Comstock Law

Morality crusader Anthony Comstock (1844 —1915) served as secretary of the YMCA Committee for the Suppression of Vice He founded his organization, the Society for the Suppression of Vice in 1872. Anthony Comstock lobbied Congress to enact the ‘ Act for the Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of, Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use’ better known as the Comstock Law. The Comstock federal statutes outlawed the transportation of obscene matter by mail. President Grant signed the Comstock Law on March 3, 1873.

Other laws followed which expanded the scope of the Comstock Law. Those laws combined to make it illegal to manufacture, advertise, or mail obscene publications, contraceptives, and other abortion-related services. Following the enactment of those laws, Grant’s Postmaster General appointed Comstock himself as a special agent in charge of enforcing anti-obscenity acts.

One hundred years later the 1973 Supreme Court decision in the abortion case of Roe vs Wade caused the Comstock Law to be un-enforcable. The 2022 Supreme Court ruling in Dobbs v Jackson overturned Roe v Wade may have made the inactive Comstock Law enforceable again. The Court will rule on the Constitutionality of the Food and Drug Administration’s ruling allowing the use of mifepristone, an abortion-inducing substance that may also be used for miscarriages.

The suit was brought by anti-abortion doctors represented by the Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine. The Biden administration’s Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar has argued that those in opposition to the Food and Drug Administration decision do not have standing to challenge the ruling. Further, if the FDA ruling was found unconstitutional, the decision would cause grave harm to women and politicize the FDA.

Justice Alito questioned whether the long-dormant Comstock Law was now relevant again. Solicitor General Prelogar argued that enforcing Comstock is not the responsibility of the FDA. The Court may dismiss the Alliance’s lawsuit for lack of standing, but a future presidential administration might push to enforce Comstock. Justice Alito, for one, seems open to the possibility.


Thanks and a tip of the hat to Danny Hammontree on Flickr for the image.

Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Recently Popular

To Top