The Evolution of Reproductive Rights

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Reproductive rights have always been a hot-button issue in the United States. The technologies in reproductive health, such as birth control methods, have developed significantly over the last hundred years. As these technologies have improved, laws have changed to suit the times. However, birth control and abortion have become so controversial that many of the laws and medical advances have gone backwards. The first condoms were developed in 1709. They were predominantly made of cloth, linen, and animal and were frequently used during the 1700’s and early 1800’s (Planned Parenthood). A variety of female barrier methods, like sponges, intravaginal plugs, cervical caps, and diaphragms, were created and patented as well during this time. These were often made from wood, cloth, and other materials (Lawagan). In 1844, vulcanized rubber was invented which let to the creation of the first rubber condom in 1855. The rubber condoms of this time were 1 to 2 millimeters thick with seems down the side and reusable, but very expensive. Like the condom, female barrier methods greatly improved with the availability of vulcanized rubber (“Evolution and Revolution: The Past, Present, and Future of Contraception”). In 1912, a new technique for producing condoms was developed by dipping glass molds into the raw rubber solution allowing for thinner condoms with no seams. By the 1930’s, production began on single-use condoms that were almost as thin and inexpensive as those available today (Planned Parenthood). In the United States, circulation of contraceptives was limited by the Comstock Act in 1873. The Comstock Act was a federal law which made it illegal to send any “obscene, lewd, and/or lascivious” materials through the mail, including contraceptive devices and information (“Birth Control”). In addition to banning contraceptives, this act also banned the distribution of information on abortion for educational purposes following the ideal of “Hear no Evil, See no Evil” (Critchlow, Historical Perspective). In 1915, William Sanger was charged under the New York law against disseminating contraceptive information. In 1918, his wife, Margaret Sanger, was similarly charged. On appeal, her conviction was reversed on the grounds that contraceptive devices could legally be promoted for the cure and prevention of disease. Condoms were then only available by prescription (“Birth Control”). The prohibition of devices advertised for the explicit purpose of birth control was not overturned for another eighteen years; this included all abortion-related advertising. In 1932, Sanger arranged for a shipment of diaphragms to be mailed from Japan to a sympathetic doctor in New York City. When U.S. customs confiscated the package as illegal contraceptive devices, Sanger helped file a lawsuit. In 1936, a federal appeals court ruled in United States v. One Package of Japanese Pessaries that the federal government could not interfere with doctors providing contraception to their patients (“Birth Control”). The first intrauterine device was described in 1909 in a German publication, though the product was never put on the market. In 1929, Dr. Ernst Gräfenberg wrote a report on his new invention, an IUD made of silk suture. In 1934, Dr. Tenrei Ota created an alternative to the Gräfenberg ring that contained a supportive structure in the center. This addition lowered the expulsion rate of IUD's, though they still had high infection rates (“Evolution and Revolution: The Past, Present, and Future of Contraception”). Their development went unstudied for some time due to World War II. Contraception was prohibited in Nazi Germany and Axis-allied Japan (Potts). In 1958, the first plastic IUD was introduced and was larger than previous models, which caused many women, and their male partners, discomfort. In the 1970’s, the first stainless steel IUD was developed with high failure rates. Dr. Howard Tatum devised the first T-shaped IUD in 1968 which...
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