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     By Elisha Brown

Students, from left, Anna Seamen, Audrey Keeley, Lindsey Williams and Jadyn Lewis lead a rally for reproductive rights in at the Colorado Capitol in Denver, March 4, 2023. (Kevin Mohatt for Colorado Newsline)

Students, from left, Anna Seamen, Audrey Keeley, Lindsey Williams and Jadyn Lewis lead a rally for reproductive rights in at the Colorado Capitol in Denver, March 4, 2023. 
(Kevin Mohatt for Colorado Newsline)

The growing income inequality in the United States has led economists and historians to compare the current era to the Gilded Age. But the cultural climate of the late 1800s, led by moral purist Anthony Comstock – born on this day 179 years ago – also parallels the movements to restrict reproductive rights today. In fact, an 1873 anti-obscenity law that bears Comstock’s name is cited in the major abortion-pill lawsuit as a reason to undo medication abortion access. 

The counsel for the plaintiffs in Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine v. U.S. Food and Drug Administration lean on the Comstock Act (18 U.S.C. § 1461 and 18 U.S.C. § 1462) in their legal argument, asking the court to interpret that the 150-year-old law makes it illegal to send abortion pills through the mail, according to the complaint. (In December, the U.S. Department of Justice said the current version of the Act does not stop the Postal Service from mailing abortion pills throughout the country.)

Comstock, a Connecticut native, was affiliated with Congregationalists, a devout sect of Christianity descended from the Puritans, according to Amy Werbel, a cultural historian and professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology who wrote the 2018 book Lust on Trial: Censorship and the Rise of American Obscenity in the Age of Anthony Comstock. 

“They were true believers in the sense that if one wasn't saved properly as they thought, they would burn in hell. And I think that's really important to understand – that the root of all of these laws is even Christianity, the desire to save the souls of Americans through the lens of their own religious framework. And that also then will be motivated by this idea of Christian nationalism,” Werbel told States Newsroom.

Anthony Comstock (Ilbusca/Getty Images)

Anthony Comstock 
(Ilbusca/Getty Images)

Comstock spent his life spreading his view of moral superiority. The fundamentalist’s advocacy led Congress to pass bills that banned the mailing of “every obscene, lewd, lascivious, indecent, filthy or vile article, matter, thing, device, or substance,” according to the language of one statute, or any abortifacients and contraceptives. President Ulysses S. Grant signed the act into law in March 1873; any first-time violators faced up to five years in prison. The federal government soon hired Comstock to serve as a Post Office special agent.   

“After 1873, Comstock goes all over the country,” Werbel said. “He goes to state capitals. He's always bringing suitcases of contraceptives, abortifacients, sex toys, pornographic photographs. And [he] spread them out for people to look at, then they pass the legislation, express their horror.” 

The moral purity laws named after Comstock were weakened in the 20th century due to pivotal U.S. Supreme Court rulings, including 1965’s Griswold v. Connecticut, which legalized the right for couples to use contraceptives. But a version of the law is still on the books and being picked up by conservatives to push abortion restrictions. 

“All of these things go together,” Werbel said. “The suppression of teaching about LGBTQ history, the suppression of access to abortifacients. All of these things go to this belief that is also woven into this particular Christian evangelical idea: God creates Adam, woman is born from man, and I’m just going flat out say it –  a white man has dominion over all else in the world, including women.”

THE BEAT States Newsroom coverage

Anti-abortion bills falter in Georgia

Monday marked Crossover Day, the deadline for bills to move from one chamber to the next, in Georgia. Some of the bills that appear unlikely to gain steam this session include anti-abortion restrictions, Georgia Recorder reported. The state already has a six-week abortion ban, but abortion advocates have pressured Republican lawmakers to extend personhood to the point of fertilization. Reproductive rights proposals backed by Georgia Democrats have not received hearings, either. Expect a court hearing related to Georgia’s abortion law later this month, according to our colleagues at the Recorder.


Advocates rally at Kansas statehouse as Republicans push restrictions

A group led by Planned Parenthood Great Plains Votes, Trust Women and the American Civil Liberties Union gathered in Topeka on Monday to protest both anti-abortion and anti-transgender bills, Kansas Reflector reported. Despite Kansas voters’ rejection of an anti-abortion proposed constitutional amendment in August, Republican lawmakers continue to push bills that would divert funds from low-income families to state-sponsored anti-abortion programs, make physicians prescribe mifepristone in-person, and allow Kansans to sue people who get abortions or anyone who helps them. The price of reporting abortion seekers: a $10,000 paycheck for the plaintiff if the latter bill becomes law.


For Denver teens, weekend at the Colorado Capitol

Denver high school students marched in support of reproductive rights at the statehouse Saturday, according to Colorado Newsline. “The truth is that standing in front of huge systemic issues is terrifying. It seems hopeless. I mean, what can a 5-4 — 5-4 and a half if we’re pushing it — 17-year-old biracial female girl do in the face of huge systemic issues that might have even the slightest impact?” Sarita Patel said. “I don’t know. But I’m done waiting. I’m done waiting for these decisions to be made for me, about me right now.” Colorado Democrats plan to introduce a reproductive rights package of bills to expand health care in the state, where abortion is broadly legal.


THE PULSE Reproductive rights news across the country

  • Rep. Jason Crow, a Colorado Democrat, praised the Defense Department’s updated reproductive health care policies after he introduced a bill with similar proposals that failed last year. (Colorado Newsline.) 
  • The Ohio Attorney General issued a statement suggesting he disagrees with the abortion rights amendment proposal moving forward in the state. (Ohio Capital Journal.) 

  • Utah’s governor is expected to sign a bill banning abortion clinics. (USA Today.) 

  • A group of national reproductive rights organizations launched a legal advocacy network. (Prism.) 

  • ICYMI: Top tech companies have given abortion-related data to prosecutors. (Insider.) 


STATE BY STATE Abortion access in the U.S.


Track state-level developments on reproductive rights anytime at News From The States. Send tips and thoughts to ebrown@statesnewsroom.com, and follow her on Twitter @elishacbrown.

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