World Population Day: A Family Planning Timeline

Every year on July 11, we observe World Population Day—a day set aside by the United Nations to focus on the many interconnected social and environmental issues related to our global human population. In honor of this year’s theme, “Family Planning is A Human Right,” we’re taking a look back at family planning over time. Here are some major historical moments that have shaped people’s ability to determine how many children they have and when they have them.

11,000 BCE- Cave paintings in the Grottes des Combarelles in France depict what anthropologists consider the earliest known use of condoms.

600 BCE- The Greeks discovered a fennel-like plant, Silphium, which is believed to be the first oral contraceptive. Difficult to cultivate, the wild plant was harvested to extinction by these early family planners.

A Greek coin depicts Silphium

The ancient Greeks thought family planning was so important, they put this contraceptive plant on a coin.

500 CE- The population of Europe is estimated to be at 27.5 million, a decrease of several million over the past five centuries, even as average lifespans increased. Some experts theorize this was due to widespread use of herbal birth control.

1552- The Italian physican Gabriele Falloppio (for whom the Fallopian tubes are named) was the first to document his studies of condom usage in the prevention of syphilis. He claimed that in a test of over one thousand men, none became infected. These early condoms, made of linen, helped to prevent pregnancy as well.

1855- The first rubber condom was developed by American inventor, Charles Goodyear, in Springfield, Massachusetts, using his patented vulcanized rubber.

Brownsville Clinic Flyer

This flyer for the Brownsville birth control clinic in Brooklyn, NY appeals to women in English, Yiddish, and Italian.

1916- Nurse and sex-education activist Margaret Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in the U.S., in Brooklyn, NY. For ten cents, trained nurses provided information about contraception and sexual health to women who came to the clinic. Sanger was arrested and the clinic raided by police, because censorship laws at the time banned all discussion of birth control.

1921- Marie Stopes, a paleobotanist, founded Britain’s first birth control clinic in London. She had previously published two books on the subjects of marriage, sex, and contraception, and received letters from thousands of women asking for advice.

1951- Carl Djerassi, an Austrian-born Jewish refugee who arrived in the United States after fleeing the Nazi regime, created the chemical underpinnings of the first working oral contraceptive in Mexico City. The pill would not be approved by the FDA and mass-produced until 1960.

1952- India became the first country in the world to launch a mass media campaign to popularize and incentivize family planning. At the time, decreased birth rates were the only target. Since then, however, the program has evolved to focus more on community health needs.

Griswold v. Connecticut newspaper headline

A headline after the landmark Supreme Court case Griswold v. Connecticut.

1965- Connecticut’s Comstock Laws, which banned the sale of contraceptives, were deemed unconstitutional in the Supreme Court case Griswold v. Connecticut, securing the right of married Americans to access birth control. However, this did not protect unmarried people in the 26 states where it was still banned.

1968- The United Nations International Conference on Human Rights in Tehran pronounced, “Parents have a basic human right to determine freely and responsibly the number and spacing of their children.”

1972- The Supreme Court case Eisenstadt v. Baird established the right of unmarried Americans to access birth control, striking down a Massachusetts Law. The court found that allowing only married people to obtain contraceptives violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution.

Louise Brown with her parents

Louise Brown, the first baby born through IVF, with her parents.

1978- Louise Brown, the first test-tube baby, was born from the use of in vitro fertilization. Over 4 million babies have since been born using this technique.

1992- The FDA approved the first injectable hormonal birth control, which prevents pregnancy up to several months after each shot.

1999- The FDA approved the first emergency contraceptive (also known as “the morning after pill” or “Plan B”).

Graph of contraceptive use at first sex

Teenagers in America are becoming more likely to use contraceptives during their first sexual encounters.

2000- The Millennium Development Goals were selected by the United Nations. While Goal 3 focuses on women’s empowerment and Goal 5 on maternal health, none of them directly address family planning and contraceptive access.

2011- The Ouagadougou Partnership was launched to focus on meeting family planning needs in nine francophone African countries, where contraceptive rates were some of the lowest (12%) and unmet needs for family planning some of the highest (1 in 4 women).

2017- The U.S. teen birth rate dropped to all-time low (dropping 67% since 1991). This is attributed to wide-spread use of contraceptives.

Image credits: Greek Silphium Coin: CNG Coins; Clinic flyer: Margaret Sanger Papers Project; Griswold newspaper headline: Hartford Courant; Baby Louise Brown: The Telegraph; Teen contraceptive use graph: Guttmacher Institute