Comstock Laws

August 11, 2011

In 1873, the U.S. Congress passed what became known as the “Comstock” laws. The act made it illegal to import, mail, or transport in interstate commerce obscene materials, including contraceptive devices and information on birth control. The act was named after Anthony Comstock, a Union Army veteran of the American Civil War. He also assisted in forming the New York Society for Suppression of Vice, of which he was also named the secretary. That organization mounted a campaign to regulate morality, resulting in the Comstock Laws. The Comstock Law was quickly adopted by many states in the sexually repressive environment of the 1800s. After the passage of the so-called Comstock Laws, Anthony Comstock became an inspector for the U.S. Postal Service and brought about over 2,000 convictions under this law. His writings include Frauds Exposed (1880) and Traps for the Young (1883).

In 1916, Margaret Sanger opened the first birth control clinic to be operated in the United States. Sanger opened her clinic in Brooklyn, New York, with the intention of testing the constitutionality of New York’s version of the Comstock Law. Under the New York version of the law, a physician could prescribe contraceptives to prevent or cure a disease. Sanger and her staff were arrested and Sanger served a 30-day sentence at a women’s prison. When Sanger’s case came before the U.S. Supreme Court, the Court held that under the statute, the phrase “prevent or cure a disease” should be read broadly enough to include pregnancy. This meant that the New York Comstock Law was overturned.

Largely due to Sanger’s efforts, a bill was introduced in 1923 to remove birth control from the Comstock Law. This bill failed. A “doctor’s only” bill introduced in 1930 which would have permitted the distribution of contraceptives through doctors also failed. The bills were strongly opposed by the Catholic Church, whose official stance was against birth control.

While the Comstock Law has been trimmed extensively, a version is still valid law. Title 18 U.S.C. Sec. 1462(c) still makes the importation or transportation of obscene material by way of “express company or other common carrier or interactive computer service” illegal.

SEE ALSO: Birth control; Sanger, Margaret

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