This post is a part of a series I’m writing called: “Historical Hypotheticals”. My intention in this series is to create various thought experiments related to altering particular variables in history, and analyzing their potential ramifications. I’m creating this series not only to incite critical thinking by the readers, but also for some pure entertainment value. Enjoy!
As I mentioned in my previous post within this series, changing one variable in history can have profound consequences, and there is simply no way to know “what would have been” had we changed even one minute variable, let alone complex or compounded variables. While I acknowledge this, the purpose of this series is to analyze potential gross effects that result from any particular change in the past. These possible effects should have a reasonable degree of plausibility based on examining some causal relationships. That is all I’m trying to accomplish here. Clearly, we can never know for sure “what would have been”, as we simply don’t have enough data, nor enough knowledge of some of these complex relationships between variables. That said, let’s begin.
Various methods of birth control have been utilized for centuries. The earliest recorded evidence of the use of birth control can be found in the Egyptian Kahun Papyrus from 1850 BCE and shortly thereafter in the Ebers Papyrus in 1550 BCE, where various materials were used as either anti-spermicidal pessaries/suppositories or for cervical obstruction. There are early Chinese references to coitus reservatus and coitus obstructus dating from the 7th century BCE (although this practice may have been primarily used to preserve the man’s “yang” as opposed to a means for birth control). We can also find references to coitus interruptus being used as a form of contraception dating from the 6th century BCE within the Book of Genesis. Centuries later, we find references documenting the use of condoms. Throughout history, there have also been various documented uses of abortifacients (and other methods to accomplish an abortion or miscarriage), anti-fertility substances, etc. When no birth control methods were available, infanticide was often used in its place.
The reasons for its use may be universal, but the practice itself is not. There are a number of cultures that have prohibited the practice in one way or another and these groups’ influences have perpetuated up to this day. My historical hypothetical will involve altering the history of birth control, specifically its prohibition within these various cultures. For the purposes of this discussion, I am going to broaden the typical definition of “birth control” to include not only contraceptives, but also any and all means of terminating a pregnancy, as well as infanticide (assuming no birth control methods are available). What changes might we expect if all cultures had embraced birth control? To answer this question, I plan to analyze some of these prohibitive groups, and discuss their influence on society over time.
Birth Control Prohibition
There are a range of birth control prohibitions when compared cross-culturally. Some cultures have banned only particular methods of birth control, where others have banned the practice altogether. Some may allow certain contraceptive methods (e.g. early withdrawal or “coitus interruptus”), as long as they don’t include any artificial contraceptive device (e.g. condoms, pessaries/suppositories, etc.), while the majority of others may allow any type of contraceptive methods and only restrict their prohibition to that of abortion and/or infanticide. Which groups had the largest impact on society in terms of birth control prohibition?
Christianity, specifically the Roman Catholic Church, has probably been the largest influence in terms of birth control prohibition. From the time the proto-orthodox church began to materialize in the 1st century CE, it has maintained that the purpose of sexual intercourse is procreation; therefore contraceptive sex, which deliberately inhibits that purpose, is seen as a violation of natural law. The story of Onan found in the Book of Genesis (a reference mentioned earlier), mentions his use of the withdrawal technique and the subsequent wrath of God toward Onan (i.e. God killing him), and this story was interpreted by early Christians as a divine declaration of God’s prohibitive view toward contraceptive measures, namely when a man “spills his seed”.
It should be noted that all non-Catholic branches of Christianity had held this same position on birth control until 1930, when the Anglican Communion changed its policy. After this occurred, it wasn’t long before a few other Christian denominations followed suit by loosening their restrictions on birth control in one way or another. The Roman Catholic Church, however, has maintained its stance since it began.
As for Judaism, there appears to be quite a range of views on the issue. It seems that most Jews have agreed (and still agree today) that a man “spilling” his seed is prohibited by God, based on the story of Onan. After all, The Old Testament’s prohibitive references to birth control were a part of the Jewish Hebrew Bible, the Torah. Orthodox Jews, being the most strict on the issue, tend to disagree with the use of any birth control accept under certain circumstances such as when a couple already has two children. However, the passages in the Torah have been interpreted quite literally by some Orthodox and Conservative Jews to only exclude birth control methods such as contraceptive barriers (e.g. condoms), and/or coitus interruptus (i.e. the technique used by Onan), but apparently this does not necessarily exclude the use of hormonal contraceptives. The Reform branch of Judaism, being the most liberal, has come to accept any use of birth control based on a couple’s own judgement. Lastly, it should be noted that Jews that follow halakah, based on some Talmudic traditions, will not have sex during the 11 to 14 days after the woman begins her menstrual cycle, thus precluding these Jews from utilizing natural “calendar-based” contraceptive methods.
Islam (a related Abrahamic religion) doesn’t appear to have any universal restrictions on birth control as neither Mohammad nor the Quran explicitly prohibited it. Some groups of Muslims may disagree with one or more types of birth control, but generally there is little controversy over the issue. I mention Islam because all of the Abrahamic religions have adhered to the aforementioned adage “be fruitful and multiply” (or a similar adage) and thus they all had an intra-religious benefit in terms of population increase, even if Islam (for example) has never formally prohibited birth control.
To be clear, abortion and infanticide seem to be almost universally prohibited by the Abrahamic religions, and so any instances of accepted forms of birth control within these religions (mentioned above) exclude these two forms of “birth control” (based on my broadened definition given earlier).
Long Term Effects
Population Boost for More Effective Memes
It is important to realize that the birth control ban promoted by Christianity had profound implications, not only for society in general, but also for the fecundity and longevity of the religion itself, since a ban on birth control induces an increase in population. Followers of the religion would naturally tend to increase in number more than the non-followers whom didn’t heed the church’s instruction. Now granted, after Constantine converted to Christianity, and the Roman Catholic church grew in terms of size and power shortly thereafter, even non-believers were affected by the church’s orders simply because of the degree to which the church influenced the societal views and law of the land at the time. While this may be true, followers of the religion over the long run would still be affected, on average, more than non-followers. This ban on birth control combined with the Old Testament adage “be fruitful and multiply”, meant that over time the proportion of Christians would increase and so would the influence of a birth control ban (as well as other Christian constructs) on the rest of society.
It is likely that the Jewish religion also benefited from any of these intra-religious birth control prohibitions, based on the principle of population increase mentioned above. It may not have had as much of a population boost benefit when compared to Christianity, due to its wider acceptance of various forms of birth control. Judaism’s influence on the rest of society (in terms of birth control) was also probably less effective than Christianity‘s, since Christianity has been the dominant religion since the early part of the last millennium (the millennium with the largest growth in world population), once again due in great part to it’s political support by the Roman empire.
The Judeo-Christian religions are not alone in terms of benefiting from this type of prohibition. Other nations and cultures have benefited (in some ways) from the population boost, especially when they have been trying to overcome or dominate rival nations. In modern times, there have been numerous efforts and grants offered to countries in the developing world, to decrease the number of those born into poverty, and some of those nations’ leaders have refused this assistance in one way or another. For example, in the case of Uganda or Nigeria, there have recently been grant funds available from some charitable foundations for starting some family planning programs, but the president of Uganda wants more Ugandans, and Nigeria has been having rivalry between ethnic groups, so there is little chance of them adopting such programs.
Increased Number of Unwanted Children
One of the detriments to society caused by these bans was realized when the number of unwanted children grew, and some parents began to abandon their infants on the churches’ doorsteps. Eventually this became so common, that many churches were put to use as orphanages to accommodate this new influx. I also find it likely that an increase in the number of orphans may have provided a net benefit to the church simply because it drove a societal incentive to give the church more money (for the children) and I surmise that a portion of those funds, albeit not all of them, were used to support a growing number of clergy and other expenditures not related to orphan care.
It goes without saying that this influx of unwanted children, regardless of anyone benefiting has resulted in some disastrous secondary consequences for society which I plan to mention in a short while.
Effects of Birth Control Tolerance
Redistribution of Religious Influence
It seems reasonable to assume that had there not been a Judeo-Christian ban on birth control, the success and growth of the religions would have at least been stunted. This growth stunt may have precipitated a number of changes in history, including a reduction of influence on: religiously justified war, the Christian hurdle placed on scientific progress by the Inquisition et al, the violent cultural intolerance as seen during the conquest of the Americas, the suppression of individualism, the suppression of women’s rights (including the well-known witch hunts; among those “hunted” were midwives possessing knowledge of birth control methods), and many other effects brought on by a dominator-culture. Now it is certainly true that if the Judeo-Christian influence had been reduced, the world would have also never received any of the benefits of that particular religion, however many of those benefits stemming from the church such as various charitable actions, support groups, community events, etc., have also been provided by many non-religious and humanitarian organizations, and are seen cross-culturally regardless of religion. In my opinion, the societal drawbacks brought on by Judeo-Christian influence (Christianity in particular) have far outweighed any benefits.
Looking at the population boost principle, we can also surmise that if birth control had been widely accepted in the Judeo-Christian religions, the influence of other historically non-dominant religions may have increased. Buddhism, Hinduism, Neo-Paganism, and many others have allowed either most or all forms of birth control over time and may have had a much greater following and impact on society had they co-existed with a population of members comparable to that of Christianity.
Less Unwanted Children
If birth control had been widely accepted and used, there would have been a much smaller number of orphans and/or unwanted children, which reduces a number of secondary societal consequences, including one I find quite significant — a substantial decrease in crime.
It’s not at all difficult to see that promoting or allowing reasonable access to birth control methods would lead to a smaller number of unwanted children, and this would thereby reduce the number of would-be criminals. It is even less difficult to see this relationship in today’s world when we look at the fact that a disproportionate number of these children are products of poor, less educated, single-parents. Criminologists have long known that childhood poverty and a single-parent household are among the strongest predictors that a child will have a criminal future. I’m confident that this correlation (between poverty and crime at least) has roughly been the case throughout all of history.
To help quantify this supposed correlation between crime and birth control prohibition, we could look at the time frame approximately 15-25 years after abortion was broadly legalized via Roe v. Wade (back in 1973), as this is when we would have expected a good portion of the “would-be” cohort of children to be entering their criminal prime (had they been born, and if they indeed became criminals). This time frame would have started in the late 80’s and continued through the 90’s. Perhaps astonishingly, criminologists have indeed found that during this time frame, crime had substantially dropped to levels not seen since the 1950’s. In fact, according to several economists, abortion is believed to have accounted for between 30 and 50% of this drop in crime. It should be noted that these numbers have been calculated using several reliable models of data analysis, after controlling for a number of other crime-reduction factors (e.g. increased number of police, harsher prison sentences, crack market crash, etc.).
While this drop in crime (due to a decrease in unwanted children) was precipitated by abortion, other birth control options presumably had a similar effect on crime rates (unfortunately we don‘t seem to have the data required to test this hypothesis). That is, had we had a ban on all forms of birth control in 1973 (and the following 25 years), I believe we would have seen a dramatic increase in the crime rate as a result.
Birth Control Efficacy and Cost
Had birth control been widely accepted by all cultures, its efficacy would have also improved much faster over time. After all, the cultural prohibitions led to a decrease in any and all knowledge pertaining to birth control, and this almost froze any means of progress or improvement. Even looking back to Roe v. Wade, as the amount of access to abortion increased, the safety and efficacy of the procedure improved over time as a result. Likewise, the more widely accepted (and thus used) a method of birth control is, the cheaper it becomes over time.
I have no doubts that a wide acceptance of birth control starting centuries ago would have changed history for women quite substantially. Women’s largest role in history has been child-rearing, and if birth control options for women had been widely accepted, women’s roles would have inevitably changed a long time ago. Not only would women’s rights (over their own bodies) have increased, but women would have increased their opportunities for other roles in society in terms of occupation, involvement in politics, positions of authority, etc., simply because their previous historical “purpose” would have become but one of a number of different purposes, just as we’ve seen in more modern times. Giving women a longer run in a society with more equal rights between the sexes, would have created a more balanced and peaceful world since partnership societies would have been more likely to exist to counter the patriarchal dominator societies that we’ve seen throughout most of history.
It seems to me that a widespread acceptance of birth control starting centuries ago would have dramatically altered history. One could say that some of the most profound effects would have been: a redistribution of religious influence (and potentially an accelerated Scientific Revolution), less crime, and perhaps an increase in partnership societies stemming from an increase in equal rights for women. Perhaps one of the most ironic truths, summarized by the so-called “Roe effect” is the inevitability that those that are most apt to using and promoting the availability of birth control may eventually disappear from the gene pool, if they also happen to have less children (on average) when compared to those within the more prohibitive groups. This may happen as a result of a redistribution of parental indoctrination. To put it another way, in order for this meme to live on, birth control advocates may need to have more children (or more specifically, higher survival rates) than those that prohibit the practice. If this is not the case in the future, then the sudden shift we’ve had in birth control use and availability in the last few decades may end up becoming a temporary historical anomaly.