Reproductive Health

Museum Displays Contraceptives from Past Eras

Thursday, May 19, 2005

A new mini-museum in Cleveland puts the history of contraception--from crocodile dung to the pill--on display. Launched quietly in March, it emerges as the new federal budget threatens the access of millions of women to contraceptive services.

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CLEVELAND (WOMENSENEWS)--Sheep intestines fashioned into a condom; crocodile dung with acidic properties for vaginal insertion; and hundreds of metal and plastic swirls, squiggles, loops and bows that form various intrauterine devices are some of the artifacts in the 11 display cases in the History of Contraception Museum in Cleveland, the nation's only museum dedicated to the world of birth control.

The museum was quietly inaugurated into the Dittrick Medical History Center of Case Western Reserve University with a March opening reception. The museum had been under consideration as a site since 2003.

"It's pretty amazing. You can tell there was a lot of struggle through time to prevent pregnancy and people would try anything they could get their hands on," said dental student Mark McCormick, who gazed into the display cases with the only other visitor, his father-in-law, a salesman of medical supplies from Utah.

The contraceptive exhibit was donated by Percy Skuy, past president of Ortho Pharmaceutical (Canada), maker of contraceptive products and pills, who began building the collection 40 years ago as what began as a trade show novelty.

Now retired and living in Toronto, Skuy is still on the lookout for new items to add to the display

While called a museum, the contraception collection is contained in 11 handsomely-designed cabinets that, at present, snake around in an oval, allowing viewers to circulate around and view its contents, including a video, artifacts and minimal textual explanations. Contained within the 1920s university building that houses the medical museum, a separate room is being fitted to house the contraception display in an area adjacent to a re-created 1930 pharmacy and an 1870 doctor's office, complete with a skeleton in a closet.


Not Yet a Major Attraction

So far, the museum is hardly a tourist attraction to rival the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, which is a mere five miles away.

"I've never heard of such a thing," said an operator for 10 years at the Convention and Visitors Bureau of Greater Cleveland.

The collection of ingenious products to prevent pregnancy extends to cervical caps, diaphragms, sponges, amulets and condoms of all sorts, from the manufactured to the homemade candy wrapper and saran wrap.

"These are intimate articles. People don't tend to save them, and for that reason, they are extremely rare," said James Edmonson, chief curator of the Dittrick Medical History Museum, who says that he wants to continue to refine the museum to add retrospective social context and descriptions to the items.

The exhibit and its 650 artifacts--ranging from beaver-testical tea believed to prevent pregnancy to tiny pills in circle packaging--may serve as a reminder to U.S. politicians that the 93 percent of U.S. women who are at risk of pregnancy and who use contraception have plenty of historical precedent.

"Some of the American political debate comes from an absence of appreciation of this long, long history of contraception practice across the globe," said Andrea Tone, a professor in the social studies of medicine at McGill University in Montreal and an advisor to the museum. She also has written a book about contraception, "Devices and Desires," published in 2001. "American society still has to come to terms with sexuality and women's sexuality and the possibilities of a society that doesn't think twice about their rights to safe, quality and affordable birth control."

Skuy added: "If people think no one should use contraception, they are entitled to their opinion. But this is the history, this is what people did."

The history, he said, shows not only technique and motivation, but attitude. "The political struggle manifests itself," he says. "When we consider how this has now become an everyday item, the answers should come through better education, better use of the products, not negative legislation."


Controversial Times

The museum emerges in a time of intense controversy over contraception.

In March, the same month that the museum opened, the Alan Guttmacher Institute, which researches reproductive health issues, reported a high level of hostility to reproductive health rights in Congress and state legislatures and potential harm to contraceptive services from proposed cuts in Medicaid.

"You can count on some attack on family planning in Congress and something you didn't expect," Adam Sonfield, a public policy associate with the Institute's Washington, D.C., office, said.

The Guttmacher Institute estimates that 16 million sexually active women rely upon two publicly funded programs--Medicaid or Title X of the Public Health Service Act--for contraceptive services. These include nearly 700,000 in Ohio alone.

Medicaid funding could take the brunt of a $20 billion cut in domestic programs in the budget plan submitted by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives in April. Even a 1 percent loss in family planning funding would affect tens of thousands of women, reported Guttmacher.

Although Senate Democrats are countering with a proposal to add $100 million for family planning programs, Guttmacher's Sonfield considers its passage unlikely.

The collection includes a series of pessaries, which are substances or devices inserted into the vagina to inhibit sperm. Some look like large brass tacks and corkscrews. References in the accompanying text say a block-shaped pessary was once described as an "instrument of torture."

Home-crafted solutions, usually discovered when doctors in decades past were called to extract them, include a whiskey glass and teapot top.


Advice from Casanova

Casanova, the famous Italian 18th century libertine, reportedly recommended that his lovers insert a half-lemon with the juice extracted as a cervix cover.

Text dating to 1580 B.C. suggests grinding dates, acacia and honey to coat the vulva. The Biblical description of "spilling seed," or withdrawal, has its place as do items for trying to find the rhythm in the method of measuring safe periods for copulation without conception.

The pill, now 44 years old, is featured in a case of its own, showing its dial-a-pill and other formulations.

The packaging of hormonal birth control pills, unique to pharmaceutical products, is a source of special fascination to Skuy, the originator of the collection. He explained that originally it was important for women to take the right pill on the right day or right part of their cycle. This was new to pill usage, he said, so packages were designed to connect to the calendar and help women keep track of each day's use.

Skuy says he has never encountered protests to the exhibit during his years of displaying them at pharmaceutical conventions.

Tone, however, reports that the late curator of a Smithsonian exhibit in Washington received hundreds of complaining letters only five years ago about the mere inclusion of the birth control pill among 20th century inventions.

Permanent placement of the museum in Cleveland arrives just in time for the 40th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Griswold v. Connecticut. Faced with state laws making it a crime to use or dispense contraception, the court in 1965 ruled for the first time that a right to privacy prevents arrests for the use of contraception.

The National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association, a Washington-D.C. advocacy association of family planning clinics, will mark the occasion with a forum on legal access to birth control on Capitol Hill on June 6.

Cynthia L. Cooper, a journalist living in New York, writes frequently about reproductive health and justice.

For more information:

Dittrick Medical History Center--
Contraceptive collection comes to the Dittrick at Case:
http://www.case.edu/artsci/dittrick/site2/news/contra.htm

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