Tennessee law specifies that a physician cannot perform or attempt to perform an abortion by any means, including prescribing medical abortion pills, without being in the physical presence of the pregnant patient. Although the The Food and Drug Administration recently approved the shipment of the pillsTennessee law also prohibits anyone, including a manufacturer or physician, from distributing “abortion-inducing drug via courier, delivery or courier service. Violation is a criminal offense, punishable by up to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $50,000. Tennessee is not alone.
Until now, 19 states have imposed restrictions on these pills, which represent approximately 39 percent abortions in the United States. They are considered a safe way to make abortion available in states where surgery is already hard to get and may be prohibited if deer is overturned. Arizona, Arkansas and Texas as well to prohibit ship the pills. Other states ban telehealth or require ultrasounds, waiting periods, and counseling before getting an abortion.
This isn’t the first time the US mail has been used to obtain materials needed for reproductive self-sufficiency – or the first time it’s been banned. In 1873, Congress passed the Act for the Suppression of the Trade in and Circulation of Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use, nicknamed the Comstock Act. It banned the sending of “indecent” material, including information on contraception and abortionas well as the devices used for these purposes.
Back then, the mail was the primary conduit for many people to get information that they couldn’t easily get, much like the Internet today. The Comstock Act restricted conversations about reproductive autonomy, resulting in the arrest and conviction of doctors who violated the law – much like what laws in Tennessee and elsewhere threaten.
The law’s namesake, Anthony Comstock (1844-1915), was a Union Army veteran who founded the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice (NYSSV). Crusader against everything he considered “immoral”, he campaigned not only against birth control and abortion, but against female independence itself. He took The Woodhull & Claflin Weekly, a feminist journal published by Victoria Woodhull, who ran for president in 1872, and her sister, Tennessee Claflin, because it promoted women’s suffrage and “free love” – a term for sex outside of marriage. Appointed a special agent for the U.S. Post Office Department, Comstock personally arrested Ezra Heywood, who argued in an 1878 pamphlet titled “Cupid’s Yokes” that women should be able to control their own bodies. He also arrested a man who was convicted of obtaining a copy of “Cupid’s Yokes” by mail.
“Comstockerie” was ridiculed. In 1878, 50,000 people signed a petition to overturn the law, arguing that it was being used to “destroy freedom of conscience in matters of religion, against the freedom of the press and to the great harm of the learned professions”. Congress, however, refused. A House committee pointed out that the postal system was not created to post obscene material.
In addition to the federal law, 24 states have passed copier laws. Comstock’s Home State, Connecticut, contraceptives prohibited absolutely.
Of course, this did not stop women from seeking contraception and abortions, nor did it stop sources that would provide clandestine information and material, whether safe or not. Euphemisms and innuendos were used to circumvent the laws. For example, herbal concoctions used to induce abortions were dubbed “female regulators.” In particular, in 1907, NYSSV reported finding ads in New York newspapers for “the pills that could be used for criminal purposes” – i.e. abortion. Hidden in small red boxes inside larger boxes, the pills were “broadcast nationwide to divert young girls and women from the paths of virtue and as a threat to motherhood.”
Yet it was impossible for Comstock to monitor every mail, and women’s need for contraception and abortion persisted. Distributors have also become better at transmitting information in a coded way to evade mail censors.
About 20 years ago I discovered a pamphlet for something called “Colagyn” stuck in a box of old Christmas cards that had been in my grandmother’s attic for decades. The pamphlet dated from the 1930s, when, due to the economic downturn of the Great Depression, women’s desire to control reproduction was particularly acute. The cover of the brochure featured an elegant woman above the words “A safe application of a proven idea in feminine hygiene”. In a secret language, the inside pages suggested what was not immediately obvious – both a vindication and a way for women to assert control over their own fertility.
One story was about “Jimmy”, a little boy who “no one wanted but was born anyway”. His mother already had six children and his father had no job. Already overwhelmed by the “Jimmys”, the state did not want him. Unfortunately, Jimmy soon died, apparently of starvation. “Very good people said it was God’s will for Jimmy to be born. Surely God wouldn’t be so cruel to poor little Jimmy.
Next, “The Parable of the Flower” was about gardening. “When we decide to plant a flower in our garden, we wouldn’t think of removing the seed in winter and planting it in heavy snow. We would wait for spring and sunshine. … If we are so careful in planning our flowers, shouldn’t we be even more careful when planning the arrival of our children?
Nicholas Culpeper, a 17th century apothecary, is quoted. “Sweet basil ‘helps Venus’ deficiency with one hand while he spoils all her deeds in the other…I dare not write any more.'” Plato too: “If too many children are born, he there are measures to prevent the spread.”
Words like ‘contraception’ and ‘abortion’ are never mentioned, making it safe to send the brochure. Instead, he allegedly sold a product designed to provide “safe marriage hygiene” – a Depression-era code for women taking control of their bodies. The product, Colagyn, is called “truly the answer to woman’s prayer, ‘Please teach me to take care of myself so that I can deliver my babies after I have had time to prepare for it, and to make this care safe and harmless”. , so that I can always be healthy and happy. The product offered “absolute cleanliness and protection” against “all life forms of germs”, ambiguous language that could have referred to sperm or the fetus. Its active ingredient was a fungicide now considered dangerous. At a time when abortion was not only secret and shameful, but the cause of almost one-fifth of maternal deaths every year, promises of “cleanliness and protection” would have been very reassuring for the women.
Coded language continued to play a role in women’s reproductive autonomy long after the Comstock era and the Depression, most notably with the “Jane Collective” of the 1960s. Officially called the Abortion Counseling Service of the Women’s Liberation, the “Janes” were feminists who helped women find safe abortions. The name comes from the signs that women display: “Pregnant? You don’t want to be? Call Jane,” and a phone number. It was an updated version of euphemisms used a generation earlier, though Jane’s lay people actually performed abortions, usually using a surgical technique they had learned from sympathetic doctors.
The Comstock Act has never been repealedalthough a decision of 1936, United States against a single package, legalized the sending of information on contraceptives. Connecticut’s law was finally overturned in 1965, when the Supreme Court ruled in Griswold v. Connecticut that the 1879 Act violated the right to privacy, the basis of Roe vs. Wade.
If abortion laws like Tennessee’s are a harbinger of what’s to come in even more states, this story hints at what may also be on the horizon in a post-deer world, as women seek ways to regain control of their reproductive rights.