People & Events: Anthony Comstock's "Chastity" Laws
As late as 1960, the American legal system was not hospitable to the idea of birth control. Thirty states had statutes on the books prohibiting or restricting the sale and advertisement of contraception. These laws stretched back almost a century, reflecting an underlying American belief that contraception was lewd, immoral and promoted promiscuity.
The driving force behind the original anti-birth control statutes was a New Yorker named Anthony Comstock. Born in rural Connecticut in 1844, Comstock served in the infantry during the Civil War, then moved to New York City and found work as a salesman. A devout Christian, he was appalled by what he saw in the city's streets. It seemed to him that the town was teeming with prostitutes and pornography. In the late 1860s, Comstock began supplying the police with information for raids on sex trade merchants and came to prominence with his anti-obscenity crusade. Also offended by explicit advertisements for birth control devices, he soon identified the contraceptive industry as one of his targets. Comstock was certain that the availability of contraceptives alone promoted lust and lewdness.
Making Birth Control a Federal Crime
In 1872 Comstock set off for Washington with an anti-obscenity bill, including a ban on contraceptives, that he had drafted himself. On March 3, 1873, Congress passed the new law, later known as the Comstock Act. The statute defined contraceptives as obscene and illicit, making it a federal offense to disseminate birth control through the mail or across state lines.
Public Support for Comstock Laws
This statute was the first of its kind in the Western world, but at the time, the American public did not pay much attention to the new law. Anthony Comstock was jubilant over his legislative victory. Soon after the federal law was on the books, twenty-four states enacted their own versions of Comstock laws to restrict the contraceptive trade on a state level.
The Most Restrictive States
New England residents lived under the most restrictive laws in the country. In Massachusetts, anyone disseminating contraceptives -- or information about contraceptives -- faced stiff fines and imprisonment. But by far the most restrictive state of all was Connecticut, where the act of using birth control was even prohibited by law. Married couples could be arrested for using birth control in the privacy of their own bedrooms, and subjected to a one-year prison sentence. In actuality, law enforcement agents often looked the other way when it came to anti-birth control laws, but the statutes remained on the books.
These laws remained unchallenged until birth-control advocate Margaret Sanger made it her mission to challenge the Comstock Act. The first successful change in the laws came from Sanger's 1916 arrest for opening the first birth control clinic in America. The case that grew out of her arrest resulted in the 1918 Crane decision, which allowed women to use birth control for therapeutic purposes.
Changing Laws for Changing Times
The next amendment of the Comstock Laws came with the 1936 U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision, United States v. One Package. The decision made it possible for doctors to distribute contraceptives across state lines. This time Margaret Sanger had been instrumental in maneuvering behind the scenes to bring the matter before the court. While this decision did not eliminate the problem of the restrictive "chastity laws" on the state level, it was a crucial ruling. Physicians could now legally mail birth control devices and information throughout the country, paving the way for the legitimization of birth control by the medical industry and the general public.
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