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"By 1900, white women, showing their ability to cut their fertility in half over the century, averaged 3.56 children. Historians . . . have suggested that as much as 75 percent of this dropping fertility can be explained by active fertility control, including abortion and birth control techniques" (Leavitt 19).

Turn-of-the-century birth control for men included several options. Most popular was coitus interruptus (withdrawal before ejaculation), which was not very effective, since sperm could be transferred in pre-ejaculatory fluids. Condom use also became widespread as the material condoms were constructed of evolved from fine animal membrane sacs to vulcanized rubber. Condom use was not publicly advocated, however, because condomes were associated with "sexual promiscuity and the love of pleasure; vices" (Knight 7).

Birth control further extended to the sterilization of men—an operation involving "permanently splitting and sometimes removing parts of the male urethra" (Knight 7). Also in use was the technique of infibulation: "pulling the foreskin well over the tip of the penis, piercing two holes in it, and inserting a silver ring or fibula to hold it in place" (Knight 8). This was used more for "curing" masturbation that preventing pregnancy. Likewise, castration was used, but more often as a punishment for criminal offenders than as a birth control method.

Since not much scientific research had focused on the female body, the main female-oreinted prevention method was abstinence during "unsafe" times of the month. Experts knew there was some connections between ovulation and menstruation, but they weren’t exactly sure about the nature of the connection until the 1930s. Prior to that, doctors could only recommend avoiding intercourse immediately following a menstrual cycle. Based on what we know now about he female menstrual cycle, we can assume that was an unreliable method.

Early sponges had been invented by eighteenth century prostitutes and were dipped in various solutions, including vinegar, lemon, and astringents. Such solutions had often been simply inserted vaginally before that time as a primitive attempt to kill sperm, but beginning in the late 1700s, solutions could be attached to an object (sponge), which was though to increase their success. Sponges made their way into working class circles by 1800, but we know now the danger s associated with their sue that nineteenth century women would not have been aware of, and thus some deaths at that time could probably be attributed to the sponge.

The nineteenth century also brought a rubber version of the cervical cap, which replaced the insertion of every day objects into the vagina to block sperm, such as half lemons, which had been used previously. Intrauterine devices and oral contraceptives were introduced in 1909 and 1920 respectively, but they were still in developmental stages and thus not available in Chopin’s time.


--Content prepared by Shelley Roy.

Copyright (c) 1999; all rights reserved.

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