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Life without modern contraception

Monday, September 2, 2013


The excellent range of contraceptives available to us today is very different to even a few generations ago.

People used to use whatever materials were available to them to prevent unwanted pregnancy.

Thankfully for us there have been many technical and medical advances that have brought us methods like the Pill and long-acting reversible contraception (LARCs).

Traditional Methods

Early forms of contraception reportedly included:

  • crocodile dung formed into a paste and inserted into the vagina in Ancient Egypt, 
  • half a lemon used as a cervical cap by Casanova,
  • a sheath made out of sheep intestines for England’s King Charles II.

In New Zealand, Maori women used the leaves of the poroporo plant as a contraceptive.

The Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand says that:

Maori women used the poroporo plant for contraceptive purposes, boiling the leaves and drinking the water about a week before menstruation. While poroporo does contain the active ingredient of solasodine, a steroid used in making contraceptives, the efficacy of drinking the decoction is not known.

Settler women in the 1800s used traditional methods such as douching (washing out the vagina) or breastfeeding for longer.

Another method was soaking sea sponges in vinegar and inserting these into the vagina before intercourse as a barrier against sperm.

Recent History

In the 1900s the main forms of contraception used in New Zealand were:

  • Traditional methods such as douching, withdrawal and the rhythm method. 
  • Barrier methods like condoms and diaphragms. 

Contraception was considered very immoral, especially outside of marriage. Books on contraception were banned from entering the country until the 1930s – this also included some medical textbooks.

Women and their doctors had little knowledge of or expertise in contraception.

Desperate Measures

Unintended pregnancies led many women to have unsafe abortions.

By 1936, deaths from unsafe abortion had become so common that an inquiry was set up to investigate.

The McMillan Inquiry found that at least one pregnancy in every five ended in abortion. It also found that most of the women dying were married with four or more children.

Even though the McMillan Inquiry found some shocking results, it did not lead to any immediate changes to family planning. Contraception remained difficult to get and even the Pill was only available for married women for ten years after its introduction (read more about this in last month’s Contraception Monthly).

Baby un-Boom

In 1960, the year before the Pill was introduced, women in New Zealand had an average of 4.13 births.

By 1980 this had dropped to an average of 2.03 births per woman. This huge drop in the fertility rate shows the huge impact that the Pill had and how desperate women were to have a reliable method of contraception. Today, the fertility rate remains around 2.1.

Currently over 100 million women worldwide use the pill and other hormonal methods are becoming more and more available.

Unmet Need for Family Planning Today

The World Health Organisation estimates that in developing countries 222 million women would like to delay or stop having children.

However these women are not using any method of contraception for many reasons including:

  • there are not many choices of contraceptive methods, 
  • it is hard to access contraception, 
  • there is a fear or experience of side-effects, 
  • there is opposition due to cultural or religious beliefs
  • the quality of services available are poor.

Find out more and check out what Family Planning International is doing to help unmet need for contraception in the Pacific.

Family Planning has clinics located throughout New Zealand. Use the clinic finder to find your nearest clinic.

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