1. The birth of modern contraception.

Summary: Chapter 1

The Origins Of Modern Contraception: Three Terms And Three Attitudes

This chapter considers the origin of three terms: contraception, prevenception, and birth control, which for decades have referred to the prevention of conception.  Given the confusion that has prevailed, it is appropriate to clarify the history of how these words were born.  Moreover, it is interesting to delve into a story which reveals how different the mentality and the aims of the pioneers of contraception control were.  Finally, and perhaps this is the most relevant reason, we will see that these terms were put into circulation with one principal goal: to insist from the outset on the total incompatibility of contraception with abortion.

I. Origin of the term contraception

Since 1972, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) has indicated that the word was used for the first time in 1886 by E. B. Foote, in a publication titled The Radical Remedy in Social Science, from whose 89th page the OED transcribes the following text: Where it becomes a necessity to decide between lawful abortion and unlawful contraception, they prefer to break the man-made law against contraceptics rather than the natural law against abortion.  Nevertheless, this attribution is incorrect because E. B. Foote used the term contraception earlier, when he titled Chapter 5: Why Not Adopt Contraception as the Means to the End of Regulating Reproduction and Checking Reckless Propagation? (p.66) Further, the attribution to E. B. Foote is ambiguous, because of the curious circumstance that E. B. Foote is the name of two authors, father and son, who, over many years, shared editorial ideas and ventures: the name of the father was Edward Bliss Foote, Sr., and Edward Bond Foote, Jr., was that of the son.

Himes, who is held to be the most thorough historian of contraception before the 1930s, in his encyclopedia Medical History of Contraception (1936) erroneously asserts that Foote, Sr., author of works of on medical studies and a pioneer of birth control, was the first to use the word contraception.  As proof he presents a bibliographical reference; the very passage wherein Foote, Sr., explains that the term contraception was coined by his son, Foote, Jr.

II. Origin of the term birth control

Margaret Sanger, the presumed creator of the term birth control (“B.C.”), related this story on multiple occasions.  These narratives present variations, and even contradictions, which immediately awaken the interest of the critical observer.  One of the stories is in My Fight for Birth Control, published in 1931; the other, in An Autobiography, released in 1938.  There is, in addition, a third story, marginal in its appearance but supremely expressive, in The Pivot of Civilization, edited in 1922, which is, of the three testimonies offered by Sanger, the one closest to the time of the story, 1914.

In The Pivot, Sanger tells us: “Such was the situation in 1914, when I returned to America … The amazing growth of this movement dates from the moment when in my home a small group organized the first Birth Control League. Since then we have been criticized for our choice of the term “Birth Control” to express the idea of modern scientific contraception … nothing better expresses the idea of purposive, responsible, and self-directed guidance of the reproductive powers … Control is guidance, direction, foresight. It implies intelligence, forethought and responsibility … The term ‘Birth Control’ had the immense practical advantage of compressing into two short words the answer to the inarticulate demands of millions of men and women in all countries.” (pg. 11-13)  Here, those who give a name to the booming movement were “a small group” which met at Sanger’s house at some time in 1914.  Years later, Sanger claims the creation of the new expression for herself, in My Fight for Birth Control, her first autobiography.  Finally, in her next autobiography, Sanger appears to have renounced the improper appropriation of the term in 1931, and returns authorship of the expression “B.C.” to an anonymous collaborator.  Nonetheless, in this autobiography there is no lack of erroneous assertions about this detail, which are addressed in this way.

III. Origin of the term prevenception

The third term is prevenception and its derivatives prevenceptic and prevenceptive.  For some years, these new words played a relatively notable role pro-contraception activism.  Robinson coined the term in order to join together in a single word the classic expression “prevention of conception,” which he and many others had used for some time as a synonym for contraception.  There do not seem to be any references in the bibliography which indicate precisely the moment when this new term is born.



Author: Gonzalo Herranz, University of Navarra.  Email: gherranz@unav.es


The full chapter upon which this summary is based is available in Spanish only. Click here…