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Comstock Law

What Happened Next . . .

The Comstock Law was widely used to prosecute people distributing birth control information and devices. In 1878 a movement was attempted to repeal the Comstock Law but met with only limited success. The Comstock Law remained largely intact. Anthony Comstock was credited for destroying some 160 tons of literature and photographs he considered obscene.

The most famous case involving the Comstock Law was brought against Margaret Sanger (1879–1966) in 1936. Sanger, an American activist in the distribution of birth control information in the early twentieth century, was arrested and prosecuted for her activity on many occasions (see sidebar). Due to the efforts of Sanger and other birth control advocates, the court overturned federal efforts to stop birth control, Margaret Sanger in a New York courtroom. Sanger founded the National Birth Control League and established the first birth control clinic in Brooklyn, New York. (AP/Wide World Photos)
essentially ending Comstock Law prosecutions concerning birth control.

By the end of the nineteenth century most abortions had been outlawed. In 1965 all fifty states still had antiabortion or pro-life laws that allowed abortions only in cases of rape, incest, or to save the mother's life.

By 1967 the federal government became an active player in distributing birth control information, first through the Child Health Act and then the Family Planning Services and Population Act of 1970, which established separate government funds for birth control. By the late twentieth century, pro-abortion rights groups promoted birth control, sex education, and healthcare. The programs, while controversial, became part of public school curriculums. Some members of pro-life groups, however, had turned to violent measures such as bombing abortion clinics to get their point across.

Margaret Sanger

Margaret Sanger was a trained nurse who worked with poor women in the Lower East Side of New York City. Faced with the effects of unplanned pregnancies on a daily basis, in 1912 she left nursing and began distributing birth control information. Sanger founded the monthly publication The Woman Rebel, which included birth control information. The first issue appeared in March 1914. Upon using the mail for distributing the publication in 1913 she was indicted under the Comstock Law for mailing obscene materials. Authorities confiscated (removed) all copies of the publication.

The publication's issues over the next five months were similarly confiscated. The indictment was withdrawn and in 1917 Sanger founded the National Birth Control League. In the next few years she established the first birth control clinic in Brooklyn, New York. She was arrested and sentenced to thirty days at the Queens penitentiary in New York. In the following years she was arrested and prosecuted many times for distributing birth control information.

In 1921 the National Birth Control League became the American Birth Control League. In 1923 she opened the first permanent birth control clinic in the United States, in New York City. In 1927 Sanger helped organize the first World Population Conference and by 1942 the Birth Control League became the Planned Parenthood Federation. Through the years Sanger wrote many books and articles on birth control.

In the early twenty-first century, sexual moral offenses included adultery, incest (sex with a family member), bigamy (illegally having two spouses; a person may only have one legal spouse at a time), polygamy (having multiple spouses at the same time), obscene materials, and statutory rape (sex with an underage person). Pornography was protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution as freedom of expression. This includes magazines, books, photographs, and videos. Pornography becomes obscene and illegal only when it violates existing local standards of morality and decency. It is still a criminal offense to produce and sell obscene material. What is considered obscene varies from community to community and through time. In contrast, child pornography is always illegal.

The most common sexual crime throughout the United States remained prostitution. Congress passed the Mann Act in 1910 making it illegal to transport women across state lines for the purpose of prostitution. Enforcement went beyond forced prostitution to combat prostitution in general.

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