CLIO TALKS BACK: Remembering a Dutch Woman Physician Who Pioneered Birth Control Methods

Dr. Aletta Jacobs (1854-1929) became the first woman physician in the Netherlands. In the course of her practice in Amsterdam, she became sensitized to the plight of poor women who came to the hospital to deliver their babies. Out of sympathy and necessity, she became a pioneer in offering birth control advice and devices to needy women – much like Margaret Sanger in the United States. In this excerpt from her Memories, Aletta Jacobs tells us how this came to be:
“When I was a student, and particularly when I worked at Amsterdam Hospital, I was haunted by the suffering caused by frequent pregnancies, which, for various reasons, can have a disastrous effect on a woman’s life...In my long conversations with a variety of women in the delivery room, they explained to me that they found it impossible to prevent pregnancy when sexual abstinence was the only method available. Women who produced sickly babies or stillbirths, for whom birth meant yet another brush with death, kept on returning to the delivery room. Families that were already large enough, considering the mother’s physical condition and the parents’ circumstances, simply continued to expand. I spent hours wrestling with this problem without any solution in sight. Sometimes I discussed the issue with my fellow students. ‘Yes,’ they would cooly reply, ‘that’s what’s called a woman’s destiny’ or ‘Thank God, there’s no way of preventing pregnancy. If there were, then the whole world would soon collapse through underpopulation’.”
During a visit to England, Dr. Jacobs learned about the possibilities of contraception from a group of neo-Malthusian advocates. She then visited with a German doctor named Mensinga who had invented a pessary for use by women. She began to prescribe it for a select group of patients from her free clinics for poor and destitute women. And, in consequence, she “incurred the wrath of the entire medical establishment.”
“As the only woman doctor in Holland, I often found it difficult and painful to row against the tide of lies and slander spread by my male counterparts. However, the absolute conviction that I was doing the right thing, and the awareness that this whole situation concerned not only individual suffering but also the interests of society at large, gave me the strength to stand by my point of view. I kept thinking that the longing to have a child is so strong in most normal women that only for the most serious reasons would they choose to avoid motherhood. Of course, I thought, contraception would certainly lower the number of unwanted pregnancies and hence should be welcomed for many social, sociological, and individual reasons. If there were fewer unwanted babies, the race would advance, which in turn would lead to greater social well-being and human happiness. Studying this subject in great depth finally convinced me that I had taken the right course of action.”
Well before the invention of the contraceptive pill (which only made its debut in the early 1960s in western countries), Dr. Jacobs persisted in providing assistance with family planning to her clients. In the early 1920s she could write that “after all these years there is still no better form of contraception than the Mensinga pessary I always prescribed.”

Further reading:
Aletta Jacobs, Herinneringen (Amsterdam, 1924); edited by Harriet Feinberg as Memories: My Life as an International Leader in Health, Suffrage, and Peace (New York: Feminist Press, 1996), pp. 46-49. Translation by Annie Wright. See also (in Dutch).