What part did the development of mechanical means of contraception play in the late nineteenth century decline in fertility? Essay

In the late nineteenth century there was a marked decline in the birth rate. This coincided with mechanical means of contraception becoming widely available for the first time. It is tempting, therefore , to see this as the main cause of the decline in fertility, but it is important to question whether this was the only – or even the main -cause. To begin with, contraception was practised long before the decline in fertility began. Three types of contraception – abortion, coitus interruptus and abstinence – have existed for hundreds of years.

Although they were available, however, they were not effective as a mass means of birth control. Coitus interruptus and abstinence have obvious disadvantages which limited their effectiveness. Abortion was illegal in Britain until quite recently so we do not have reliable figures on exactly how widely practised it was, but its dangers and illegality obviously limited its general use as a means of birth control means of contraception. Therefore the new methods provided women especially with a safe and reliable means of birth control for the first time. One such innovation was the contraceptive douche which was invented in the 1830s by an American physicist called Charles Knowlton.

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He also produced The Fruits of Philosophy, the first good pamphlet on contraceptive techniques, published in the USA. Another breakthrough was the Dutch Cap which was described in 1838 by a German physician, Dr. Friedrich Adolphe Wilde. The contraceptive sponge, publicised by Francis Place, was also available at the time of the decline in the birth rate. However, it is not likely that these devices had any great effect on the conception rate because they were not widely used partly because of Definition of problem and two main elements of question to be covered.

Brief description of historical background and contraception methods available at the time. (Two paragraphs enough, but all facts need references) the cost. Condoms too had limited impact for similar reasons. Skin condoms had been available since the eighteenth century but they were not widely used because the cost was too high. Working class people could not afford them. In 1843 when the Goodyear Rubber Company vulcanised rubber in the USA and Hancock did the same in Britain it became possible to mass produce them and they therefore became widely available by the 1880s.

However, even then the cost was between five and ten shillings when the weekly wage was only around twenty five shillings. Other mechanical means of contraception were similarly expensive so it seems unlikely that any of them were used by the working class population. It does not seem possible then, that they had much effect on the fertility decline in its early stages. Another reason why mechanical means of contraception were not widely used is that they had a very poor public image. This can be illustrated by what happened in the case of condoms.

They were associated with male promiscuity and were used mainly to prevent men catching venereal disease from prostitutes. Their prime purpose, therefore, was not seen as being for protection from unwanted pregnancies and their public image discouraged their general use. Other mechanical means of birth control suffered the same reputation by association. In addition to, this birth control itself was seen by some immoral, and was thought to be a sin against the Holy Ghost. Even information about methods of contraception was though of as filthy and obscene, so there was very little of it in circulation.

All this changed, however, in 1877 when Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant decided to re-issue Charles Knowlton’s pamphlet on birth control, The Fruits of Philosophy. Its publication in Britain was illegal, so the authors were put on trial. Ironically this did more to publicise birth control than earlier efforts to do so directly. Details of the trial were published very fully in the national and local papers. This was the first time that the subject had been discussed so publicly and openly. The publicity also caused the sales of The Fruits of Philosophy to rise considerably.

Therefore many women, especially working class women, learned of the availability of contraception for the first time. This undoubtedly had an effect on the birth rate. Important though all this was, however, it was the only factor. For one thing, the decline in the birth rate began before 1877, which would Discussion of reasons why contraception not responsible for drop in fertility. (Change in direction of argument clearly signalled by first sentence. Two main reasons in two separate paragraphs.

Facts, figures needed as evidence) Explanation of how knowledge of contraception became more widespread. Facts need referencing) suggest that the availability of the mechanical means of contraception was not the only cause. Another possible reason is related to the economics of the period. It was a time of great economic change and remarkable growth, when middle and working class people had more money than ever before. Expectations about standards of living therefore changed, and both middle and working classes wanted to buy goods and services in order to fulfil these expectations. A large family would prevent them from doing this. An additional pressure was the fact that education for children had been made compulsory and it cost money.

Also a decline in child employment meant that children no longer contributed to the family’s finances. All these factors. therefore, provided people with the motive for wanting to limit family size. Another possible cause of the decline in fertility is connected with industrialisation and a decline in infant mortality. The growth of the availability of factory work was first of all responsible, because it reduced the number of illegitimate births. This was because, instead of going into domestic service, where they were sexually vulnerable, working class women could live at home and work in the local factory.

However, this was not the major influence that factory work had on the birth rate. The local availability of work, linked with a desire for a higher standard of living, meant that working class women chose to work rather than have a large family. At the same time the need to have a large family was being reduced by falling levels of infant mortality. When this is high it is difficult for the individual to exercise any choice over family size, since the well-being of the family unit and the community as a whole depends on it.

However, when mortality rates fell it was possible to consider smaller families. So when improvements in health care and sanitation came about, and infant mortality declined it became possible, as well as desirable, to limit family size. It is obvious, therefore, that economic change and increasing prosperity contributed to the late nineteenth century decline infertility. However, the fact that the mechanical means of contraception became available at this time undoubtedly played its part since the motives for limiting family size and the means by which it could be done occurred simultaneously.

As awareness and understanding grew fertility declined even further. The availability of mechanical meant of contraception may not, therefore, have been the cause of this decline but it was almost certainly the means by which it was accomplished. Change of direction in argument signalled well. Three possible reasons for the decline are detailed, but grouped together because they all relate to economics. (Evidence needed to justify arguments) Conclusion relates the two strands of the argument to each other. Satisfactorily neat.

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