When Contraception Was Outlawed!

This week is the 140th anniversary of the passage of the Postal Act of 1873, known today as the Comstock Act.  My friend Scott Dix is writing a book about Anthony Comstock titled, Outlawed! How Anthony Comstock Fought and Won the Purity of a Nation, as part of The Birth Control Movie Project.

When Contraception was Outlawed!

When it comes to the history of birth control in America, very few are aware that contraception was actually illegal in the United States for over 60 years, reaching well into the 20th century (1873-1936), and that there were still some state laws against the prevention of conception on the books as late as 1965.  Many know about Margaret Sanger and the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.  But, they have forgotten where the battle waged in the early 20th century – over the legalization of contraception.  Planned Parenthood, which was founded by Sanger, was originally known as the American Birth Control League.  Birth control was the foundational battleground, not abortion.

Long before the tide turned to erode the prevailing attitude regarding the evils of birth control, largely through Sanger’s efforts, one figure stood out – Anthony Comstock.  In fact, Comstock didn’t just stand out, he stood almost alone.

Comstock had taken note of at least two things which are overlooked today.  First, he saw obscenity,[1] contraception and abortion as linked together, as a sort of continuum.  Since contraception has since been accepted, and thus delinked from obscenity and abortion, the progression has been lost.  Yet, it is easy enough to envision how illicit images and materials foster a desire for extra-marital relationships.[2]   And when that temptation is contemplated in the mind, often that desire turns to action.[3]   Contraceptives are needed to suppress the fruit of those relationships so that they may remain hidden from the public eye.  When contraceptives sometimes fail and pregnancy ensues, the final recourse is abortion; so abortion is also needed.  Obscenity, contraception, and abortion all begin and end with the same attitude, recreation without procreation.  They are parallel roads to the same destination.

Secondly, Comstock warned that if just one of these three were not effectively suppressed, the other two would eventually follow.  And he believed that the “prevention of conception would work the greatest [loss of morals].”[4]   In other words, he strongly felt that contraception was the lynchpin for the other two; it was the key battleground.  It is counter-intuitive, but it was contraception and not obscenity that brought about the attitudinal sea change.  During the 18th century, there was broad cultural agreement on the evils of obscenity and abortion, even contraception.  But, to the public, the most rational case could only be made for contraceptive use within marriage, between husband and wife in a lawful relationship.  The American public would not have favored liberalized obscenity or abortion laws, or even for contraceptive use outside of marriage.  If the concept of limiting family size took hold and those who were married lost their vision of multigenerational family life; if children were no longer considered a blessing but rather a burden, Comstock saw that this would inevitably lead to a breakdown in the values of family, and thus open the door for acceptance of the other two.

Historically, societies had generally always acknowledged that the primary purpose of marriage was to start and raise a new family; thus, it was considered illogical to bring contraceptives into the marital union.  If contraceptives were accepted within marriage, it would only be a matter of time until they would be further accepted where they do make sense (albeit for overtly sinful purposes) – outside of marriage.  Add abortion to that equation, and the result would be an all-out attack on healthy marriages by providing a variety of means to tempt spouses and singles; legalized contraception and abortion allow extra-marital and pre-marital relations to have a much higher chance of going undetected.  The drop in risk would by definition lead to a corresponding rise in behaviors destructive to family.

How did Comstock arrive at this conclusion?  Well, he had learned from practical experience that the dealers in obscene books and prints were almost always selling contraceptives and abortifacients.  So, when Comstock connected abortion and contraception together for the immorality that they were and for the common danger they posed to women’s health, he had the broad backing of both society at large and the medical authorities of his day.  He saw that the availability of contraceptives actually encouraged immoral behavior. Modern studies certainly support this despite reports that contraception reduces abortion statistics.  Promoting or subsidizing contraceptives will result in increased use, which means increased failure rates and more abortion.

This is how it worked out in the United States.  Once contraceptives were legalized and let to simmer for a few generations, the melting pot of American culture literally boiled over.  Legalization actually came out of a court decision in 1936[5]  not out of any popular cry from the public at large, although it’s fair to say that there was growing support for the idea led by a few radicals.  Throughout the Second Industrial Revolution of the late 19th and early 20th centuries the availability of large factory jobs took masses of people from the rural countryside into the inner city; immigration also rose dramatically in this timeframe.  Fathers, and for the first time mothers as well, worked in local manufacturing plants and offices.  In the growing number of two working-parent households with limited space and high rent, attitudes towards children rapidly changed.  The original desire was not to encourage promiscuity or undermine the family.  It was pure pragmatism.  Yet, it did not matter the reason for limiting family size, the end result was just the same.  Priorities were altered and families were weakened and contraceptive use spread each year.  Just over seventy years later, American men and women are getting married at later ages than ever and birth rates are the lowest on record.  Cohabitation, divorce and single parent households are at all-time highs.  And now, the very definition of marriage[6]  is being questioned and repudiated by several states with no end in sight.

So, Anthony Comstock was exactly right.  And it all started with the cultural acceptance of contraception within marriage.

And so it was that the 1873 Postal Act wrote into U.S. law for the first time prohibitions against all three – obscenity, contraception, and abortion.

Be it enacted … That whoever… shall sell, or lend, or give away, or in any manner exhibit, or shall offer to sell, or to lend, or to give away, or in any manner to exhibit, or shall otherwise publish or, offer to publish in any manner, or shall have in his possession, for any such purpose or purposes, any obscene book, pamphlet, paper, writing, advertisement, circular, print, picture, drawing or other representation, figure, or image on or of paper or other material, or any cast, instrument, or other article of an immoral nature, or any drug or medicine, or any article whatever, for the prevention of conception, or for causing unlawful abortion, or shall advertise the same for sale, or shall write or print, or cause to be written or printed, any card, circular, book, pamphlet, advertisement, or notice of any kind, stating when, where, how, or of whom, or by what means, any of the articles in this section hereinbefore mentioned, can be purchased or obtained, or shall manufacture, draw, or print, or in any wise make any of such articles, shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, and, on conviction thereof … he shall be imprisoned at hard labor in the penitentiary for not less than six months nor more than five years for each offense, or fined not less than one hundred dollars nor more than two thousand dollars, with costs of court.[7]

This Act codified into law the prevailing national opinion and the historic Biblical view that the prevention of conception was against nature and the family, the basic building block of a strong society.

Who was Anthony Comstock?  Born in 1844, he lived during a time of dramatic change in American history from the onset of the Civil War and through the Reconstruction era amid the Second Industrial Revolution.  As cities grew larger than ever during this period, they became caldrons of vice, where illicit activities flourished in new ways and with the support of new technologies.  Metropolitan anonymity provided a burgeoning consumer base.

Comstock ascertained the impact of all this and he personally entered the fight.  Beginning in earnest at age 28, he learned where particular materials were sold and took it upon himself to make citizen’s arrests.  It was not long before his actions were made known to the public and he was being ridiculed in a New York newspaper.  Comstock was able to use this notoriety to his advantage and immediately turned in seven more arrests on a single day in an infamous area of Lower Manhattan![8]   Less than one year later before his 29th birthday, he was in Washington, DC meeting with congressmen and drafting the Postal Act of 1873, which is now known by his name.  The Comstock Act passed in dramatic fashion during the final hours of the 42nd Congress and Comstock himself was shortly thereafter surprised with an appointment to be its chief enforcer with the newly created office of U.S. Post Office Special Agent.  Thus, young Anthony embarked on the life work in which he would serve for the next 42 years until his death.

In less than a year this man had emerged from obscurity to write a U.S. law and be appointed to public office!  How was this possible?  It is the story of a man who almost single-handedly fought the battle for national purity and won.

Comstock’s legacy is far-reaching.  The contraceptive aspect of the Comstock Act stood for 63 years; the abortion component stood for exactly 100 years.  It is a wonder that this heroic story is forgotten today among Christians, even those who are ardently pro-life.  Comstock himself risked his life, his reputation, his future – his all.  His goal was mainly to protect the populace, and in particular the young, from the evils of the day.  The statutes and their methods of enforcement were tested before the Supreme Court, and were upheld.  And when Comstock died, all of these laws were still firmly in place.

Anthony Comstock was a man of high integrity and uniquely equipped to carry out what he believed were his God-ordained duties.  Men carefully watched his every step, looking for ways to attack his character and damage his reputation to put an end to his work, to no avail.  He turned away immediately when he was offered enormous “name your own price” bribes.  He withstood continual ridicule, being a regular topic of the era’s literary cartoons.  He risked his life, often being in personal danger.  And Comstock was prophetic in his ability to see contraception as the link between obscenity and abortion, and what would happen if it was accepted in society.

In all of these things, Anthony Comstock put his trust in the Lord.  He was keenly aware that he could do nothing apart from God.  I encourage all believers to seek the Lord’s will and work within our various jurisdictions.  Our endeavors may not have national impact as those of Comstock.  But, within our own spheres – family, church, and community – we might personally get involved in the battle to protect purity and champion the blessing of larger, stronger families as the bedrock of a healthy church and society.  We can lead by example.  Let us pray for a national return to the “Comstock era,” a time ushered in by one man who fought and won an impossible fight; and the whole nation followed.   Be thankful to the Lord for this heritage and be inspired by this man.  And may we always remember what one man can accomplish, with the help of God.


[1] Today the term pornography is en vogue.  Personally, I prefer the term obscenity, as it is more general and covers a broader range of behaviors, language, and images.

[2] “27 ¶ Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: 28 But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.” (Mt 5:27-28 AV)

[3] “14 But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed. 15 Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death.” (Jas 1:14-15 AV)

[4]  Quoted from Harper’s Weekly interview on May 22, 1915.

[5]  United States v. One Package of Japanese Pessaries, 1936.

[6]  Ultimately, this has led to a complete redefinition of marriage; the legalization of – contraception within marriage (1965); pornography (1969); contraception, and thus fornication, for the unmarried (1972); abortion (1973); abortion for minors without parental or spousal consent (1976); contraception, and thus fornication, for minors (1977), sodomy (1998, 2003); same sex marriage for several states (2008-); and even the national contraceptive mandate (2012) which is forcing healthcare providers to provide contraception at no cost.

[7]  Excerpt from the Postal Act of 1873.

[8]  See chapter “First Glimpses of the Life Work” for the full story.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,