“Our youth are in danger.”

So read the urgent warning written by anti-vice activist Anthony Comstock in his 1883 book, Traps for the Young.

He cautioned, “Mentally and morally, they are cursed by a literature that is a disgrace to the 19th century. The spirit of evil environs them.”

Anthony Comstock
Anthony Comstock in 1913 or earlier Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Each section of the text examined a new category of vice that could ensnare an unsuspecting child in evil’s clutches. Chapter titles included “Free-Love Traps,” “Artistic and Classical Traps,” “Gambling Traps” and “Advertisement Traps.”

In chapter eight, “Death-Traps by Mail,” Comstock wrote of evil that is “thrust upon the youth in secret” via the postal service. Through the mail, he added, “the most infamous scoundrel may send the vilest matter to the purest boy or girl. And this is being done systematically.”

While Traps for the Young is little known today, the book is steeped in the same fears that cemented Comstock’s more lasting legacy ten years prior: In 1873, he successfully lobbied for the so-called Comstock Act, which criminalized sending “obscene, lewd or lascivious” materials through the mail.

The law didn’t explicitly define “obscenity.” But violating the measure could be punished with jail time, hard labor and fines up to $2,000. The ban covered pornographic materials, in addition to anything related to “the prevention of conception or procuring of abortion.”

By the mid-20th century, the legislation was mostly meaningless, as various court rulings had stripped it of its power. But since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last June, the relevance of the Comstock Act 150 years after its passage has become an open question. As the New York Times reported in May, “Comstock is back, once more being wielded as a weapon by social conservatives. Their arguments use the language of the act to target the mailing of abortion pills, and they are pushing judges and the Biden administration to reopen seemingly long-settled questions.”

Who was Anthony Comstock?

Born in 1844, Comstock grew up in a large family in New Canaan, Connecticut. His father, Thomas Anthony Comstock, was a successful farmer who spent most of his time working, leaving his wife, Polly Ann Lockwood, to tend to the children. A deeply religious woman, she read to her children from the Bible and taught them to value purity. Historians later suggested that Comstock was drawn to stories like the tale of Adam and Eve, which praises the virtues of resisting temptation while warning of the dangers of succumbing to it.

When Comstock was 10, his mother died. The reverend of the family’s church died around the same time. The boy was deeply affected by these losses, which strengthened his drive to carry on the ideals they lived by. As he grew older, he wrote in his diaries about his struggle to control his own sexual appetites—a struggle that “filled him with guilt and may have had much to do with his eventual calling as an anti-pornography crusader,” as Literary Hub puts it.

In 1863, at the height of the Civil War, Comstock joined the Union Army. He was shocked by the vices he observed in his fellow soldiers. When the men received a ration of whiskey, Comstock refused to drink the spirit. Rather than surrendering his ration, he poured it out on the ground in front of the other men.

After the war, Comstock settled in New York City, finding work at a dry goods store—as well as new opportunities to rein in the vices of his colleagues. After he learned about a fellow employee who had purchased erotic literature, Comstock located the bookstore in question and turned the seller in to the police.

Comstock had found his calling. He joined forces with the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), which held similar views on obscenity. Backed by a like-minded community, he began efforts to forcibly suppress vice in earnest. He started small, working with police to identify sellers of illicit items.

He did not, however, destroy these materials.

New York Society for the Suppression of Vice seal
The seal of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Comstock called his collection of pornographic images, pulp novels and other items his “Chamber of Horrors.” In 1873, he hauled the trove to Washington, D.C., where the YMCA had sent him to push for federal anti-obscenity legislation. Warning legislators of the threat posed by the forces of moral bankruptcy, he brandished the artifacts from his collection as visual aids. In Congress, he found a receptive audience. As he wrote in his diary, “All were very much excited and declared themselves ready to give me any law I might ask for, if only it was within the bounds of the Constitution.”

Within weeks, Congress approved what’s now known as the Comstock Act, which was signed by President Ulysses S. Grant on March 3, 1873. Lawmakers were so taken with Comstock that they went even further, appointing him as a special agent of the United States Post Office Department, an unpaid role that gave him the power to enforce his new anti-obscenity law.

Comstock “was given that title so that he could have the power to inspect the mail, and over time, it was expanded to be able to come into people's houses and seize items,” Amy Sohn, author of a book about Comstock, told NPR in 2021. “It was a very broad, broad definition of what someone affiliated with the Post Office could do with regards to individual civil liberties.”

Around the same time, the YMCA formed the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, which New York State endowed with similar enforcement powers. Comstock also served as the society’s secretary.

Using his newfound postal powers, Comstock made more than 50 arrests in the year following the law’s implementation. He continued to work in his Post Office role for the next four decades, retiring a few months before his death in 1915. Toward the end of his life, he bragged that he had confiscated 150 tons of books, made 4,000 arrests and pushed 15 people to die by suicide.

What did the Comstock Act do?

Comstock’s influence extended far beyond the 1873 law. In the years following the Comstock Act’s passage, state lawmakers greenlit a series of related restrictions now known collectively as the Comstock laws. The scope of these measures was staggering.

“The early Comstock Act enforcement is extraordinarily broad, and gets broader and broader,” Mary Ziegler, a legal scholar at the University of California, Davis, tells the New York Times. She adds that targeted acts could include “writing a letter to somebody asking them for a date if they weren’t married.”

In 1905, Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw popularized the term “Comstockery,” which referred to the strict censorship of materials considered obscene. “Comstockery is the world’s standing joke at the expense of the United States,” wrote Shaw in the Times in 1905. “Europe likes to hear of such things. It confirms the deep-seated conviction of the Old World that America is a provincial place, a second-rate country-town civilization after all.”

The bans’ most obvious targets were erotic images and texts. But they also covered subjects that could only be considered obscene under loose definitions of the word, such as sex education texts that went to pains to circumvent the laws. In 1915, reproductive rights activist Mary Ware Dennett distributed a popular sex education booklet that omitted information about birth control. She wrote, “At present, unfortunately, it is against the law to give people information as to how to manage their sex relations so that no baby will be created.” But the book was still deemed obscene, and Dennett was charged with violating the Comstock Act. (Her conviction was later overturned in a landmark free speech case.)

Alexandre Cabanel, The Birth of Venus​​​​​​​, 1863
Alexandre Cabanel, The Birth of Venus, 1863 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The Comstock laws applied to works of art and literature, too. In 1883, Comstock targeted an art gallery that sold reproductions of famous nude artworks, such as Alexandre Cabanel’s The Birth of Venus. A court ruled against the gallery owner and seized the paintings.

Similar censorship cases continued for decades. In 1920, two women published a particularly lewd chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses in their literary journal. They were found guilty of distributing obscene materials through the mail and forced to shut down the publication. For the following decade, Americans interested in reading Ulysses—now commonly counted among the greatest novels of all time—could only do so by finding copies smuggled in from Paris.

How did the Comstock Act apply to abortion and contraception?

Under the Comstock Act, materials related to contraception or abortion were also considered obscene. As states passed additional legislation, the scope of such bans varied across the country. In Connecticut, the state with the strongest prohibitions, lawmakers banned the use of birth control outright. While the strictest bans weren’t always enforced, even married couples using birth control could technically be given prison time.

In 1914, Margaret Sanger, an activist who would go on to found Planned Parenthood, started the Woman Rebel, a newsletter that provided information on birth control. Because she intended to send her materials through the mail, she was indicted for violating the Comstock Act and had to flee the country.

Birth control clinic
Women outside an early birth control clinic in Brooklyn, New York, in 1916 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

“When the Constitution of the United States authorized Congress to establish post offices and post roads, it was not intended that the authority should go beyond this,” Sanger later wrote. “The post office was, primarily, a mechanical institution, not an ethical one, whose business was efficiency, not religion or morality.”

Sanger’s husband, William Sanger, stayed behind, and in 1915, he was arrested for selling a copy of “Family Limitations,” an informational pamphlet about contraception written by his wife. Comstock testified against William during the ensuing trial. William was sentenced to 30 days in prison. Comstock, perhaps believing his legacy was secure, died 11 days after William’s sentencing.

By the time of the moral crusader’s death, public opinion was changing. The charges against Margaret Sanger were dropped a few months later. For the rest of the 20th century, the Comstock laws’ power slowly declined. Some were struck down by court cases, including Roe v. Wade; others remained on the books but were no longer enforced. Eventually, even those that survived came to be viewed as little more than relics from the moral panics of the past.

Margaret Sanger on trial
Margaret Sanger (left) on trial for sending the Woman Rebel through the mail Bettmann via Getty Images

Why do the Comstock laws matter today?

This year marked the Comstock Act’s 150th anniversary. Now, following the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down Roe v. Wade last year, the act is making headlines once again. Anti-abortion activists are citing it as they seek to criminalize the act of sending abortion pills through the mail.

Late last year, a Christian legal group called the Alliance Defending Freedom filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In the lawsuit, the group challenged the FDA’s approval of an abortion pill called mifepristone. Originally approved in 2000, the drug ends early pregnancies by blocking the supply of certain hormones.

In April, Matthew Kacsmaryk, a Donald Trump-appointed federal judge in Texas, sided with the plaintiffs. In his ruling, which suspended the FDA’s approval of the drug, he cited the Comstock Act. His opinion, as Vox puts it, “partially rests on the proposition that, now that Roe has been overruled, the Comstock Act’s ban on mailing abortion medications has roared back into full effect.”

From there, the case went to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans, which reversed the suspension of the FDA’s approval. At the same time, however, it tightened the window in which mifepristone can be used from ten weeks of pregnancy to seven weeks. Crucially, it also barred delivery of the drug by mail.

Mifepristone pills
The present-day legal battles center around the drug mifepristone. Erin Hooley / Chicago Tribune / Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Soon after, the Supreme Court temporarily blocked the new restrictions, restoring access to the drug as the case winds through the courts; a separate federal judge has now ordered the FDA to keep the drug accessible in certain states. Legal experts speculate that the matter will eventually end up at the Supreme Court, which could issue a more definitive ruling.

Depending on how the legal battle proceeds, the Comstock Act could end up having widespread consequences for those trying to access mifepristone—a group that includes patients having miscarriages. The drug is sometimes prescribed to increase the likelihood that these patients won’t need to undergo a more invasive procedure.

If the law is interpreted broadly enough, the resulting restrictions could go far beyond matters of the U.S. mail. And, as legal scholars Sonia Suter and Naomi Cahn write for the Conversation, such an interpretation could also extend past mifepristone.

The pair argues, “While abortion remains legal in certain states, we believe it’s possible that a court could interpret the Comstock Act to prevent the distribution of any tool used for an abortion, anywhere in the U.S.”

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