From lemon rinds to knitting
needles: A visual history of
abortion and birth control
“On Abortion & Contraception History,” the first chapter from photographer Laia Abril’s long-term project On Misogyny, published by Hopes&Fears for the first time, pictures centuries of gadgets meant to delay or terminate the roughly 15 pregnancies that a woman might have “under natural circumstances.”
For most of recorded history, the burden of family planning has been placed on women, and due to restrictive laws founded on religious or demographic agendas, methods were ineffectual, harmful or even deadly. Prohibition, which persists in many countries around the world, drove women to futile rituals and back-alley abortionists. Only over the last 60 years, roughly, have there been safe and effective alternatives, and though the lives and survival rates of women have greatly improved, some continue the fight to limit their accessibility.
Many of the objects pictured here are not what they appear to be—to evade prosecution, the most important requirement for the abortionist was to avoid raising suspicions. Their tools, as a result, are repurposed, makeshift, largely medically and hygienically inadequate. Shockingly, some of these objects have modern equivalents, or are even available in stores and in use today.
An image of the procedure itself may be powerful, but the revulsion it would raise would likely lead the viewer to turn away and leave little impression. The documentary still-life, a growing trend in contemporary photography, absent of the human element, otherwise offers the viewer a point of entry and empathy to consider these objects as we might use them ourselves.
Fish bladder condom was the earliest material for prophylactics, typically made from catfish and sturgeon in the Austrian region, and commonly used until the 19th century. Cleaned, split and dried lamb intestines were also popular for this purpose. Since neither material was very elastic, the condom had to be secured to the penis with a ribbon or a rubber ring. Furthermore, they were expensive, and after each use they were washed, carefully dried, rubbed with oil and bran to prevent cracking, and used again.
Vaginal douche, the 'Irrigateur Eguisier,' was one of the most common contraceptive methods in the 19th century. It consisted of a cylindrical supply vessel made out of metal or porcelain, from which a rinsing fluid would pass through a controllable pump system to a hose. The woman would usually lie across the bed, on her back, with her bottom in line with the edge of the bed. The woman inserts the main tube into her vagina, opens the tap, and the rinsing fluid would flow in from the irrigator. The used fluid is conducted away by the waterproof pan, over the edge of the bed into a bucket.
Mother shower syringes, which evolved from the vaginal douche, were used immediately after sexual intercourse in a desperate try to wash the sperm out. Today, we know how fast sperm enters the uterus, where it cannot be reached by any vaginal douching. Even so, this was one of the very few methods of contraception at that time.
Theory, History and Practice; A Manual for the Medical and Legal Profession (Zit. nach Contraception), London 1928
"I know some husbands who prefer to go to prostitutes than to have sex with their wives due to the disturbing vaginal douching always after coitus."
Ancient contraceptives, a lemon-half, sponge, and papyrus. In the 18th century, Casanova was said to have discovered the use of lemons as a contraceptive. A lemon was halved, squeezed, and the rind was placed over the uterine orifice like a cap. It was known in ancient times that sperm are very sensitive against acidic environments and die quickly, which was the reason for using lemon juice or vinegar to soak sponges or tissue, which were inserted before intercourse to demobilize sperm. This method is unreliable and unsafe, because these materials cannot be put precisely in front of the vagina’s entrance, nor will they stay in place during intercourse. They might come into contact with the cervix and can even move into the uterus.
Contraceptive patch and hormones contain the same combination of gestagen and estrogen as the pill and suppresses ovulation, thereby preventing unwanted pregnancy. The hormones are released gradually and absorbed through the skin. Each package contains three patches that are replaced after one week, followed by a week without a patch during which menstruation takes place. The next patch is applied after this break. These thin beige patches can be adhered to the abdomen, upper arm or buttocks. The advantages of this method: taking pills daily is not necessary, meaning that the user cannot forget. Thanks to the even dosage of hormones, a lower amount in total is required compared to the pill.
First seamless diaphragm, the “Ramses,” a cervical cup and a contraceptive suppository. The ‘caps’ are a barrier contraceptive device that comprises a shallow dome made of rubber or silicone, mounted into a rim that is also covered with rubber or silicone. Inserted into the vagina at least ten minutes before intercourse so that it can be dissolved by body heat, it sits in front of the cervix and prevents sperm from reaching the uterus. The active ingredient of the suppository is nonoxynol, the same active ingredient that can be found in a number of creams, jellies and foams, which attacks the surface membrane of sperm cells and immobilizes them. Still available for purchase, it is intended to be used together with a condom or diaphragm.
Abortion instruments, including soap and an enema syringe, widely used for termination by introducing into the uterus. This caused a miscarriage, but often the woman's death resulted. Such thick-walled cylinders with plungers were in use from as early as the 15th century to cleanse the intestines. However, the short attachment tube could be replaced with a longer one, making them suitable for rinsing other body openings. At the same time, it satisfied the most important requirement for every tool used to perform abortions: it raised no suspicions. Since abortions were illegal, a variety of items were repurposed—anything too obvious would be noticed during a police search. Abortionists could protect themselves in this way, but the hygienic and medical inadequacies resulting from legal prohibition cost many women their health or even their life.
Ancient solutions and superstitions for terminating the birth of unwanted offspring. At the top, a miniature from a manuscript 15th century reads, “… that they have thrown the baby out with premeditation in the Mur. The 21-year-old Maria, an unskilled worker in a pin factory, lived in constant dispute with the unskilled worker Alois, father of her one-year son, and her mother. It was their love of pleasure and the desire for a carefree life. Although father and grandmother lovingly made for the child and no labor shortage existed, Maria threw their child in the Mur. Before she confessed to the murder, she dished the police in first interrogation a wealth improbable stories.”
Surgical Abortion instruments, from 1900 to 2004 (from bottom to top). Both safe and effective methods were only developed as of the middle of the last century. The lives and the survival rate of women have thereby greatly improved. When abortions are illegal, certain medical instruments can be a giveaway. For this reason, specific tools have never been developed or sold for this procedure. Instead, doctors, back-alley abortionists and pregnant women themselves used whatever was available, items that were more or less suitable for their purposes: knitting needles, wire clothes hangers, urinary catheters and a wide variety of other objects, providing they were long enough to reach into the uterus.
Illegal abortion procedure, pictured in a three-dimensional longitudinal cross-sections of the body showing a procedure performed by non-professionals using objects not intended for the purpose. In places where abortions were illegal, pregnant women tended to ignore their condition for as long as possible, thereby wasting valuable time until they found help. For this reason, these abortions are often performed at an extremely late date, at some point in the second trimester on average. Whatever instrument is being used is then inserted through the cervix to open the amniotic sac. This induces labor, resulting in expulsion of the embryo.
Archives on abortion trials from the Museum of Contraception and Abortion, Vienna, Austria.
Cover image: Cervical pessaries, a precursor to today’s contraceptive coils, especially frightening at the beginning of the 20th century, 60 mm in length, with a 20 mm disk at one end, made of gold or some other material, and two prongs resembling the letter “Y” at the other. One idea behind these stem pessaries was to prevent the nidation of a fertilized egg in the uterus, the other was to shield the opening of the uterus against intruding sperm. Neither of these ideas worked, as sperm easily passed such an ineffective barrier, and stems inserted into the uterus could induce severe irritation and infection—sometimes even perforation.