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Anthony Comstock was a United States politician who led a moral crusade against anything he believed to be "obscene"…including birth control.
A Civil War veteran of the Union Army, he arrived in New York City after the war and was shocked by levels of prostitution and pornography in the city. He made a name for himself with his "anti-obscenity" stances and actions and arrived in Washington, D.C. in 1872 with a draft of the Comstock Act, which Congress passed on March 3, 1873. Twenty-four states passed their own versions of the act. Altogether, the state and federal statutes are known as the Comstock Laws.
Among bans on pornography and any other "obscene" materials, the Comstock Act bans:
...any drug or medicine, or any article whatever, for the prevention of conception, or for causing unlawful abortion, or shall advertise the same for sale, or cause to be written or printed, any [...] notice of any kind, stating when, where, how, or of whom, or by what means, any of the articles in this section can be purchased or obtained...he shall be imprisoned at hard labor in the penitentiary [...] or fined. (Source)
Margaret Sanger offered specific challenges to the Comstock and they were amended many times…since as what constitutes "obscene material" went on to be redefined in court case after court case throughout the 20th century.
Remember that time the United States sued a package of diaphragms? No?
Well, it happened.
In 1932, Dr. Hannah Stone, a physician at one of Margaret Sanger's birth control clinics, ordered diaphragms from Japan to distribute to patients. The package was seized and confiscated by U.S. Customs under the Tariff Act of 1930, which was supported by the Comstock Act.
When Dr. Stone ordered the diaphragms, she and everyone involved, including Sanger herself and her attorney, Morris Ernst, expected them to be seized. They had been looking for a test case to challenge the Comstock Act on the basis that the law interfered with the shipment of medical supplies.
U.S. v. One Package, as it's commonly known, was tried in the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. The court ruled that Comstock Laws could not interfere with contraceptives ordered by a licensed medical doctor for medical treatment.
Writing for a unanimous court, Justice A.N. Hand wrote:
While it is true that the policy of Congress has been to forbid the use of contraceptives altogether if the only purpose of using them be to prevent conception in cases where it would not be injurious to the welfare of the patient or her offspring, it is going far beyond such a policy to hold that abortions, which destroy incipient life, may be allowed in proper cases, and yet that no measures may be taken to prevent conception even though a likely result should be to require the termination of pregnancy by means of an operation. It seems unreasonable to suppose that the national scheme of legislation involves such inconsistencies and requires the complete suppression of articles, the use of which in many cases is advocated by such a weight of authority in the medical world. (Source)
Practically, U.S. v. One Package meant that doctors were free to prescribe contraceptives to their patients. Sanger declared, "The birth control movement is free." (Source)
Writing for NPR in 2011, public health experts Malcolm Potts and Martha Campbell reprised some of the concerns about growing population size that were important to the Neo-Malthusians.
Their article focuses on how lack of access to contraceptives keeps family size high, particularly in less industrialized nations where large families and poverty go together. In other words, poor women lack access to birth control, and lack of birth control leads to large families, which in turn keeps both individual families and entire nations in inescapable poverty conditions.
But this isn't a concern only in the developing world. It's a planet-wide issue. Discussing predictions for population in 2100, they write:
With so many people reproducing, very small differences in family size have a dramatic impact over time. The difference between a world of 6.2 billion and 15.8 billion will depend on a change in the average number of children that women have—a change that is so small that demographers are reduced to using the odd image of 'half a child' to describe it. (Source)
Potts and Campbell don't want to tell women not to have children. Rather, they want to make sure that women have access to contraceptives and information about reproductive health that allows them to plan their families and have only the children they actually want to have.
We have to ensure that the population can be slowed by purely voluntary means and within a human rights framework. We need to galvanize the political will to make it happen and invest now so that family planning options are universally available. Fail to do so, and we may give birth to a new, difficult era of poverty instead. (Source)
Writing for the Washington Post, Catherine Rampell argues that greater funding to provide contraceptives to poor women will actually save the government money both by decreasing the number of pregnancies and children they will eventually have to provide funding for through government programs and by allowing women to delay childbearing until they are emotionally and financially ready to parent.
Which makes…complete sense.
She hits on some of the same issues Sanger tags in "The Children's Era."
[G]iving low-income women more control over their own fertility also promotes economic security, educational attainment, income mobility and more stable environments for American children. (Source)
It's been about a century, but some things don't change:
Children brought into the world before their parents were financially or emotionally ready for them are likewise disadvantaged before they're even born, no matter how loved they are. (Source)
Rampell's main concern, like Sanger's, is giving women control over when they become mothers. However, she doesn't presume to make the choice for them, as Sanger could be interpreted to do.
[I]mproving access to birth control doesn't mean giving government control over poor women's fertility; it just means giving poor women the exact same (voluntary) options that are already available to their more privileged sisters: more choice over whether, when and with whom they decide to have a baby. (Source)
For Sanger and Rampell, it all comes down to choice.
Abolish Abortion Florida is a group of anti-choice activists who call themselves "abolitionists." They believe the so-called "pro-life" movement supports abortion by legislating around it rather than banning it outright in every circumstance.
So they want to ban abortion completely, but that's not all they want. They are attempting to put an amendment on the ballot in Florida in 2018 that would prosecute not only abortion, but all forms of hormonal birth control, including "the morning after pill, IUDs, contraceptive implants, and hormonal birth control pills." (Source)
The amendment claims that people who get an abortion or use hormonal birth control "shall be guilty of premeditated murder in the first degree." That charge is punishable by life in prison or the death penalty in Florida.
We'll say it again: dang.
A century after Margaret Sanger's work, there's a group that wants to punish women who use birth control as if they had literally killed a living person. We're pretty sure the Ghost of Margaret Sanger is up for some high-level haunting.