The Comstock Act – est. 1873

Photo: Anthony Comstock

The post-Civil War era was a time of emancipation, freedom, industry, and new inventions and ideas. One of those being the camera, and another being the newly popular form of pornography. This, along with increased uses of contraception, birthed the Comstock Act of 1873, when Anthony Comstock found these two ideas purely evil ones.

This Act in the United States took on a new degree and area of the ‘abortion problem’ across the country. This meant that now, men and women had less access to information regarding abortion and contraception. Before 1873 there was only discouragement of the abortion itself, but to discourage access to information alongside it took on a new dimension.

The Comstock Act itself prohibits the possession or mailing of ‘obscene’ materials, while at the same time it never defined exactly what was considered obscene. It was an attempt to regulate what had been networking throughout the U.S. Postal Service mailing route, by a 29-year-old man who had not been impressed by the latest that American society had to offer. As a U.S. Postal Service inspector, he felt that it as his job to regulate such.
Later in the Roth v. United States case in 1957, the term ‘obscene’ is more defined:
“Obscene material is material which deals with sex in a manner appealing to prurient interest – i.e., material having a tendency to excite lustful thoughts…
The standard for judging obscenity, adequate to withstand the charge of constitutional infirmity, is whether, to the average person, applying contemporary community standards, the dominant theme of the material, taken as a whole, appeals to prurient interest.” (Epstein and Walk, 346)
Anyone who was convicted of violating any of the Comstock laws would receive up to five years of imprisonment with hard labor and a fine of up to $2000.

The Comstock Act lived nearly 100 years until it was finally determined inapplicable to certain unlawful situations. However, still even today there are lingerings of it. Pornography continues to be limited in various ways. Contraception and abortion are far from becoming accepted and fully legalized across the country. We especially see problem and controversy in the abortion industry as of yet, and information regarding such topics still continues to be limited and restricted in certain areas of the nation.

It is not difficult to determine what the Comstock Act did to American society in the late 19th century. This not only put another level of law onto the abortion and contraception issue, but also struck fear and stressed ignorance among the public. Thousands of cases and violation of the Comstock Act sprouted throughout the decades until the Roe v. Wade case ruled it only applicable to ‘unlawful’ abortions in 1973.

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Dr. Horatio R. Storer (1830-1922)

Photo: Dr. Horatio Storer

Dr. Horatio Robinson Storer is not one that is of regular familiarity. He was an American physician and founder of modern gynecology, and is also known to have had a major role in the Physicians’ Crusade Against Abortion. As a student of Harvard Medical School, he was especially interested in female genitalia and gynecological studies, which was of high suspicion at the time. Not only was it unacceptable to have a specialization in practice in general at such an early stage in study, but to have one of women and gynecology was simply unheard of.
In 1865, Storer won an AMA prize for his essay aimed at informing women about the moral and physical problems of induced abortion. This was published as Why Not? A Book for Every Woman. It was widely sold and many physicians distributed it to patients who requested abortion.” Dr. Storer also published the first journal of gynecology in 1869, the Journal of the Gynaecological Society of Boston.
It was Dr. Storer who began associating gynecology with mental illness. One of his most notable books, The Causation, Course, and Treatment of Reflex Insanity in Women, deals with the notion that In 1869, he was the first doctor to ever remove a pregnant uterus completely out of a woman’s body, as the use of hysterectomies began to be a form of treatment.
The Physicians’ Crusade Against Abortion was a movement founded by the American Medical Association, when Dr. Storer persuaded them to form a committee on criminal abortion. This movement began in Massachusetts and gained national attention, persuading the public to become educated with the pro-life views of the time. It was all in efforts to strengthen laws against elective abortions, pressuring legislatures of the states and territories in the United States. It was, in his mind, essential to attempt the illegalization of all forms of abortion.
Although the legacy that Dr. Horatio Storer left behind is great, he is more likely than not unheard of. Dr. Storer is the founder of modern gynecology practice and was a pioneer in the great Physicians’ Crusade Against Abortion in the 1850s. It is unclear as to why Storer was so against the abortion practice; like many of his time it could have been religiously related. It could have also been his great concern and love for the female anatomy. As the author of various informative books on women and women’s health, he was a man of great curiosity and attempted to educate people in the particular study.

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The First U.S. Abortion Law – est. 1821

This is not to say that the abortion controversy in America begins in the 1800’s – it has been a concept throughout the ancient times. While trying to understand abortion how it is in today’s American society, one must look further into the past and where the first laws began. Looking at the legal aspect in the United States, it is known that the first legal restriction was put into force in the state of Connecticut in the year 1821. A rather liberal state even in modern times…why? What was happening?

This law enforced in 1821 prevented women from attempting and/or committing inductive abortion through poison after “quickening,” occurring usually during the fourth month of pregnancy. However, this law only applied in cases “when a woman died or suffered grievous harm through the abortionist’s recklessness or negligence,” (Ramsey, Abele vs Markel Records).

Around the time of the 1800’s, unwanted pregnancies began occurring more and more often than they had previously. These first abortion laws were originally made to protect women from ill-trained abortionists, as records indicated the increased mortality rate caused by abortion complications – both legal and illegal. After Connecticut’s law restricting abortion, other states followed. By the end of the 19th century, 49 of the 50 United States legislated the process of abortion (excluding Kentucky, passing the law in 1910).

Other reasons for these abortion restrictions can be assumed through America’s records of declining birthrates, other medical records, etc. The birth of abortion laws and restrictions could also be tied with doctors’ struggles to monopolize this process, while irregular/non-physician practitioners were their key sources. There is also the assumption of the role of women during this century. The older-fashioned society of this period lied in the patriarchal realm, and any notice of infidelity and/or sex before marriage was not taken as lightly in any part region of 19th Century America.

We note this first law and restriction from the 1821 state of Connecticut, and we are now able to put that into perspective. We see how other states quickly followed in a domino effect, like Missouri 4 years later and then Illinois in the year 1827. The factors and reasoning for abortion laws in every individual state may be differ in some ways, in yet they all had the similar ideas in mind. Though the controversy and struggles of abortion occurred much before America’s independence in 1776, the year 1821 is when the government and legislation came into the picture. It is the starting point of where this blog examines abortion laws in the United States – acts that determine the law, and the law that effects certain acts.

Sources Used:

“First Fetal Movement: Quickening | American Pregnancy on Quickening.” American Pregnancy Association. American Pregnancy Association, July 2007. Web. 07 Oct. 2014.

<a href=”http://law.jrank.org/pages/446/Abortion-Abortion-in-American-law-nineteenth-century.html”>Abortion – Abortion In American Law: The Nineteenth Century</a>

Ramsey, Allen. “RG 009:006, Abele vs. Markle Inventory of Records.” RG 009:006, Abele vs. Markle Inventory of Records. Connecticut State Library, 1991. Web. 08 Oct. 2014.

Research Proposal

The topic of abortion and its legalities in the United States has been an intense one throughout the past few centuries. The controversies over it have always been beyond complex and come from various different sides on the subject. Out of these controversies comes the laws and legalities of each case and state in our country, and that is what this blog will discuss. It is discussing and confronting the history of these laws, regulations, and legalities since the early 1800’s.

Sources will include scholarly articles on both contemporary and historic legalities, past recorded public outrage and/or influence, and court cases, information on abortion from professional and online medical websites, documentaries on United States abortion, as well as articles on feminism, sexual health, reproductive rights, and social media influence.

Possible blog-post topics may include:

  • Legalities of various U.S. states
  • Number of abortion clinics in the U.S. over time
  • Court Cases (i.e. Roe v. Wade)
  • The first abortion-restriction laws
  • Public Influence (i.e. 1984 Christmas Abortion Bombing)
  • How social media influences abortion laws

As earlier suggested, the topic of abortion legalities in the United States is very controversial, and it is one that has been heavily talked about as its awareness has grown over the years. It is an interesting topic to me, and it is one that I believe should be carefully looked at and examined historically to further understand the modern legalities. In my opinion, the awareness and understanding of abortion in our country is one of the most important topics in sexual health – the level of importance goes for all genders.