Womb Veils, Foams, and Other Contraceptives
Womb Veils, Foams, and Other Conceptives
Though condoms soon became the most accessible and inexpensive form of reliable birth control, many other contraceptive methods continued to vie for popularity. As the sole male-controlled contraceptive, mid-century latex condoms left prevention of pregnancy in the hands (and pockets) of men. Women often preferred to maintain control of their own reproductive lives, to the extent they were able.
For ease, efficacy and convenience, the oral contraceptive overtook other female-controlled methods by the 1980s, after years of legal battles to ensure the pill's safety and availability. Before the FDA approved the first oral contraceptive in 1960, a host of devices and products offered women the possibility of sexual intercourse without the fear of unplanned pregnancies. However, many of these methods required medical examination and a male doctor's prescription, were expensive difficult to use correctly, and came with detrimental side effects.
Diaphragms and Cervical Caps
Invented in 1842, the diaphragm, sometimes known as a "womb veil" is one of the oldest still-existing forms of birth control. The concept of "cervical barriers" dates back even further, with various applicants for the purpose including lemon halves, algae and seaweed, and even balls of opium (with varying low levels of prevention efficacy). After the passage of the Comstock Act of 1873, the diaphragm, like other contraceptives, faced several decades of legal barriers to education and distribution.
By 1930 the diaphragm was the most commonly prescribed form of birth control. That decade, Margaret Sanger, the birth control advocate who opened the first birth control clinic in the United States in 1916, dealt a blow to the Comstock Act and the Tariff Act of 1930 when she arranged for a Japanese manufacturer to mail a package of diaphragms to a New York physician who supported Sanger’s activism. When U.S. customs confiscated the package, Sanger helped file a lawsuit. In the 1936 court case U.S. vs. One package of Japanese Pessaries, a federal appellate court ruled that the package could be delivered.
The Koromex product once housed in the box in UNCW's collection was the larger style of diaphragm or ‘Dutch cap,’ as opposed to its more petite relative, the cervical cap. These devices had to be fitted by a doctor, and generally only middle-class and upper-class women could afford them, making them impractical for many women wishing to avoid pregnancy.
Emko, a surfactant spermicide, was used by itself to prevent pregnancy, or, much more effectively, together with a cervical barrier such as a sponge or diaphragm. Spermicides are not effective immediately and must be inserted sometime before sex--but also not too prematurely. Foam spermicides lose efficacy an hour after insertion and do not provide protection against sexually transmitted diseases.
Foam spermicides such as Emko retained their popularity after the introduction of the contraceptive pill, as part of a popular regime of non-hormonal woman-controlled birth control. By the 1970s, a wide variety of birth control options were available--to married couples. In some states, unmarried women still had legal obstacles to obtaining contraceptives. The 1972 Supreme Court case Eisenstadt v. Baird saw the case convicting William Baird under a Massachusetts State law for exhibiting contraceptive articles and for giving a woman a package of Emko vaginal foam. The court found that dissimilar treatment of similarly situated married and unmarried persons under the Massachusetts law violated the Equal Protection Clause. For the first time, birth control was ruled legal for all adult women to obtain.
Like the suppositories and douches detailed in the next section of this exhibit, sponges were originally sold as "feminine hygiene" aides, to collect menstrual blood or for deodorant purposes. After the 1873 passage of the Comstock Act, potential pairings with spermicidal products were not allowed to be advertised baldly until later in the twentieth century. A plastic contraceptive sponge saturated with a spermicide, Today Sponge was a variant of the original, natural-material sponge. The Today Sponge sold legally over the counter as a contraceptive in the 1980s. A 1984 study in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology compared the Today Sponge with the diaphragm, citing the sponge as being “a safe and acceptable method of contraception with an effectiveness rate in the range of other vaginal contraceptives.”
The sponge was taken off the market for a period between 1995 to 1998, when it was linked to Toxic Shock Syndrome. A 1995 episode of the TV show Seinfeld titled "The Sponge," featured Elaine's hunt for the product, her preferred form of birth control. In 2009, the Today Sponge was relaunched in the United States. Even with perfect use of the sponge (which can be challenging), for women who have never been pregnant, the sponge is only about 90% effective. For women who have previously given birth, perfect usage only offers about 80% efficacy.
Citations and Further Readings:
Peter C. Engelman, A History of the Birth Control Movement in America (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2011)
Andrea Tone, Devices and Desires: A History of Contraceptives in America (New York; Hill and Wang, 2001).