A history of contraception

Recently, a friend told me about a book written by Angus Mclaren, History of contraception, to say that women in ancient Greece used to have rights, at least to inherit and own property, until men decided for economical reasons that this state of things wasn’t good for the economy.

While it is true, that in Sparta for instance women had proprieties and freedom to move as they please, including at night, things weren’t so in all ancient Greece, especially after the Archaic Era.

This got me curious, so I read the book.

The most interesting thing about this book, is that indeed the evolution of oficial views on contraception are driven by economy, which also influences the natality. While natality decreases during periods of economic depression caused by war or pandemics, it increases during periods of economic welfare. Subsequently, laws on contraception were more lax during periods of welfare but tended to be very restrictive during periods of economic depression or right after.

For instance, towards the fall of the Roman empire, the laws were so harsh that they  punished people who had no children, as well as women who had abortions, even spontaneous abortions, with up to 10 years of prison.

The coming of Christianity provided and out for women from the tirany of giving birth, even if the religion was profoundly misogynistic from the very beginning. However, in the begining, christians were preaching against all sexual activity and considered chastity to be the only way to achieve spiritual communion with God. However, as the religion became more influencial it had to take into account the need for perpetuating the species, so they concluded that sex was allowed only with the scope of having children, creating a frustrating context for both men and women.

However, the desire of people to control the rate of births and the size of their families was always of interest to them. For men, the reasons were also economic, as they had to have a family they could provide for and too many children could hinder that. Also, having too many sons would lead to the split of their fortune after their death. For women, it was mostly about their own health as the more they had children, the more they risked dieing in childbirth. Also, caring for children didn’t allow them time to pursue any other activity and restricted them to the house.

The book also offers a quite interesting and complete view of how women’s status was perceived by society throughout time and how powerful the influence of maternity is on women’s condition and evolution.

Other ideas I found interesting are:

The church wasn’t against abortion before the forth month of pregnancy until 1917.

The first feminists were against contraception. The two first feminist women who studied contraception and opened health centers for women, Margaret Sanger and Marie Stopes, were against using condoms or other methods of birth control other than those introduced by doctors to prevent the sperm to reach the uterus, like diafragmas. And they were against abortion.

Doctors were against contraception until DIU and pills came into play, and it became a medical issue they could control.

Fun facts:

The model of the ideal family with two children is a French model. Once they adopted this model, natality remained more or less the same in France, and lower that in other countries.

The use of headaches by women to get out of having to have sex with their partners is also a French thing. French women were also the first to promote the idea that women should be allowed to refuse to have sex with their husbands if they didn’t want to.

Protestant priests who can mary are less inclined to get involved in debates about sexuality and contraception, that catholic priests.

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