Frog Tests, Knitting-Needles and Crocodile Dung

A Quirky New Museum in Vienna Is Dedicated to All Things Contraceptive

On The Town | Christian Cummins | April 2007

"It’s huge!"

"Just look at it!"

"And it’s so thick!"

"I wouldn’t let that in my house, never mind my body!"

My girlfriend and I are staring in some awe at a condom made of sheep gut, now browned by age. It’s laid out majestically on its dinky little drying-stand and encased proudly behind a glass display case. You used to tie the weighty things on, we learn, and since it took one sheep to produce just one condom, they cost a small fortune. But at least, once you’d cleaned and dried it, you could re-use it as often as you liked. Ugh!

There is plenty to nudge and wink at if you visit the newly opened Museum of Contraception and Abortion in Vienna’s 15th district. Discreetly tucked away in a converted apartment overlooking the infernal traffic of Vienna’s Gürtel ring-road, this two-roomed gem claims to be the world’s first museum entirely dedicated to birth control methods.

Here you’ll find such wonderful oddities as a crocodile-dung vaginal suppository, famed for its spermicidal effects, and learn how, less than a century ago, an intimate wash in fizzy cola followed by a few brisk quad-thrusts were supposed to prevent conception.

The museum is quirky. It makes you laugh. Until you think about the implications of the exhibits. And then it’s all really rather horrifying.

"Desperation" is a word the curator Dr. Christian Fiala uses a great deal as he guides us around the tiny museum he has founded, explaining that unwanted pregnancies have been a major concern since the time of Aristotle. A slim, bald and energetic gynaecologist, Dr. Fiala proves to be a charismatic guide. He explains the displayed exhibits with an engaging mixture of impish delight at past absurdities and earnest sadness at the exasperation that led generations of women to put their trust in these lunacies. For him, contraception is all about choice and empowerment; and until quite recently, as this museum graphically shows, women had precious little of either.

Dr. Fiala points out that under "natural" circumstances, a woman would give birth 10 times in her lifetime. Now that’s clearly not a universally enticing prospect, and is best described by a colourful 18th century wedding present displayed at the museum - a pottery mantelpiece ornament depicting  a blushing bride and proud husband surrounded by a reasonable crowd of children. The inscription below implores God to be generous in blessing the newly weds with children, but let Him, in His infinite wisdom, please be not all too generous!

With contraception an enduring social and religious taboo, the inventive resourcefulness of couples who wanted to separate sex from reproduction manages to predictable and surprising at the same time.

You can certainly learn a lot in the Museum of Contraception and Abortion, things you’ll be unlikely to forget. Take the frog test, for example, still widely used, apparently, as late as the 1950’s. If a woman had been let down by the all too fallible cola or crocodile-dung routines, and her monthly flow had mysteriously ceased, she could make sure of her pregnancy by going to the doctor and having her urine injected into a female frog.  If the frog produced eggs within the next 24 hours, the test was positive. Early commercials for chemical pregnancy tests featured frogs bemoaning their unemeployment.

The atmosphere takes a darker plunge when you pass through the door into the second room. There is nothing quirky about an abortion. On your left, you’ll see a homely kitchen scene. Until the 1970’s abortion was against the law in Austria, and as in most of Europe, still punishable by a decree penned in the days of Maria Theresia.

No legal injunction could, however, stop the demand. In the 1920’s, for example, it’s estimated that two million abortions were performed every year in Europe, most of them crude and dangerous, and many carried on just such an innocent looking kitchen table. The black-market practitioners, known as "angelmakers" (Engelmacherinnen) would post their advertisements freely in the local papers, writing in codes known to all, such as the graphic "will get your blood flowing."

Pointing out a knitting-needle, the mostly widely used tool of this trade, Dr. Fiala returns to his theme of desperation. A visible shudder goes through his audience, as we see these rudimentary tools up close. Blood poisoning, paralysis or sterility were regular consequences of back-street abortions.

Thankfully in Europe these days backstreet abortions are over – although not in Africa, where Dr. Fiala is also active making safe abortions available to poor women. The wall opposite the kitchen table tells the story of legalisation of abortion across the European continent. With the notable exception of Poland, Malta and, for the moment, Portugal, women have the right to an abortion throughout the E.U. Vast improvements in hygiene and technology followed the legalisation, and as we are shown the modern tools to terminate pregnancy, Dr. Fiala tells us that complications are now extremely rare.

This has led to criticism of the museum. Some Viennese see it as an advertisement encouraging abortion and Barbara Feldmann, a politician from the People’s Party (ÖVP) has condemned it as a "Killing Museum." Form your own opinion of this, but, believe me, however safe the procedure is nowadays, seeing the clinical procedures required to terminate a pregnancy is a very sobering experience, and a sometimes rather abstract concept becomes an inescapably concrete reality.

"It makes you think," says my girlfriend as we step outside into the exhaust soup of the Gürtel, "I really hope I never have to go through that. It must be awful"

It strikes me that three thousand years of not talking about abortion is long enough.


Museum of Contraception Abortion

Mariahilfer Gürtel 37, 1st floor

1150 Vienna.

Opening hours: Daily 14:00 - 18:00

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    the vienna review April 2007