Resource

Comstock Act

The text of a law that restricted women’s reproductive rights.

Document Text

An Act for the Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of, obscene Literature and Articles of immoral Use.
That no obscene, lewd, or lascivious book, pamphlet, picture, paper, print, or other publication of an indecent character, or any article or thing designed or intended for the prevention of conception or procuring of abortion, nor any article or thing intended or adapted for any indecent or immoral use or nature, nor any written or printed card, circular, book, pamphlet, advertisement or notice of any kind giving information, directly or indirectly, where, or how, or of whom, or by what means either of the things before mentioned may be obtained or made, nor any letter upon the envelope of which, or postal-card upon which indecent or scurrilous epithets may be written or printed, shall be carried in the mail, and any person who shall knowingly deposit, or cause to be deposited, for mailing or delivery, any of the hereinbefore-mentioned articles or things, or any notice, or paper containing any advertisement relating to the aforesaid articles or things, and any person who, in pursuance of any plan or scheme for disposing of any of the hereinbefore-mentioned articles or things, shall take, or cause to be taken, from the mail any such letter or package, shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, and, on conviction thereof, shall, for every offense, be fined not less than one hundred dollars nor more than five thousand dollars, or imprisoned at hard labor not less than one year nor more than ten years, or both, in the discretion of the judge.

“An Act for the Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of, obscene Literature and Articles of immoral Use,” March 3, 1873, A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875. Library of Congress.

Print Text

Background

An increase in the production of erotic materials, such as pamphlets and books, led to a moral panic in the 1870s. Anthony Comstock was the leader of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, an organization that policed the morals of the public. He convinced Congress to adopt a law that banned the spread of obscene materials in 1873. This became known as the Comstock Act. However, the law did not clearly define what is meant by “obscene materials.” The very broad description included pornographic materials as well as information about preventing pregnancy with contraception.

About the Resources

The distribution of information about birth control and abortion was banned under the Comstock Act. Supporters of the law argued that access to information and tools connected to birth control encouraged young people to have sex before marriage and condoned extramarital sex. Those who opposed the law argued that people were still having sex despite societal expectations and that restricting access to birth control was damaging to women. The law prevented women from learning about their health and options for preventing unwanted pregnancies. 

Doctors and social reformers who provided women with information about pregnancy and contraception were arrested. They faced $1,000 to $5,000 fines and could be sent to prison for up to 10 years.

Vocabulary

  • discretion: The freedom to decide what should be done in a situation.
  • epithets: Words or phrases that describe a characteristic of a person or thing.
  • erotic: Involving sexual feelings or desire.
  • lascivious: Lustful.
  • lewd: Crude or offensive.
  • obscene: Offensive or immoral.
  • procuring: Obtaining.
  • scheme: A plot or conspiracy.
  • scurrilous: Making or spreading claims that are damaging to someone’s reputation.

Discussion Questions

  • How does the Comstock Act affect women?
  • What were the goals of the Comstock Act? What does the act reveal about views on morality at the time?
  • What kind of women may have been particularly affected by the Comstock Act? How might women have been able to access contraception information anyway?
Print Section

Suggested Activities

  • Pair this resource with the life story of Victoria Woodhull, who was arrested for violating the Comstock Act.
  • Explore discussions around women and morality during this time period by combining this resource with the temperance movement and the Page Act
  • Consider how reproductive rights activists ignored the Comstock Act by providing contraception information. Why did the activists provide this information to women? What consequences did they face?

Themes

AMERICAN CULTURE; POWER AND POLITICS

Source Notes
Print Section
Print Entire Page