The Comstock Act Originated with Disregard for Women’s Lives. It Still Does Today

Disregard for Women’s Lives Explains the Comstock Act’s Origins. It Also Explains Its Revival Today

Activists who seek to revive this antiquated law share with Anthony Comstock, the Comstock Act’s namesake and progenitor, a similar view of women as subordinate to the decisions of men and God

Black and white portrait photograph of Anthony Comstock circa 1900

Anthony Comstock (1844-1915).

DB Historical 3/Alamy Stock Photo

The saga of Anthony Comstock and the Comstock Act mostly lingered as a dusty historical tale until March 26, 2024. On that day, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments from attorneys representing a small group of anti-abortion physicians who sought to restrict access to mifepristone, a safe and effective abortion drug approved by the FDA in 2000.

In a shocking turn during oral arguments, the high court’s two most conservative justices, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, repeatedly raised the possibility that mifepristone’s distribution might be banned under the 1873 Comstock Act. This relic amendment to the U.S. postal code, officially titled “the Act for the Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of, Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use,” should stay a dead letter. Given its sectarian and sexist origins—and tragic effects—the Supreme Court should reject any enthusiasm for a long-reviled vice crusader’s law. As soon as possible, it should also be repealed by Congress.

To understand the Comstock Act, we must comprehend the origins of Anthony Comstock’s merciless conceptions of God, humanity, sexuality, reproduction and law. Comstock, a postal inspector and anti-vice activist, believed that God punished Eve for her weakness in plucking fruit from the Tree of Knowledge by making her endure the pain of childbirth, as told in Genesis 3:16: “Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children.” Comstock understood women’s pain and even death in childbirth as God’s eternal retribution for their original sin. Acting as a self-declared “soldier of Christ” throughout his life and career, Comstock showed no mercy towards women he considered fallen.

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In 1872, for example, Comstock led policemen to a warehouse in New Jersey, where they interrupted an abortion performed by a “Dr.” George Selden. The patient, Barbara Voss, was a 17-year-old girl who had been impregnated by her employer Thomas Savage, a married man nearly 30 years older who had brought her there for the procedure. Although Comstock recorded in his arrest blotter that the young lady was “very sick,” he sought no medical care and instead brought her to a house of detention. He took the time to write, with fury, that the two arrested men had their cases “fixed” in the district attorney’s office and went free. Of Voss’s fate, he wrote nothing. The possibility of saving Voss’s life, in Comstock’s worldview, meant disrespecting God’s sole authority to punish sin, and determine who lived and died.

As a solo vigilante, Comstock might never have attained national significance. His rise to power was enabled by wealthy, politically powerful and like-minded evangelical board members of the Young Men’s Christian Association in New York City. With their support, Comstock traveled to Washington, D.C. in 1872 and led the charge for passage of the Comstock Act the following year. The YMCA board backed the incorporation of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, Comstock’s vehicle for promoting the legislation.

The bill focused on the U.S. Post Office Department because of jurisdictional limitations on Congress’s ability to regulate criminal activity. More practically, the U.S. mails were the chief conduit for “immoral” materials flowing from New York to the rest of the nation. Birth control and abortifacients allowed sinners to avoid sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies—the righteous punishment inflicted by God—and mail crimes were easily prosecuted. With the power to decide what was immoral, Comstock and his backers also targeted medical treatises that described reproductive anatomy, “free love” literature that asserted equality of the sexes, and atheist and agnostic literature, which Comstock deemed blasphemous.

For its supporters, the overtly sectarian bias evident in the language and enforcement of the Comstock Act in its heyday was, and still is, a feature and not a bug. The bill was drafted with the help of Supreme Court Justice William Strong. In the same years Strong served on the Court, he also served as president of the National Reform Association. This organization survives today, still promoting the same full-throated Christian nationalist goal Strong articulated in the 19th century—to insert language in the preamble of the U. S. Constitution that recognizes “Jesus Christ as King and Supreme Governor of the United States.”

For decades, these figures have been little more than footnotes in history books. In retrospect, passing the Comstock Act was the easy part. Despite the best efforts of Christian crusaders, Americans increasingly embraced progressive sexual culture and family planning materials. The Supreme Court’s rulings in 1965’s Griswold v. Connecticut and 1973’s Roe v. Wade alongside many subsequent decisions rendered the Comstock Act an historical footnote.

That changed, of course, in 2022, when the Court overturned Roe in the Dobb’s v. Jackson Women’s Health decision, which opened the floodgates for legislators to attempt once again to relegate women to their status in Genesis: “helpmeets” of dispensable health and well-being.

Today, women suffer once again under laws promoted by Christian nationalists who hold that women are subordinate to the will of men and God. Within a year of the Dobbs decision, researchers documented dozens of health complication cases caused by new state anti-abortion statutes. In Texas, women sued the state, detailing shocking mistreatment that forced them to endure life-threatening bleeding and infections, and to risk their future fertility, when they were denied abortion care.

Once again, Anthony Comstock’s vision of a U.S. under the dominion of government agents who swear their allegiance to Christ, imperils women’s lives. Today, however, women have an essential tool to fight back that they did not have in Comstock’s era: the right to vote, including as Justices on the Supreme Court. Women, and all those who respect them, must exercise that right.

This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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