Everything in life involves ... physics.
Today’s Highlights deal with soapsuds and lactic acid.
Whoever believes that our museum preaches abortion couldn’t be more wrong. That’s not the point at all. Our intention is to ensure that abortion is medically safe and protected by law – if and when it becomes a necessity. Reports from the past help our visitors recognize this.
We don’t dispense advice concerning contraception either, which sometimes disappoints visitors. We show what’s available, how it works, and provide information about any difficulties involved and its reliability. Which takes us to lactic acid.
Lactic Acid as a Contraceptive
Lactic acid was long used to acidify and preserve foodstuffs (such as sour milk and sauerkraut) and animal feed, and it was available in many households. Prof. Albert Döderlein’s work with lactic-acid bacteria in vaginal secretions (1892) led to the idea of using its ability to block sperm for contraception.
The improbability of this method working was described by the German sexual researcher Magnus Hirschfeld in his 1930 standard work Geschlechtskunde: “It has been suggested to introduce lactic acid into the vagina in solutions or salves before or immediately after coitus for the purpose of restoring the acidic reaction. In most cases this is too early or too late, unless the lactic acid is used in combination with a mechanical form of protection.” (Magnus Hirschfeld, Geschlechtskunde, vol. 2, 1930, pp. 454 – 455)
Lactic acid was used in the form of contraceptive jellies or creams: “A perfect jelly, if to be used by itself, should be spread lightly in all the vagina’s folds, distributed so that it adheres to the vaginal walls, cervical opening and mucous membranes without any blobs. It should have a pleasant smell or none at all and kill sperm cells immediately, and if absorbed should not be toxic. This is the ideal. It can hardly be expected, however, that this is to be found in this imperfect world, like any other ideal.” (Norman E. Himes and Abraham Stone, Praktische Methoden der Geburtenregelung [Practical Birth-Control Methods (1942)], Munich, 1951, pp. 91 – 92)
Jellies or gels that contain lactic acid are currently used for purposes of contraception together with diaphragms or cervical caps made of latex or silicone, because they work well together. However, this says nothing about the method’s reliability.
Lather from a Soap Solution
A few years ago a police museum loaned a bottle containing a yellowish liquid to the museum. What was it? The donor permitted taking of a sample. Which wasn’t necessary, as it turned out: a simple shake revealed all. The immediate formation of foam showed that this was soapy water, commonly used in the past for abortions.
And these tiny bubbles that revealed the liquid’s identity endangered the lives of a great many women! The air pressed into the bloodstream through forceful douches of the female inner organs with a hose or catheter blocked up the heart and vessels; medical literature is full of reports of women who died as a result. The case of a twenty-year-old turned out well in the end, as was reported in the gynaecological journal Zentralblatt für Gynäkologie in 1921:
In her third month of pregnancy, she “douched daily for one week ... for which purpose she used a rubber ball with a volume of approximately 150 cc, to which was attached a straight, rigid tube approximately 12 cm in length. Since this failed to have the desired effect, she repeated this action with the aid of her fiancé on the day of her admittance. This was done with somewhat more force, as she admitted. A solution of soapsuds was used.... The patient felt extreme pain, and bleeding began immediately. Soon thereafter she became short of breath and lost consciousness for an extended period, during which time the patient’s entire body took on a distinctly bluish tint.”
Luckily, the young woman received prompt treatment at a hospital and survived, and the pregnancy was ejected. It turned out that the tube had gone all the way through her cervical opening and into the bladder. On top of that, a ball syringe was used, which forced air into the opened vessels of her uterus and bladder. Fortunately, this air failed to reach the patient’s heart, which would have continued pumping though there was no blood. Instead, she had nothing more serious than shortness of breath, a fainting spell, and some circulatory problems. A large number of other women have died after such incidents.
Soap was frequently used as an abortifacient because it can dissolve delicate tissue, resulting in ejection of the foetus.
Richard Hornung (Kiel University Gynaecological Clinic), “Ein Fall von kriminellem Abort mit bemerkenswerten Komplikationen”, Zentralblatt für Gynäkologie, no. 15 (1921), pp. 535 – 539.