First Birth Control Clinic Opens in Amsterdam

The establishment of the world’s first birth control clinic in Amsterdam inspired the creation of similar clinics in other countries and helped to promote acceptance of contraception in many different cultures.

Summary of Event

Although various methods of contraception had been used for thousands of years to prevent pregnancy, the idea of using birth control as a means to limit human population growth to help end poverty did not arise until the nineteenth century. Up to that time, political economists saw human population growth as an indicator of prosperity. It was not until after Thomas Robert Malthus published An Essay on the Principle of Population
Essay on the Principle of Population, An (Malthus) (1798) that the first birth control movement began. Birth control clinics
Netherlands;birth control in
Medicine;birth control clinics
Jacobs, Aletta
Amsterdam birth control clinic
[kw]First Birth Control Clinic Opens in Amsterdam (1882)
[kw]Birth Control Clinic Opens in Amsterdam, First (1882)
[kw]Control Clinic Opens in Amsterdam, First Birth (1882)
[kw]Clinic Opens in Amsterdam, First Birth Control (1882)
[kw]Opens in Amsterdam, First Birth Control Clinic (1882)
[kw]Amsterdam, First Birth Control Clinic Opens in (1882)
Birth control clinics
Netherlands;birth control in
Medicine;birth control clinics
Jacobs, Aletta
Amsterdam birth control clinic
[g]Netherlands;1882: First Birth Control Clinic Opens in Amsterdam[5150]
[c]Health and medicine;1882: First Birth Control Clinic Opens in Amsterdam[5150]
[c]Social issues and reform;1882: First Birth Control Clinic Opens in Amsterdam[5150]
[c]Women’s issues;1882: First Birth Control Clinic Opens in Amsterdam[5150]
Besant, Annie
Bradlaugh, Charles
Drysdale, Charles
Knowlton, Charles
Malthus, Thomas Robert
Sanger, Margaret
Houten, Samuel van

Malthus was an Anglican clergyman who postulated that population growth is geometric, while the supply of resources can only grow arithmetically. He foresaw a time when the rapid growth of the human population would outstrip natural resources, leading to widespread poverty and starvation. He saw the need for birth control, but due to his religious beliefs, he could support only delayed marriage and abstinence to achieve that goal.

Thomas Robert Malthus.

(Library of Congress)

In most industrialized countries of Malthus’s time, the general public had no practical knowledge of birth control. The only published source of information was The Fruits of Philosophy: Or, The Private Companion of Young Married People, published by the American physician Charles Knowlton in 1832. Knowlton was promptly arrested on the book’s publication. The book then traveled to Great Britain, where birth control activists Charles Bradlaugh Bradlaugh, Charles and Annie Besant Besant, Annie were arrested in 1876 for selling it. Their trial generated so much publicity that sales of the book in Britain leapt to the hundreds of thousands. Knowlton’s Knowlton, Charles book was concerned with family planning and was presumably aimed at members of the middle class who could purchase and read it.

The first organization to actively promote contraception among the poor as a means to control population took its name from Malthus Malthus, Thomas Robert when the Malthusian League Malthusian League formed in Great Britain in 1877. Unlike Malthus, however, the organization’s founder, Charles Drysdale, and his supporters expressed the need for artificial methods of birth control. The Malthusian League lasted fifty years and had, at most, little more than one thousand members, yet these few members made their voice heard by writing incessantly to Parliament and various publications—which usually refused to publish the letters—lecturing and distributing tracts numbering in the millions. In many ways, however, their prodigious efforts were in vain. The members of the Malthusian League were largely middle class with no sympathy for the poor. They wanted to see the lower classes produce fewer children, yet their propaganda did not emphasize the benefits of small families to individual readers. In fact, their tracts did not even spread information about effective methods of birth control, from fear of censorship Censorship;and birth control[Birth control] laws. During the early years, though, the league could boast of chapters in France, Germany, and the Netherlands.

The only European country in which it was not illegal to give out birth control information was the Netherlands. In 1879, upon receiving her medical degree, Aletta Jacobs, the first professionally trained woman physician of that country, visited England and became acquainted with the Malthusian League. During that same year Drysdale Drysdale, Charles lectured in Amsterdam. Immediately the Dutch Neo-Malthusian League Neo-Malthusian League[NeoMalthusian League] was formed; it became official in 1881.

Unlike the British Malthusian League, the Dutch Neo-Malthusian League from its beginning stressed family planning, admitted socialist members—who gave the league access to the poor)—and actively distributed two hundred thousand tracts that explained methods of birth control. Since Jacobs had always provided free medical care to the poor in her clinic, it was just one more step for her to offer free family planning advice to the poor as well as to the wealthier patrons of her private practice. Jacobs established her birth control clinic in Amsterdam in 1882; it was the world’s first such clinic. Along with counseling, Jacobs also fitted women with diaphragms, a recent invention she perfected. However, it was the only form of artificial contraception she advocated.

Over the next several years, physician members of the Dutch Neo-Malthusian League established birth control clinics in The Hague, Rotterdam, and many other cities in the Netherlands by 1892. All were characterized by giving free birth control advice to poor patients and by hiring midwives to counsel and fit patients. By 1894, the midwives were treating more than five hundred women a year. In 1898 alone, more than fifteen hundred women used the clinic’s services.

Near the turn of the twentieth century an organization of midwives opposed to Neo-Malthusianism formed in Amsterdam, and it excluded any woman associated with the league from practicing midwifery. The clinics responded by training poor women instead of midwives, and they encouraged these “lay-nurses” to go out and teach other poor women. Church and medical organizations went to the Dutch parliament to protest the clinics, and doctors faced difficulties if they showed any support of Neo-Malthusianism. However, the government subsequently passed no laws against birth control, most likely because of the efforts of Samuel van Houten Houten, Samuel van , an influential Liberal member of the Dutch parliament who was also a vice president of the British Malthusian League Malthusian League . In 1911, the only law passed concerning contraception put some restrictions on vendors of birth control devices and created standards that birth control clinics had to meet. Workers at the clinics hailed the law, which would minimize false advertising from quacks and allow the public to see the clinics in a more positive light.


The clinics were never shut down, and in 1925 Jacobs was able to report on their success. Around 1880, the birth rate in the Netherlands was 37.6 births for every 1,000 inhabitants. In 1920, the rate was 19.3 births. Birth control became accepted by the majority of the Dutch populace, and the league established the Aletta Jacobs Huis in 1931. This institute, the first large public birth control clinic in Amsterdam, was allowed to continue, and others followed.

Birth control took longer to find acceptance in other parts of the world, but it eventually did, thanks in large part to Margaret Sanger Sanger, Margaret , an American birth control activist who visited the Netherlands and met Jacobs in 1914. Sanger was pleased by the improving birth rate statistics in the Netherlands and, being a registered nurse, she learned how to fit women with diaphragms. On her return to the United States, she established the first American birth control clinic in Brooklyn Brooklyn;birth control clinic in 1916. Her efforts led to the first World Population Conference in Geneva in 1927 World Population Conference (1927) . From Sanger’s American Birth Control League American Birth Control League , established in 1921, came the International Planned Parenthood Federation Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), which was founded in 1953.

During the 1960’s, governments throughout the world were committed to giving money to Planned Parenthood. In 1969, the United Nations Fund for Population Activities was established. The United Nations has hosted international conferences addressing the problem of overpopulation in Bucharest in 1974, in Mexico City in 1984, and in Cairo in 1994. Many governments, the most notable being China, adopted official policies regarding family planning. Birth rates began to fall in developed countries, and many international groups focused their attention on reducing birth rates in developing countries as well. By the twenty-first century, the use of birth control to control population growth as well as family size was generally accepted.

Further Reading

  • Avery, John. Progress, Poverty, and Population: Re-reading Condorcet, Godwin and Malthus. London: Frank Cass, 1997. Traces the history of the debate during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries between utopian optimists, such as Condorcet and Godwin, and pessimists, such as Malthus, about the effects of population growth upon society.
  • Back, Kurt W. Family Planning and Population Control: The Challenges of a Successful Movement. Boston: Twayne, 1989. A thorough, easy-to-read account of the history of the birth control movement, stressing trends and mores shifting as the need for contraception became more obvious.
  • Besant, Annie, and Charles Knowlton.“A Dirty, Filthy Book”: The Writings of Charles Knowlton and Annie Besant on Reproductive Physiology and Birth Control and an Account of the Bradlaugh-Besant Trial. Edited by Sripati Chandrasekhar. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981. Includes Besant’s Law of Population and her recantation Theosophy and the Law of Population (1891), as well as Knowlton’s Fruits of Philosophy. The texts are prefaced by a useful introduction.
  • Bosch, Mineke, with Annemarie Kloosterman, eds. “Unity Above Nation, Race, or Creed: An Introduction to the International Woman Suffrage Alliance.” In Politics and Friendship: Letters from the International Woman Suffrage Alliance, 1902-1942. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1990. A translated edition of a Dutch book of Jacobs’s letters. Provides a well-researched account of her life and causes.
  • Elwell, Frank W. A Commentary on Malthus’s 1798 Essay on Population as Social Theory. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2001. An analysis of the essay that seeks to eliminate some of the dogma and misinterpretation surrounding Malthus’s theories and present his ideas with more subtlety and complexity. Includes a reprint of the original essay
  • Jacobs, Aletta. “Birth Control in Holland.” The Nation 120, no. 3118 (April 8, 1925): 392. Shows success of Dutch birth control clinics with statistics on birth rate, infant mortality, and illegitimate children.
  • _______. “The First Birth Control Clinic.” In European Women: A Documentary History, 1789-1945, edited by Eleanor S. Riemer and John C. Fout. New York: Schocken Books, 1980. An account of how and why Jacobs went into birth control practice. Also explains its success and lack of acceptance as late as 1928.
  • Ledbetter, Rosanna. “Neo-Malthusians Abroad.” In A History of the Malthusian League, 1877-1927. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1976. Incredibly detailed and well written, this chapter gives an outstanding brief account of the Dutch Neo-Malthusian League and the circumstances surrounding the birth control clinic.

Semmelweis Develops Antiseptic Procedures

New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children Opens

Congress Passes the Comstock Antiobscenity Law

Galton Defines “Eugenics”

Ellis Publishes Sexual Inversion

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Nineteenth Century, 1801-1900</i><br />

Annie Besant; Thomas Robert Malthus; Francis Place; Marie Elizabeth Zakrzewska. Birth control clinics
Netherlands;birth control in
Medicine;birth control clinics
Jacobs, Aletta
Amsterdam birth control clinic