The Comstock Law

By: Engineer Of Knowledge

With the “Religious Right” playing such a crucial role in selecting the Republican Presidential Candidate in the upcoming South Carolina Primary, I thought I would pass on this bit of historical information.  It is a good example of the “Knee-Jerk Reactionary Legislation” that the “Religious Right” loves so much.

“The Comstock Law,” passed in the United States in 1873, was part of a campaign for “Legislating Public Morality” in the United States.  The author, Anthony Comstock, was a United States Postal Inspector and a self-righteous politician dedicated to ideas of Victorian morality.  The Comstock Law was meant to stop trade in “obscene literature” and “immoral articles.”

In reality, the Comstock Law was targeted not only at obscenity and “dirty books” but birth control devices and information on such devices.  Yes Birth Control was considered to be obscene by Comstock.  (For some background information even married women, at this time for health reasons of having too many pregnancies in a short amount of time, had abortions which were a secret form of birth control administrated by doctors disguised as a D&C.  A D&C is a procedure that scrapes and collects the tissue (endometrium) from inside the uterus.)

Dilation (“D”) is a widening of the cervix to allow instruments into the uterus.

Curettage (“C”) is the scraping of the walls of the uterus.

The Comstock Law was widely used to prosecute those who distributed information or devices for birth control.  In Anthony Comstock’s viewpoint this was “Filth!”

I would also like to take this time to pass on what an 87 year old retired nurse, and a good family friend, confided in me that before abortions were made legal in the US with the 1973 Supreme Court decision, there was a lot of D&C medical procedures done throughout the 1930’s, 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s which was within her lifetime working in the medical field.

Even I remember well as a young man in the late 1960’s, the American legal system was not hospitable to the idea of birth control.  Thirty states had statutes on the books prohibiting or restricting the sale and advertisement of contraception. These laws stretched back almost a century, reflecting an underlying American belief that contraception was lewd, immoral and promoted promiscuity.  Even in my day we bought our prophylactics from the 70 year old black man who worked as the delivery man for the local pharmacy.  I liken this exchange for sexual protection then much like a drug deal.

Comstock’s Crusade:
Anthony Comstock, a devout Christian, (there’s the warning sign problem) was appalled by what he saw in the city’s streets.  It seemed to him that the town was teeming with prostitutes and pornography.  In the late 1860s, Comstock began supplying the police with information for raids on sex trade merchants and came to prominence with his anti-obscenity crusade.  Also offended by explicit advertisements for birth control devices, he soon identified the contraceptive industry as one of his targets.  Comstock was certain that the availability of contraceptives alone promoted “Lust and Lewdness!”  (Isn’t it odd that today in 2012 we are still hearing these same argumentative statements from the Religious Right?)

Making Birth Control a Federal Crime:
In 1872 Comstock set off for Washington with an anti-obscenity bill, including a ban on contraceptives, that he had drafted himself.  On March 3, 1873, Congress passed the new law, later known as the Comstock Act.  The statute defined contraceptives as obscene and illicit, making it a federal offense to disseminate birth control through the mail or across state lines.

Public Support for Comstock Laws:
This statute was the first of its kind in the Western world, but at the time, the American public did not pay much attention to the new law.  Anthony Comstock was jubilant over his legislative victory.  Soon after the federal law was on the books, twenty-four states enacted their own versions of Comstock laws to restrict the contraceptive trade on a state level.

The Most Restrictive States:
New England residents lived under the most restrictive laws in the country.  In Massachusetts, anyone disseminating contraceptives, or information about contraceptives, faced stiff fines and imprisonment.  But by far the most restrictive state of all was Connecticut, where the act of using birth control was even prohibited by law.  Married couples could be arrested for using birth control in the privacy of their own bedrooms, and subjected to a one year prison sentence.  In actuality, law enforcement agents often looked the other way when it came to anti-birth control laws, but the statutes remained on the books.

Sanger’s Crusade:
These laws remained unchallenged until birth-control advocate, Margaret Sanger, made it her mission to challenge the Comstock Act. The first successful change in the laws came from Sanger’s 1916 arrest for opening the first birth control clinic in America.  (Today the Religious Right just takes to blowing up the clinics and killing the Doctors in the churches they attend on Sunday…. because God told them it was OK?)  The case that grew out of her arrest resulted in the 1918 Crane decision, which allowed women to use birth control for “therapeutic purposes only!”

Changing Laws for Changing Times:
The next amendment of the Comstock Laws came with the 1936 U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision, United States v. One Package.  The decision made it possible for doctors to distribute contraceptives across state lines.  This time Margaret Sanger had been instrumental in maneuvering behind the scenes to bring the matter before the court.  While this decision did not eliminate the problem of the restrictive “Chastity Laws” on the state level, but it was a crucial ruling.  Physicians could now legally mail birth control devices and information throughout the country, paving the way for the legitimization of birth control by the medical industry and the general public.

So in conclusion to this piece I want to point out that the “Restrictive Legislation” of making birth control illegal, not to mention even the information of birth control being passed on, lead to many abortions being performed as medical D&Cs in this time period of the “Do Gooder’s” Comstock Law.

My next posting will be on the ridicules “Knee-Jerk Reactionary Legislation” aspect of the latest Supreme Court Law “Banning of Partial Birth Abortions.”  It does not make late term abortions illegal….just the safest method for the mother when this medical procedure needs to be performed for the woman’s health.  I am sure Anthony Comstock would be proud of this law too.


6 thoughts on “The Comstock Law

  1. Is it just me or does Comstock bear a striking resemblance to Santorum?

    My Roman Catholic Church learning taught us that all birth control was bad because God didn’t give us genitals for fun. Good Catholics were supposed to use rhythm for birth control.

    Q: What do you call people who practice the rhythm method?
    A: Parents

  2. Well Uptheflag,
    You got a laugh out of me with your unique Catholic nomenclature. I never had heard that one before. Between my ex-wife, current wife, daughters, and son-in-law plus his side of the family… I am the only protestant. My son-in-law was even educated at a private Catholic School with Jesuit Priests as instructors.

    Today the Pope’s views on Birth Control does not hold much weight with this group.

    1. UPDATE: Engineer, check the comment section of the recent POST by
      MUDRAKE on his blog site for my comment about the Occupy Wall Street
      Movement as I saw it in NYC over Christmas.

  3. Excellent post, Engineer, as usual.

    (Isn’t it odd that today in 2012 we are still hearing these same argumentative statements from the Religious Right?)

    Not odd, but pathetic. Not a surprise, either because, after all, what does conservative mean if not a return to the past?

    I suspect that most non-fiscal conservatives are essentially cowards- fraidy cats- who cannot face a future that is ‘different’ from the past that they ‘believe’ was so grand. Indeed cowards, too chicken to allow any ‘change’ to happen in their lives because the future is terrifying to them- the unknown!


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