Why you should care
Not everyone has faith in or access to the pill or condoms, so it’s time to study these traditional methods.
With the abortion debate heating up again across America, reproductive control has been hitting national headlines a lot lately. This may seem like a modern fight, given how recently the most effective (but still fallible) forms of birth control, such as the pill and condoms, were invented. But even millennia ago, humans took great pains to try to fight unwanted pregnancies, developing a wide array of anti-fertility potions, amulets and even incantations.
While chanting “I think I won’t, I think I won’t” didn’t work, some ancient birth control tools, such as cervical barriers made of citrus or salt, were probably effective spermicides (but … ouch!). Others, like ancient Egyptian vaginal suppositories made of crocodile dung, fermented dough or honey, along with a few other ingredients, could actually have been counterproductive, giving sperm a leg up in the vaginal canal. Overall, many ancient methods just sound like ineffective hokum and have long been disregarded by doctors.
Yet, over the past quarter-century, a few researchers have started arguing that some traditional birth control concoctions were likely far more effective, reliable and safer than we think. Potions made with common ingredients — especially acacia, fennel and wild carrot seeds — deserve a second look, if not full-on revivals, they say. It may sound like an insane step backward, but reproductive health experts admit there’s something to the argument.
[People] want to get an A+ in not having a baby, not a B+ or a C-.
Cora Breuner, physician
John Riddle, a historian of pre-modern medicine, first prominently articulated this idea in the 1990s in a series of books and articles. He mixed analyses of ancient medical texts and population records with anecdotal evidence of the continued belief in some traditional methods in the modern age, even in parts of America, to suggest some ancient practices had promising merits. While some historians have run with and expanded on Riddle’s arguments, critics — including some doctors and historians — accused him of overstating historical evidence. The late Carl Djerassi, one of the minds behind oral contraception, for example, questioned Riddle’s scientific literacy. So it’s no wonder that calls for reevaluation have had trouble gaining traction.
But over the past 15 years, several scientific researchers have started probing local traditional birth control practices. By reviewing obscure botanical and chemical research, teams in places like Nigeria and India have concluded that dozens of the ingredients in pre-modern methods contain compounds, such as phytoestrogens and yuechukene, that likely have significant impacts on human reproductive systems. And recent studies on acacia out of Malawi and fennel extracts out of Iran prove they have some anti-fertility properties. Even in America, the Male Contraceptive Initiative, founded in 2014, has started to research the insemination-inhibition potential of some herbal items.
Of course, we have modern tools and medicines that do the job very well. As Cora Breuner — a doctor who’s researched modern usage of traditional birth control in the United States — points out, people “want to get an A+ in not having a baby, not a B+ or a C-,” which could be the efficacy rates for many forms of pre-modern birth control in their traditional forms. So why focus on herbs when we have better, more reliable options?
Because, as Breuner acknowledges, not everyone has access to modern birth control, owing to economic, geographic, political or cultural-religious limitations. For these people, she adds, it would be naive to assume they don’t rely on traditional methods. Moreover, many with access to modern drugs refuse to take them for fear of disrupting hormonal cycles. Such skepticism, Breuner says, likely partially explains why 5 to 10 percent of Americans opt for natural birth control, such as the rhythm method. For those who have limited or no access to modern birth control or are dead set against using it, proper research into the efficacy of traditional methods could help them figure out the best tactics to achieve the highest level of protection from unwanted pregnancies available to them.
If some forms of ancient birth control work via active ingredients that do not affect one’s hormones, as seems likely, and researchers can find ways to goose up their in-nature efficacy to rival other modern options, says Logan Nickels of the Male Contraceptive Initiative, that would be a major innovation. “We’re hopeful that through the exploration of new forms of contraception, natural products and otherwise,” he adds, “we can create a true menu of options so that men and women can have the method that best fits their needs.”
Nobody should abandon their modern methods of birth control in favor of traditional methods — at least not yet. But there is merit in a deeper scientific exploration of dozens of old brews and draughts that have long been discarded as bunkum, especially those that seem to have enduring histories of belief and use.