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Did you know anti-abortion groups and judges in 2023 are name-checking a law from 1873 to ban abortion?

The Comstock Act is a set of 150 year-old laws that criminalized “obscene” materials. Never heard of it? You’re not alone — the Comstock Act hasn’t been enforced in nearly a century.  

Most recently a judge name-checked the Comstock Act in a lawsuit that aimed to end access to a safe and commonly used abortion pill, mifepristone.

Who Came up With These Laws?

Anthony Comstock was a misogynist, racist, homophobic, “anti-vice” crusader. He was obsessed with sex — or rather, he was obsessed with controlling everyone else’s sexual behavior. 

Comstock believed that the mere existence of birth control, abortion, pornography, sex toys, and even nudity in art corrupted society. Even in the hyper-conservative Victorian era, many thought his views were extreme. People used the word “Comstockery” to mock his overzealous censorship.

In 1873, Comstock convinced Congress to pass the Comstock Act. Comstock was appointed as a Special Agent of the U.S. Post Office, giving him the authority to enforce his laws.

What did the Comstock Act do?

The Comstock Act is a federal law that authorized the post office to search mail for any “obscene, lewd, lascivious, indecent, filthy, or vile article, matter, thing, device, or substance.” This included porn and information or items related to sexual health, sexuality, abortion, and birth control. Comstock’s definition of obscenity was so broad, the post office would even seize novels, plays, art, medical textbooks, and personal letters with sexual content.  

Under the Comstock Act, thousands of people were prosecuted and 160 tons of literature was seized and destroyed. Several people Comstock persecuted died by suicide.

Do Comstock Laws still exist?

Kind of. As time went on, the laws were enforced less and after a series of court decisions, most parts of the Comstock Act became void.

Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger was the first person to challenge and successfully change some parts of the Comstock Laws in the early 1900s, after she got arrested for opening the country’s first birth control clinic.

When the right to contraception was officially recognized by Supreme Court cases in the 1960s and 1970s — that’s right, birth control wasn’t fully legal until around 50 years ago  — Congress took contraception out of the Comstock Act in 1971. They kept in the restrictions on abortion, but those also became unenforceable after Roe v. Wade legalized abortion nationwide in 1973.

In 2022, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, allowing states to ban abortion. This opened the door for anti-abortion rights lawmakers to claim that the Comstock Act can once again be used to criminalize abortion, proving people who oppose abortion will truly stop at nothing to control other people’s bodies and lives.

Tags: Abortion restrictions, Margaret Sanger, abortion access, birth control, history, abortion bans