Black History:  Special Delivery!!

Early forms of birth control were documented in Africa, dating as far back as 1850 BC.  Papyrus scrolls have been discovered with instructions on making birth control with ingredients such as honey, acacia leaves, and lint which was used as a type of cervical cap to prevent sperm from entering the womb.  The Kahun Gynecological Papyrus of 1850 also documents descriptions of pessaries of acacia gum used as a contraceptive.   A pessary is a device placed in the vagina to prevent conception. Another method of birth control was to extend breastfeeding for up to three years. Perhaps the most famous form of birth control native to North Africa was the silphium plant.  The use of the plant as a means of contraception was widespread among ancient Greeks and Romans.  Found only in Cyrene (modern-day Lybia), it was exported to other regions and bought great wealth to the city. 

Ancient coins from the region have been found engraved with pictures of the silphium plant.  In addition, to its use as a contraceptive, the plant was prized for other medicinal properties as well.  The plant’s resin was used to treat nausea, fevers, chills, even corns on feet! According to historian and Greek pharmacologist John Riddle, Soranus, an ancient physician, recommended taking a monthly dose of silphium the size of a chick-pea to prevent pregnancy. The plant is believed to have been harvested to the point of extinction by the end of the first century A.D.

The term “birth control” was coined by Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood. Sanger was a key figure in the eugenics movement and hoped to use birth control as a form of population control. Eugenicists generally classified populations as fit and unfit. Those considered unfit included people of color, poor people, anyone who wasn’t white. Those considered unfit were discouraged from having children.  Those considered “fit”, typically, white middle-class individuals, were encouraged to have children.