In 1873, moral authoritarian Anthony Comstock and his New York Society for the Suppression of Vice lobbied Congress to pass an Act for the “Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of, Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use.” Under the Comstock Law, mailing and in certain instances possessing “obscene” materials, including pornography, erotica, sex toys, sex-education materials, and contraceptives, was illegal. Many critics considered the law an invasion of privacy and a denial of civil liberties. They claimed the law would fail to discourage sexual deviance, which could not be legislated away. Moreover, they argued that conflating contraception and sex education with obscenity would only serve to exacerbate the social, economic, and public-health consequences of unwanted pregnancy.
Decades later in the Lower East Side slums of New York City, nurse Margaret Sanger witnessed these consequences daily. Caring for poor women infected or mutilated from shoddy “back-alley” abortions, she dedicated herself to promoting contraception as a preventative measure. Sanger illegally distributed dozens of publications on sex education, coining the term birth control. In 1916 she founded an illegal birth-control clinic in Brooklyn, continuing to operate it even after multiple arrests and jail sentences. In 1921 she founded a national advocacy organization, the American Birth Control League (ABCL). Its charter states: “We hold that children should be (1) conceived in love; (2) born of the mother’s conscious desire; (3) and only begotten under conditions which render possible the heritage of health. Therefore we hold that every woman must possess the power and freedom to prevent conception except when these conditions can be satisfied.”
Meanwhile in Boston, obscenity censorship was rampant. With support from Mayor James Michael Curley, the prudish and powerful Watch & Ward Society suppressed plays, novels, speeches, and other communiqués deemed unsavory—“Banned in Boston” became a popular phrase and code for racy content. Sanger planned visits to Boston on several occasions, but the Mayor forbade her to speak publicly, threatening her with prosecution. Sanger and a host of other controversial figures were invited to speak on April 16, 1929 at Boston’s Ford Hall Forum, a lecture series initiated by political dissidents in 1908 to promote open dialogue on social issues.
Cleverly appropriating her Boston speaking ban, she took the stage with a gag over her mouth as press flashbulbs strobed about the forum. Harvard Professor Arthur Schlesinger stood beside her and recited her prepared statement, which read in part, “The authorities of Boston may gag me, they do not want you to hear the truth about birth control. But they cannot gag the truth.”
The ABCL continued its advocacy, earning doctors the right to prescribe contraceptives in 1938 and the following year forming the Birth Control Federation of America, now known as Planned Parenthood. Sanger witnessed in 1965 the legalization of birth control in the US, a year before her death at the age of 86. Although this and subsequent rulings overturned much of the Comstock Law, some amended provisions remain on the books to this day, including a $250,000 fine for mailing unsolicited information on abortions. —Neil Horsky • horskyprojects.com