Comstock Law of 1873

AuthorJeffrey Lehman, Shirelle Phelps

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The Comstock Law of 1873 was a federal law that made it a crime to sell or distribute materials that could be used for contraception or

ABORTION, to send such materials or information about such materials through the federal mail system, or to import such materials from abroad. It was motivated by growing societal concerns over OBSCENITY, abortion, pre-marital and extra-marital sex, the institution of marriage,

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the changing role of women in society, and increased procreation by the lower classes. Following the bloodbath of the Civil War and the emancipation of the slaves, many Americans sought a return to simpler times, while other Americans yearned for a nationwide spiritual and moral revival.

But the United States was undergoing rapid change during this period. The industrial revolution was making a large number of jobs available to members of both sexes, and women were taking advantage of this opportunity by entering the workforce in unprecedented numbers. The United States was also experiencing a significant wave of immigration. Some Americans complained that the new immigrants were tainting the moral fabric of the United States with their radical political beliefs and their permissive attitudes about sex. Members of the so-called upper classes grew worried that members of the lower classes were procreating at a faster rate, in part because better educated, more affluent women were postponing their childbearing years to lead lives of their own choosing, free from the dictates or needs of their fathers, husbands, or children.

The AMERICAN MEDICAL ASSOCIATION (AMA) voiced concern about abortion, not only because of the danger to women, but also because of the possibility of a woman overlooking the duties imposed on her by the marriage contract. The Catholic Church condemned abortion and BIRTH CONTROL as twin evils. States began enacting laws that made it more difficult to DIVORCE and gave single people greater incentive to marry.

In the middle of such local reform efforts in New York City was twenty-nine-year-old Anthony Comstock, head of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice (NYSSV). Established in 1872, the NYSSV was financed by some of the wealthiest and most influential New York philanthropists. Comstock used their money to lobby the New York State Legislature for laws criminalizing pre-marital sex and ADULTERY, among other moral vices. He also used their money to lobby Congress for...

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