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

The Comstock laws are a set of 150 year-old laws that criminalized “obscene” materials. Never heard of it? You’re not alone — the Comstock laws haven’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 could 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, but they don’t impact legal abortion care. As time went on, the laws were enforced less. By the middle of the twentieth century, courts had reached a consensus that the Comstock Act could not be enforced against anyone who mailed banned material or information, unless the sender knew they were intended to be used unlawfully. 

In 2022, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, allowing states to ban abortion. This emboldenedanti-abortion activists 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. But this is just not true, as the U.S. Department of Justice has made repeatedly clear.

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