Proposed federal abortion ban evokes 19th-century Comstock Act – a law so unpopular it triggered the centurylong backlash that led to Roe

Sen. Lindsey Graham has proposed a national U.S. abortion ban barring the procedure after 15 weeks. This push to restrict abortion access across the country follows a rash of new state laws passed by Republicans after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June.

If American history is any guide, these efforts will ultimately neither reduce abortions nor remain settled law.

I am a historian who has studied American culture and law in the wake of the 1873 Comstock Act – the first U.S. effort to restrict access to birth control and abortions. My research finds that previous state and federal efforts to regulate the sexual expression and reproduction of Americans led to unintended consequences – and, in the long term, these laws failed.

Already, I see signs that new anti-abortion laws are triggering a similarly undermining backlash.

How ‘obscene’

In 1873, Congress hurriedly passed a law making it illegal to send “obscenities” through the U.S. mail. The legislation was branded the Comstock Act after its most vigorous proponent: Anthony Comstock, a U.S. postal inspector and evangelical Christian who believed sexual activity was a sin unless it occurred between a married man and woman for the purpose of procreation.

Birth control and substances used to induce abortion were included in the definition of “obscenity,” because Comstock and his supporters believed that life and death were God’s decisions. The law also banned mailing erotic images and literature. In Comstock’s expansive view, this category included images of athletes wearing tights.