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A History: the Diaphragm

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The concept of cervical barriers has been around for a long, long time. Some of these (pretty creative) objects have included partially squeezed lemon halves, oiled paper disks, algae and seaweed, sponges, and even balls of opium, just to name a few. However, the first official cervical barrier was invented by German gynecologist Friedrich Wilde, who created rubber pessaries with custom-made molds. This concept was brought to America thanks to Connecticut inventor Charles Goodyear (the tire company is name after him!)  in the 1850s. Pessaries had an economic boom until the Comstock laws were enacted in the 1870s.  These laws made it illegal to send any “obscene, lewd, and/or lascivious” material through the mail – including contraceptive devices and information.OK

But don’t worry, this is when our good friend Margaret Sanger came to the rescue. During a trip to Holland, Sanger learned about the snugly fitting springloaded diaphragms developed in Germany during the 1880s. Soon after, she was arrested in 1916 for educating women about these devices, but continued to spread the word anyway – she even taught the women in her jail about them!

Sanger was pretty passionate about getting diaphragms to the USA so she came up with a clever (and illegal) way around the Comstock Laws.   Sanger imported diaphragms from Germany and Holland to her husband’s oil factory in Montreal. Her husband had the devices inserted into the oil packaging cartons which were then sent to NY.  Sanger’s husband even took the extra step to manufacture the lubricant jelly for the diaphragm in his factory in New Jersey. And, by 1925, he invested in the first American diaphragm manufacturing company (called Holland-Rantos Company), ending the need for imported devices.

Sanger also was partially responsible for bringing down the Comstock Laws. She filed a lawsuit after a package of diaphragms shipped from Japan to a doctor in New York was confiscated. The federal court ruled in United States v. One Package of Japanese Pessaries that the government could not interfere with doctors providing contraception to their patients (hooray!).

So fast forwarding a bit, the laws lightened up, and by 1941, diaphragms were recommended by doctors as the most effective form of birth control. But this device became less popular in the 1960s with the invention of the pill and IUD. However, diaphragms continue to be a great method for women seeking a non-hormonal form of birth control.

Long story short, we owe Margaret Sanger and her husband Noah Slee a big thanks for standing up for access to contraception.

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