in number and widely scattered geographically. Contraceptive and abortion practices varied considerably, influenced by regional customs and practices.
In the ancient Islamic world, physicians and scientists recorded valid information on contraception. In ancient India, rock salt was used as a spermicide. Honey and oil were also placed in the vagina for the purpose of preventing pregnancy. The ancient Japanese used condoms made from tortoise shell or horn. Later, the Japanese would construct condoms from leather.
It is estimated that over 200 contraceptive and abortion methods were in common use during the Middle Ages. But although birth control was regularly practiced, the Puritans arose during the Elizabethan era with strong views on contraception. They believed that children were a blessing from God, that birth control could reduce the number of the 'Elect' and that it might be practiced by the unmarried. Because many Puritans immigrated to the English colonies, these ideas became part of the American heritage.
Perhaps the most popular contraceptive method came into widespread use in Europe during the 18th century. By about 1700, shops in central London were selling condoms made from animal membranes.
In America, although the birth control movement did not take hold until the 20th century, the 1800s were an important time for family planning. In 1800, a white American woman bore an average of 7.04 children. By 1860, that number was 5.21, and by 1900, it had plummeted to 3.56. Clearly, Americans had to have been practicing family planning.
Over the course of the 19th century, contraception was discussed in wider circles in America than ever before. Puritan ideas did not disappear, but other ideas gradually surfaced. By mid-century, pamphlets and books on contraception had been published and were widely available.
Not all groups in American society welcomed the increased interest in contraception. The 'social purity' movement, formed after the Civil War, included groups that wished to restrict abortion and contraception. Before the passage of a 1873 federal law they supported, which prohibited trading in obscene literature and materials, including any article for the prevention of conception, or for causing unlawful abortion, commonly known as the Comstock Law, there had been no federal involvement in contraception.
Catholic and Protestant clergy supported the law, as did feminist groups concerned about the spread of venereal disease. Its most profound effect was that it created barriers against the availability of contraceptive information and services, especially among the poor and uneducated.
Reform was, however, on the way. During the first two decades of the century, members of the Progressive Party were demanding political, economic, and social changes. In 1918, the New York Court of Appeals ruled that physicians could prescribe contraceptives for married couples. By 1937, a national survey showed that 71 percent of Americans were in favor of birth control and 70 percent favored revising the Comstock law. In that same year, the American Medical Association recognized birth control as an integral part of medical practice and education. In 1958, physicians in New York hospitals were permitted to prescribe birth control, setting the standard for many other municipalities. One year later, a presidential committee on foreign aid recommended that assistance for family planning be made available to foreign governments that requested it. But despite these significant steps, an estimated 35 million abortions occur in developing countries each year. Approximately 20 million of these are unsafe abortions, which claim the lives of 67,000 women. In developing countries, one of every 75 women dies of pregnancy - or childbirth-related causes - compared to one of every 7,300 women in developed countries. If contraception were accessible and used consistently and correctly, maternal deaths would decline by an estimated 35 percent.