Founded in 2007, the Museum for Contraception and Abortion, in Vienna, Austria, is the world's most thorough collection of the different methods and objects humans have used to prevent the birth of other humans. Recently I was given a tour of the museum by Christian Fiala (pictured below), the abortion provider who founded the museum, and this is what he told me as we walked through the exhibits.
There is, of course, a backstory as to why I started working in this field [of abortion and contraception], which is considered a big taboo in Austria—even more so in the Alpine region of Tyrol, where they wouldn't even rent out an apartment to my girlfriend and me because we weren’t married.
Back then, I had just started attending med school and was shocked to discover that loads of my colleagues didn't know how to protect themselves from STDs and unwanted pregnancies, despite their professional education.
How to insert an old-timey pessary into the cervix
After spending a year in Thailand, where I saw women dying on a daily basis during failed self-induced abortions, I decided to take action. I wanted to help and support the victims and help educate their partners about the risks and possibilities—especially when the choice isn't fatherhood.
Austria has one of the highest numbers of terminated pregnancies in Europe, with an estimated 30,000 women per year seeking abortions. Also, Austria’s health-care system is the only one in Western Europe that doesn’t cover the costs of abortions, even though they're legal. The national legislation concerning birth control is also very conservative and hypocritical.
So the main goal of the museum is to educate visitors about birth control and the horrific history of abortion through time and the absurd beliefs that have surrounded it.
Left: A fish bladder condom of the type that King Minos of Crete was supposedly using in 1200 BC. Right: The caption reads, "'Diva condoms, made of silk rubber. My legally protected condom stretched out!"
I travel a lot, and during various conferences and visits to specialists I've befriended all over the world, I've collected information as well as fascinating objects. Before Charles Goodyear invented the first vulcanized condom out of natural rubber in 1855, people used all sorts of things for contraception—fish bladders, sheep appendices, similar intestinal skins.
They felt like the real thing, but were rather unreliable.
A French douche that looks like a beer mug.
In Europe, it used to be the norm to use vaginal douches after sex for birth control. Obviously, this was extremely inefficient.
Sponges were used like diaphragms in the 1900s, and earthworms were even injected with urine to verify pregnancies. That didn't work out that well. Frogs were also actually quite common and relatively reliable pregnancy tests from 1945 to as late as 1965.
Like with the earthworms, female frogs were injected with urine from a woman who was thought to be pregnant. If the frog ovulated and extruded eggs, the human pregnancy hormone was present in the woman's urine.
As we moved into the 1960s, the tests started to look a lot different. An especially absurd agent for contraception was carbonated soda. Records show that from the beginning of the 20th century to the 1950s, Coca-Cola was used to as a foaming, vaginal douche after sex. Obviously it was impractical and ineffective, because the carbonated acid doesn’t harm sperm, as was presumed.
This is a pretty daft invention—a wooden urethra plug. Though it seems ridiculous and frankly dangerous, some uninformed men might have used it. There is nothing positive to say about that.
Until about 1900, killing babies after birth was the predominant method of birth control. From then on, and for about 70 years, the illegal termination of the pregnancy between the fourth and fifth month became commonplace.
In a lot of developing countries this is still the custom. From the 1970s on, along with legalization, the surgical termination until the tenth week of pregnancy was introduced. In the 1990s, medicinal abortion up until the sixth week was developed. Today's most powerful form of birth control is simply prevention.
In the days before abortion was legal, women died all over Europe performing brutal acts on themselves so they would miscarry.
Pretty much every substance and every object on earth was used to induce abortions.
Bosch reverberant washer—useful for any household.
Household gadgets that vibrate a lot, like this one from Bosch to do dirty laundry with, were taken into the bathtub and put on the belly to induce a miscarriage.
Tools for abortions from the Criminal Museum Dresden
Until 1975, the average hospital had three important wards. Both the gynecology department and obstetrics were the same size as they are today and just as important back then. But the third ward, the septic ward, was just as big as the other two and took care of women with sepsis and toxemia—those poisoning themselves in the hope of aborting their pregnancies.
You have to realize the levels of helplessness and psychological strain that fertile women back then had to face. Giving birth was incredibly traumatic and led to a desperation that is unimaginable for us now. People keep shaking their heads walking through the museum because the general Western public does not know such existential fears any more.
Soaps were often used for illegal abortions. They'd insert them into the cervix, usually resulting in a miscarriage. Unfortunately, the woman's death was just as common.
A lot of different things were tried—99.9 percent of those attempts were in vain, but the 0.01 percent that worked were regarded as revolutionary, like the pill. Almost at the same time as the pill was introduced in the early 1960s, the first contraceptive coils and loops were developed.
The introduction of the pill, humankind's first real quasi-domination of biological fertility, was the second most important accomplishment in human history—right after the taming of fire.
It is only because of efficient methods of contraception that we can arrange fertility around our lives and not the other way around, which is the way it had been before. People don't realize that before contraceptives, a woman would get pregnant an historical average of 15 times between the ages of 15 and 50.
Various German and Austrian condom machines
Any socio-cultural formation since 1960 would not have been possible without chemical contraception. We wouldn’t be sitting here, because we would have had children to take care of. The sexual revolution of 1968 would have been over after nine months.
Just to give you an example, we recently had a 17-year-old girl come into our clinic to have her pregnancy terminated. And she already had a family with two children. She had never used protection, and that’s the result: nature at work.
Left: The caption reads, "Woman. You are free. Your conception-free days this year." Right: A device that helps calculate the days in question.
There have never been so many methods of effective birth control as there are today, and yet a majority of women wish for “natural contraception.” It’s paradoxical. They feel negative about chemicals and hormones.
What these women forget is that "natural" equals 15 unwanted pregnancies. Nature is often seen as this glorified paradise, but that is an illusion. Nature is brutal, ruthless, and doesn’t give a shit about the individual.
Twigs and plastic hoses that were used to induce abortions and were removed from women's uteruses at Mulago Hospital in Kampala, Uganda, in 2003.
Since our abortion clinic in Vienna was established in 2003, and subsequently with the opening of the museum in 2007, fanatics from Human Life International and other Christian groups have been demonstrating in front of the building. They would terrorize our patients, but since we got the police involved, things have calmed down.
Sadly, you cannot talk to these people in an objective manner. They are, if you will, psychologically confined in a certain way. Normal discussion isn’t even possible. That is the true drama. Not the abortions but the fact that to this day, people like them are allowed to stand outside our clinic scaring away women who need help. I have received anonymous death threats too.
But let's not talk about people like that any more. It doesn’t further the cause. You wouldn’t blame illiterates for reading the wrong newspaper. The only and most important thing is that experienced professionals adequately help women who are in need of support.
Graphic materials, captions, and exhibits were provided by the Museum for Contraception and Abortion.
Photos by Veronika Mathes
Follow Josef Zorn on Twitter: @theZeffo.