WHEN NEWS HIT the Internet of the Columbian woman found with a potato growing inside of her vagina as the result of an attempt to create a homemade contraceptive device, several questions immediately came to mind. Firstly, of course, why? Then, how? But, also, was this for real?
With just one original source for the details — Colombia Reports — it’s possible it was just a re-telling of a popular urban legend. It’s a tale that satisfies our need to see ourselves as more sophisticated and civilized than those living lives of rural poverty in developing countries. It serves a purpose, as the re-telling of myths must, justifying our desire to help such women with our own brand of birth control, be that Depo Provera or Implanon.
The original Columbia Reports article refers to other “strange” methods of birth control used around the world, throughout history, including a lemon as a cervical cap and consuming papaya. On this news, a Jezebel staff writer states, “Hopefully this story will bring more awareness to the fact that better methods are available.” Sure… and perhaps provide further funding for efforts to get more young women to accept the methods we in the West see as most “modern.”
Ann Hibner Koblitz, a Professor of Women and Gender Studies at Arizona State University, released Sex and Herbs and Birth Control: Women and Fertility Through the Ages earlier this year. In this guide to historically-documented contraceptive methods, Koblitz argues that many of the methods used pre-Pill were both effective and safe, as well as controlled and managed by the women who were using them. For years academics, have cataloged magic, superstitions and myths alongside contraceptive methods that have proven results – just as the Columbia Reports piece mentions eating papaya (which has proven effects) alongside a necklace made of asparagus (clearly superstition).
I have, in my own research, heard the Pill described as both “using a nuclear bomb to cure the common cold” and “using a sledge hammer to fix a Swiss watch,” and so I am open to the idea that what we most commonly do now to prevent pregnancy might not be the most sophisticated or civilized option. Depo Provera and Implanon can cause as much, if not arguably more, harm than any potato.
A recent study showed that the perceived high instance of “unmet need” for contraception in certain areas of Africa — areas where methods like Depo Provera and Implanon offered the most — could actually be a miscalculation: women are not reporting using other, non-pharmaceutical methods of contraception to medical teams. But it’s this perceived “unmet need” that drives and justifies programs that push a limited set of long-acting and extremely problematic methods.
We asked Koblitz for her take on the story and what it means for our understanding of the history of birth control.
What are your thoughts on this story?
AHK: There’s a longstanding trope in the media about women’s ignorance that I see reflected in this piece. Even if this particular story is true (which I doubt), this level of stupidity is fairly rare, I think. That said, I am constantly amazed by the ignorance of my students (Koblitz teaches a class on women as healers at ASU) about the most basic aspects of menstruation, sexuality, and reproduction.
What methods of contraception did women use before the development of the Pill? Is there evidence to suggest these methods were effective?
AHK: Women used an amazing range of herbal teas (mints, rue, tansy, parsley, chamomile, avocado seed, and many others), barrier methods (wax or cloth pessaries, hollowed-out citrus fruits alone or smeared with honey or other sperm motility reducers), and post-coital douches of herbs or lemon juice or, in the 19th century, patent medicine concoctions.
There is a significant amount of evidence that most of these substances exhibit at least some fertility-reducing effects in laboratory tests.
Are any of these methods still used today? By whom/where?
AHK: Among those who are still known to use such substances are poor women in rural communities in the global South (I know, for example, of a Samoan midwife who continues to use herbal methods of contraception and abortion), poor rural Appalachian women, and probably some nature-worshiping/Wyccan women. The knowledge is deteriorating rapidly, however. I have a piece on my website lamenting the disappearance of herbal contraceptive knowledge in the state of Veracruz in Mexico, and there are many more examples in my book.
What are some of the most surprising, effective methods you’ve researched?
AHK: For me, perhaps the most surprising methods were pomegranate seeds, ergot of rye, sea sponge dipped in lemon juice or vinegar, birch bark tampons, and the seeds of Queen Anne’s lace. Pomegranate seeds have been known as a contraceptive for a very long time; in Greek legend, when Persephone is abducted by Hades and dragged off to the underworld, all she will eat are pomegranate seeds. And the seeds of Queen Anne’s lace are used by women from Appalachia to Rajasthan, India. The tips of the acacia bush have enjoyed wide usage too, and gum arabic, an extract of acacia, has in fact been used in some modern contraceptives.
Some were even sold by druggists in the US in the early 1900s, is that correct?
AHK: Yes – I have some packages I got on E-Bay of druggist-packed apiol (parsley tract) and other emmenagogues (substances to bring on the menses) from around 1900. But also, the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly marketed apiol, golden seal, cotton root, and ergot, separately and in combination, through the late 1930s. Bear in mind, though, that they were marketed not as contraceptives but as emmenagogues and uterine stimulants—in other words, as early-stage abortifacients. Some of these are still sold for this purpose in parts of Asia, alongside Chinese herbal medicines of the same type.
Why do we know so little about these alternatives to hormonal drugs and devices?
AHK: Cynically speaking, big business is not likely to want to push for home methods that anyone could put together, and at little expense. There’s little profit in that. But also, in the chapter of my book “Praying to St. Bridget,” I catalog a large number of contributing factors in the disappearance of women’s knowledge of alternative methods: urbanization, the witchcraft trials, rise of the modern medical establishment, disparagement of women’s and indigenous peoples’ knowledge of the natural world, desires of people worldwide to be thought of as “modern,” degradation of natural environments, etc.
You write on Native American knowledge – do you think any tribes still use any of this knowledge of alternative contraceptives?
AHK: Not everywhere, not in every tribe, but certainly some indigenous midwives in the Four Corners region, for example, have not yet lost the knowledge.
What are the dangers of alternative or herbal methods?
AHK: Any drugs, including herbal preparations, can be lethal when misused. Pennyroyal, savin, tansy, ergot of rye, apiol, and other concentrated oils have been implicated in women’s deaths. They can also interfere with the action of modern fertility and anti-fertility drugs.
Would you say they hold similar dangers to modern methods like the Pill?
AHK: Used properly, I’d say that the dangers on the whole are less than those of the Pill. The problem is that figuring out proper dosage is difficult and that knowledge and the skills required have been lost over time.
How has the introduction of the Pill and derivatives to the developing world harmed women’s situation?
AHK: There is increasing evidence from many places that the introduction of so-called modern birth control destroyed well-functioning indigenous systems of fertility regulation. Also, in many places, women believe that regular menstruation is essential for women’s health and well-being. The Pill, Implanon, Depo Provera and other methods that interfere in the menstrual cycle are unacceptable to many women. The modern methods are expensive, irregularly available, and often unsafe, yet numerous factors (such as those discussed above) impede women’s return to older fertility regulation systems. In addition, women in many places quite rightly have a deep distrust of methods emanating from the industrialized countries since they see the imposition of the methods as a callous attempt to limit population in the Third World regardless of the cost to women’s health.